I think of Gil Hodges often as I winter in the Orthodox enclave in Century Village West Palm Beach. Hodges, who was finally voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, several decades after he should have, died in West Palm two days shy of his 48th birthday on April 2, 1972, after managing an exhibition game for the Mets against the Atlanta Braves.
The Braves had their spring training complex in West Palm Beach at the time and I pass the site several times in the winter, and coming up to Hank Aaron Drive on the way back to my dugout from downtown, I can see where Hodges’ life ended. He was walking with his coaches, Joe Pignatano, Rube Walker and Eddie Yost, after a couple rounds of golf in the late afternoon.
The coaches asked their manager when he wanted to meet for supper and the skipper responded, “7:30.” It was the last thing he ever said as he fell face down dead of a massive heart attack.
Hodges grew up in Indiana, and his talents attracted scouts from a couple of teams but he chose to sign a professional baseball contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Dodgers had him hone his skills as a third baseman and catcher in the minor leagues and brought him up to the major leagues in 1943 when he was only 19. Gil only got into one game and went hitless in two at-bats.
After enlistment with the Marines and earning several combat medals and some more minor league seasoning, Hodges was back with the Dodgers in 1947 as a backup to the backup catcher. In 91 at-bats he had an unimpressive .156 batting average and hit one home run, but owner and general manager Branch Rickey expected stardom and called Gil into his office along with a rookie by the name of Edwin “Duke” Snider. “You two young men are the Dodgers’ power combination of the future,” Rickey said with an overbearing voice and a cigar moving around his mouth. “I want you two gentlemen to be patient and to work hard to improve yourselves. Both of you have bright futures ahead.”
Hodges played in 28 games and Snider got into 40 and neither hit a home run in 1947, but the pair would go on to hit 777 home runs combined before their careers were over. However, the 1947 season was exciting for the future stars as they welcomed Jackie Robinson to the big leagues and the trio became close friends. Robinson played first base in 1947 and manager Leo Durocher would move Robinson to second base in 1948 and install Hodges as the regular first baseman where he would become one of the best defensive first baseman in major league history.
Hodges played in 134 of the Dodgers’ 154 games in 1948 and only batted .249 with eleven home runs but Rickey thought his hitting would improve. After the season Hodges married a great Brooklyn girl and the pair would become well-known in the borough, as was their green Mercury convertible. They would eventually set up housekeeping on Bedford Avenue about 15 minutes from Ebbets Field. Many Jewish kids lived nearby, including future politician Chuck Schumer.
Marriage agreed with Hodges and he was considered a star player in 1949 by batting .285 with 23 home runs. It would be the first of eleven consecutive seasons that Hodges would hit 22 or more homers. In those seasons he would top 31 or more six times and pass 40 twice. Hodges also drove in over a hundred runs (RBI) in seven consecutive seasons.
When the Brooklyn Dodgers became the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 1957 season, Hodges went west also but returned to New York in 1962 to play for the Mets. Traded to the Washington Senators early in the 1963 season, Hodges ended his playing career there and was named manager of the team. Hodges had a .273 career batting average with 370 home runs, and managed the Senators from ’63 through 1967 and the Mets from 1968 until his death in 1972.
Hodges suffered a heart attack in 1968 in his first season as Mets manager, and doctors strongly advised him to give up smoking. He tried but couldn’t kick the habit and he remained a heavy smoker. Ralph Branca was a roommate of Hodges and recalls the strong, quiet first baseman going through three packs a day. Branca remembers his teammate as a strong, religious family man and one of the finest men he ever met. He was also respected as a man, player, manager and was embraced by Brooklyn’s Jewish community.
While he was managing the Mets, a shul contacted the public relations office of the team and arranged for a player to speak. However, the player had to cancel as the date approached. The rabbi went to Hodges’ home on Bedford Avenue and explained the situation to the Mets manager. Hodges offered to pinch-hit on the condition that the shul keep the speaker’s fee.
Gil Hodges was the real Mentsch on the Bench. His connections to Brooklyn ran deep and Brooklyn never forgot one of their heroes. Part of Bedford Avenue in Midwood is named, Gil Hodges Way. A section of Avenue L, a school, a park and Little League Field are named for him, and also a bridge that connects Marine Park, Brooklyn, and Rockaway, Queens.
Gil Hodges deserved to be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame decades ago. I’m looking forward to his induction ceremony on Sunday, July 24, 2022.