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Gil Hodges, the unpretentious star, and now Hall of Famer

Dodgers star 1B will be inducted in Cooperstown on July 24.

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Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers Set Number: X5069

Longtime Dodgers first baseman Gil Hodges was elected to the Hall of Fame on Sunday. Hodges’ ascension to Cooperstown was surprising in that it followed over five decades of disappointment. But it provides fulfillment for supporters of a revered baseball legend.

Hodges played 16 of his 18 major league seasons with the Dodgers, the first baseman in the heart of the lineup on the “Boys of Summer” Brooklyn teams. He made eight All-Star teams and won the first three Gold Gloves at first base, and with his giant hands likely would have won more had the award existed before 1957.

“I don’t know why he ever wears a first baseman’s glove,” Pee Wee Reese joked. “He sure doesn’t need one.”

“Although Gil’s numbers are certainly worthy, I don’t just go by numbers. I go by what a guy did to help his team be a better ball club,” said Duke Snider, Hodges’ teammate in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. “He was a catalyst on our club and such a superb player. He helped all of us become better. When you’re surrounded by Reese, Robinson, Campanella and Hodges, it sort of rubs off on you.”

Hodges’ numbers were impressive. He hit .273/.359/.487 with a 120 OPS+ in 18 years. He had the second-most home runs (310) and runs batted in (1,001) in the 1950s, behind only Snider. When Hodges’ playing career ended in 1963, his 370 home runs were the third-most by a right-handed hitter in major league history.

But what’s fascinating is how universally respected Hodges was.

“He is one of the nicest guys we ever played with,” Jackie Robinson said.(1) “He was quiet but was always doing something to help.”

“Here’s a beloved, gentle giant who has never been known to cuss or swear, never could be made to argue with an umpire, never was heard to say a derogatory word about any man he played for or against,” said reporter Milton Gross.(2)

“Gil was a quiet man, didn’t make a lot of ruckus,” said Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Carl Erskine. “But he was a strong man and a very smart man who was very heads-up about the game.”

Hodges played in seven World Series with the Dodgers. After his one pinch-hit appearance as a rookie in 1947, Hodges was a regular for his other six Fall Classics. He played every inning at first base in 37 of 38 games. The one time during that span (1949-59) Hodges didn’t play a complete game was in Game 6 of the 1952 World Series, when he was pinch-hit for in the ninth inning, down by a run.

Hodges at the time was 0-for-17 for the series, and understood why he was replaced.

“No, I didn’t feel hurt,” Hodges said.(3) “How far can a manager go? I really sympathize with [manager Charlie] Dressen.”

Hodges finished the series 0-for-21, tying the record for most hitless at-bats in a single World Series.

“That just goes to prove that I go from one extreme to another,” Hodges said.(4)

In four World Series after 1952, Hodges hit .337/.404/.511 with four home runs and 16 RBI in 26 games. That included a go-ahead home run in Game 4 in 1955, driving in both runs in Game 7 in 1955 to clinch Brooklyn’s first championship, and a game-winning home run in Game 4 in 1959 for Los Angeles, the latter six days after scoring the pennant-winning run in the 12th inning to beat Milwaukee in a National League playoff.

Hodges won World Series with the Dodgers in both Brooklyn and Los Angeles, but his eventual return to New York seemed inevitable, especially after the city was awarded an expansion franchise beginning in 1962. The Mets selected Hodges seventh in the expansion draft, a move pretty much everyone expected.

“I wouldn’t be honest if I said I did want to leave the Dodgers,” he said.(5) “But since I did have to leave, I’d rather be here than any place else. After all, I played here for a great number of years.

“I had more or less been prepared for it. I had been told I was on the list.”

Hodges played for the Mets for parts of two seasons. He retired early in the 1963 season and was traded to the Washington Senators to become their manager. Hodges usually let his play do the talking, and he was asked if he needed to become a “hard man” as manager.

“Definitely not,” he said.(2) “I don’t think I’ll ever become that. If things are handled properly I don’t think that would ever have to happen.”

