It seems like Gil Hodges never had enough time.
He appeared in one major-league game as a Brooklyn Dodger in 1943 and then elected to join the Marines to fight in World War II, receiving a Bronze Star for heroism under fire before returning to the major leagues in 1947. A slew of injuries cut his playing career short, though that didn’t stop him from being an eight-time All-Star. And, on the eve of the 1972 season, two-and-a-half years after turning the Mets from a punchline into a world champion and two days before his 48th birthday, Hodges died of a heart attack during spring training.
But there’s this powerful thing about legacy, and about what Hodges was able to do with the 1969 Miracle Mets, his former player Art Shamsky said. Where others get forgotten by time, Hodges, the man who never seemed to have enough of it, has only been further mythologized as the decades have passed.
And now, he has forever.
Fifty years after his death and after his 35th appearance on a ballot, Hodges will finally be enshrined in Cooperstown this weekend. And for the surviving members of the ’69 Mets, along with his 96-year-old widow, Joan, the honor is a homecoming too-long deferred. Before that, Hodges had earned the dubious distinction of receiving the most Hall of Fame votes without induction, according to the Baseball Hall of Fame — 3,010 votes cast by the Baseball Writers Association of America during his initial 15-year candidacy, or an average of 52.9% of the vote. He eventually got the nod thanks to the Golden Days Committee.
“He was very straight on, very tough but honest and fair, and over the years he’s developed this following of people who look at him as this American hero,” said Shamsky, who’ll make the trip upstate with three other former teammates: Ed Kranepool, Cleon Jones and Ron Swoboda. “It’s been a long process and if you look at some of his stats compared to some of the guys that are in there already, it should have been a no-brainer, but the reality is that he finally made it and I’m really happy about that.”
Hodges spent nearly his entire playing career as a Dodger — his first full season was in 1947, the year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier — and won two World Series and seven pennants with the franchise. Brooklyn Dodgers fans, a notoriously cantankerous bunch, were so smitten with their first baseman that they didn’t even boo him when he started the 1955 World Series by going 1-for-12 against the Yankees, a nearly unheard-of allowance. He spent the 1962-63 seasons (65 games total) playing with the Mets before various ailments, and a job managing the Washington Senators, led to his retirement during the 1963 season.
Then, in 1968, he got the call: Those same Mets, the woeful, hapless Mets, who hadn’t lost fewer than 95 games in any one season since their 1962 inception, wanted to hire him. Though many considered that franchise a joke, there was nothing funny about Hodges, whose exacting standards and stern persona lent a much-needed measure of gravitas to a team that had spent the better portion of six seasons being ridiculed.
From 1968 spring training and beyond, Hodges made it clear that he would accept nothing but the best, Shamsky and Kranepool said. And though sometimes it felt like a lot to handle — especially considering, Kranepool said, that the two had been teammates on the Mets — the team quickly got in line.
“We were all equals as a team and we performed like we were, and we would have won many, many more pennants if Gil stays around, if he doesn’t pass away in spring training,” Kranepool said. “We had an adequate ballclub built around pitching and defense and we were competitive, and he would have been the difference between getting close and getting over the hurdle.”
Hodges inspired so much trust, players even acted against their personal interests. He platooned at four positions — rightfield, third, second and first — and though no one was enamored with the idea, everyone did as he was told, said Shamsky, who platooned in right with Swoboda.
“It probably hurt our careers,” Shamsky said. “But we had so much respect for Gil as a manager that we did it and it was successful . . . We all accepted it because it was Gil telling us to do it.”
With the pieces in place, the Mets were able to make the most out of a lineup that averaged fewer than three runs a game the year prior — many of their losses one-run games.
“The legacy of that team that’s been passed down from generation to generation is that he was able to get the most out of everybody,” Shamsky said. “When you talk about 1969, it’s not just about the most well-known players, but you talk about guys who weren’t even starters but who contributed to the team and the success as a team, and I think that’s a real tribute to his managerial style. Everybody who played for him respected him.
"He was very tough. He knew the game brilliantly — he was a brilliant manager, and he was a step ahead of everything that was going on. He managed by feel. You don’t see that anymore in today’s game."
For many, this was typified by a game against the Astros on July 30, 1969, when Hodges, annoyed that Jones didn’t hustle in the field on a ball hit to left, walked straight to the outfield to take him out of the game. Years later, Jones said that though it looked dramatic, it actually spoke to Hodges' character and the culture he was trying to create: Jones was nursing an ankle injury and the field was waterlogged, he said in 2019. Taking out a guy hitting .346 while also saying that if you're too hurt to hustle you're too hurt to play sends a message. That jibes with what Kranepool said: Hodges never made a mockery of anyone.
“He was very quiet,” Kranepool said. “He didn’t make a showcase out of it or bring things up to the press. If he had to talk to you, he’d call you into his office and he didn’t do the talking, you did the talking. He wanted to know what you did and why you did it and before you knew it, you realized you’d made a mistake.”
Both Shamsky and Kranepool speak with certainty about one fact: If Hodges doesn’t die, the Mets win many more games and Kranepool believes the Mets would have won the 1973 World Series with Hodges at the helm. In a game where managers rarely feel like the significant difference makers, Hodges was a different breed. But even with all that, they were worried that he just didn’t have enough time — there’s that old refrain again — to secure his place in Cooperstown.
Hodges first appeared on the ballot in 1969, receiving 24.1% of votes for his playing career and fell off without induction in 1983, appearing on 63.4% of ballots that year — shy of the 75% threshold. He went back on the Veterans’ Committee ballot in 1987 without election and became eligible for the Golden Era Committee in 2011. Finally, last November, Hodges was nominated to the Golden Days Committee (successor to the Golden Era Committee) and received 12 of 16 votes, or exactly 75%.
“I’ve been really trying to do whatever I could — just talking about it for the last 35-40 years,” Shamsky said. “He died at such a young age, days short of 48 years old, and kind of developed something around him that’s grown over the years. Going to the Hall of Fame culminates his life in terms of respect from everybody, and it’s so well deserved.”
It’s been too many years in the making, but this weekend, finally, time will work in Hodges' favor.
Gil Hodges Hall of Fame Candidacy
- Career: .273 BA, .359 OBP, .487 SLG, 370 HR, 1,274 RBI, 1,921 Hits
- Career: 120 adjusted OPS+, 43.9 WAR (Wins Above Replacement)
- Eight-time All-Star
- Three-time Gold Glove Award winner (1957-59, the first three years the award was issued)
- Won two World Series titles with the Dodgers (1955, 1959)
- Career World Series: .267/.349/.412, 5 HR, 21 RBI
- First player in NL history to hit 14 grand slams
- Led NL first basemen in double plays turned four times, assists three times, putouts three times, and fielding percentage three times
- Managed the 1969 Mets to the World Series title
Source: Baseball Hall of Fame