Hodges went from one expansion team to another. Both the Mets and Senators were in 10th place in their 10-team league. It took a while, but Washington got better under Hodges, finishing 76-85 in 1967. The Senators traded their manager back to the Mets before the 1968 season, and Hodges joined a New York franchise that averaged 108 losses in its first six years. They won the World Series in Hodges’ second year at the helm.

“We were told by Gil Hodges in big, black-and-white letters, ‘Here’s your job; this is what we expect of you,’” said Mets pitcher Jerry Koosman.(6) “There was no other way to go about winning. We were going to do it his way. He ruled with an iron hand sometimes and with a smooth, soft talk at other times, but he was loved. He could chew you out and pat you on the back. That type of leadership tends to band together a team. It makes them closer because the players feel he’s being too strict, so you band them together more.”

The first time Hodges was on the BBWAA ballot was for the 1969 Hall of Fame class. He only got 24.1 percent of the vote, but doubled that to 48.3 percent in 1970. Hodges was on the writers ballot the maximum 15 years and topped 60 percent four times, though his maximum support of 63.4 percent in his final year (1983) was well shy of 75 percent required for induction.

In 15 years on the writers ballot, Hodges received 3,010 total votes, which stood as the most total votes until Jack Morris (3,324) surpassed him in 2014. Hodges garnered 53.2 percent of the writers Hall of Fame vote during his time on the ballot, compared to 41.6 percent for Morris. But it didn’t end there.

Several times Hodges was a Hall of Fame candidate on the veterans committee, in its various forms, with a much smaller electorate to convince. But Hodges still fell short, time after time. With 16 members, the Golden Days Era committee required 12 votes for induction, but on the 2015 ballot Hodges received less than three votes.

Seven years later, Hodges was up for a Hall of Fame vote for a staggering 35th time. Rustin Dodd at The Athletic called Hodges the “most hard-luck candidate in Hall of Fame history.”

Perhaps Hodges was given a final push over the line thanks to support from Vin Scully, which could have been a decree from Mount Olympus:

I am often asked who the best ballplayer was that I watched during my broadcasting career. In looking back over my 67 years behind the microphone, I was truly blessed to watch firsthand so many of the all-time greats performing at their very best on the biggest stages in the game’s history. It is truly impossible for me to single out just one player. However, in terms of the players I watched who performed at a high level on the playing field, but at an even higher level off the field in how they lived and carried out their lives, my response is an easy one — Gil Hodges.

Hodges received 12 of 16 votes from the Golden Days Era committee, who are permitted to vote for a maximum of four candidates. Also elected to the Hall of Fame by this committee were Minnie Miñoso, Tony Oliva, and Jim Kaat. Dick Allen, who should be in the Hall of Fame, fell one vote shy.

Only Oliva and Kaat are alive to know they were inducted. Hodges died of a heart attack during spring training in 1972. But he still has family and friends able to rejoice.

Gil Hodges Jr. was at the ceremony in August when his father was inducted to the New York baseball Hall of Fame. He told Steve Dittmore, “We are getting much closer [to Cooperstown] geographically.”

Hodges’ widow Joan, who turned 95 in September, got to enjoy the moment on Sunday.

“I was here with my mom when the Hall of Fame called,” Hodges’ daughter Irene said, in a statement. “She just pounded her heart and said I‘m so happy for Gil. My dad was a great manager and a great player but above all else he was a great Dad.”

  1. “Jackie Robinson Comments: ‘Capable Negros Should Get a Chance to Manage,’” by Don Fillion. The Burlington Free Press, October 17, 1969.
  2. “Nice Guy Hodges Is Little Scared Of Job With Nats, But He’ll Try,” by Milton Gross, North American Newspaper Alliance. Chattanooga Daily Times, May 28, 1963.
  3. “Hitless Gil Hodges Big Mystery,” Associated Press. The Windstor Star (Ontario, Canada), October 7, 1952.
  4. “Dodger Dressing Room Gloomy Scene Tuesday,” by Joe Reichler, Associated Press. Reno Gazette-Journal, October 8, 1952.
  5. “Gil is Back: ‘It Will Be a Little Strange,” by Bob Sales. (New York) Newsday, October 11, 1961.
  6. “‘69 Mets: Of heroes, pluck and a little luck,” by Patrick McManamon. The Palm Beach Post, October 1, 1989.