No major sport is more timeless than baseball, given it has no clock to frantically beat before the buzzer sounds. When you go to the ballpark, you can easily witness a game played in just over two hours, or you can be there five times that long if a tie score produces extra innings. Not having an idea how a game will unfold makes the game the delight that has kept it our national pastime since 1869 when Major League baseball played its first organized ball games.
Yet, time has a central element to its being as well. While no ticks of the clock ruin the game’s play, once your career playing professional baseball is over, the clock starts ticking in a number of ways. Nearly 20,000 players have put on the MLB uniform in 153 years, with only 263 ever being elected into the sport’s hallowed atrium at Cooperstown. To be elected to the Hall of Fame by baseball writers takes a career of extraordinary greatness on the field, where numbers are crucial to your election. And unlike other sports, character also counts in the election process to make inception all the more a remarkable feat.
Truth be told, had Ty Cobb – arguably the game’s best hitter in the 1920s for the Detroit Tigers – played today, it is likely the racist and outwardly vicious player would not be gracing those treasured walls in the upstate of New York. Purposely spiking players and spitting on them in today’s market, which is so driven by TV and ad revenue, the game’s stewards would have put the kibosh on such behavior long before he would have been considered a hall of famer. Along with Babe Ruth, Cobb was elected on the first ballot in 1936, and it is not like Ruth had a spotless life either, playing the game. But Ruth’s 714 homers matter; 4,100 hits in Cobb’s case matter, too.
To join the 263 enshrined into immortality, you must play at least 10 years in the big leagues. Five years after your retirement, you can first be elected to the hall. In addition, for 15 years after retirement, you can remain on the ballot if you have not ever met the 75 percent vote threshold needed to be elected. After that, your chances of induction are near impossible, as your name is thrown into committees who then determine if a player deserves another full vote. That is a huge mountain to climb historically.
One of the committees newly formed a number of years ago was the Golden Era committee, which examines players long since retired or deceased. And one of those players under consideration in recent years has been Gil Hodges.
Hodges was born in Princeton, Indiana, on April 4, 1924, the son of a longtime coal miner. He attended Petersburg High School, where he earned seven varsity letters playing football, basketball and baseball. Right out of high school, the Detroit Tigers offered him a minor league contract, but he turned it down to attend Saint Joseph’s College where he played baseball, and after two years was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943. Given he was in the Army Reserves, he was soon sent to the Pacific to fight the Japanese in World War II. He won a Bronze Star for bravery as an anti-aircraft gunner and saw action in the Battle of Okinawa, where American forces sustained devastating casualties.
After the war, he went back to college, but soon returned to baseball, playing in the Dodgers’ minor league affiliates and was called up the same year as Jackie Robinson – the African-American who broke MLB’s color barrier to be the first black to play in the major leagues. Hodges, along with Dodger Pee Wee Reese, famously supported Robinson during those first seasons when racial slurs were hurled at the Dodgers even at their home of Ebbets Field – one of baseball’s legendary ballparks lost to modernity when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s.
Hodges, though, was never booed at home or on the road. Known for his congenial manner, positive fan interaction and war heroism, Hodges was loved by New Yorkers. He was a first baseman; a position where you were expected to produce high octane offensive numbers. And that he did, hitting 115 runs in 1949. In 1950, he hit for the cycle and whacked four homers in one game, which only Lou Gehrig had done prior.
But Hodges might be most remembered by his historic slumps – the most famous coming in the 1952 World Series where he finished the regular season’s last week hitless and then went 0-for-21 in the World Series against the cross-town rival Yankees. His slump continued into the early part of 1953, so one Brooklyn priest, Father Herbert Redmond, told his flock, “It is too hot for a homily today, keep the Commandments, and for God’s sake say a prayer for Gil Hodges.”
Hodges soon began hitting, and Father Redmond took the credit for resurrecting his batting stroke. Gil Hodges was a life-long Catholic and a devout Church-goer, attending Mass every Sunday, even on the road and on all game days. That also endeared him to the heavily Catholic population of Brooklyn in the 1950s.
By the end of his career, Hodges hit 370 homers, which remains a remarkable number, given the dimensions of Ebbets Field. It required quite a poke to clear the left field wall. He also won three Gold Gloves and continues to be one of baseball’s all-time leaders in put-outs. Hodges’ bat was good but it was his glove that was great.
Given only 1.4 percent of all players who have put on the uniform make it to the Hall of Fame, Hodges’ numbers, stacked up to other greats of the game, are not so stellar. And in his first year of eligibility for the hall, he only garnered 24.1 percent of the vote. That same year, Hodges was managing the New York Mets, whose first seven seasons in the league as an expansion franchise were woeful at best. One year, the Mets lost 120 games out of 162. But, under Hodges, the Mets started turning things around, going 73-89, in 1968. The next season, the Mets pulled off one of the greatest upsets in sports history when they won the 1969 World Series over the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles, 4-1.
Dubbed the “Miracle Mets,” Hodges’ club remains one of the most celebrated and uncanny victories of the modern era of baseball. Though not elected into the Hall of Fame, Hodges won the Manager of the Year Award by a landslide.
On April 2, 1972, Hodges shockingly died of a massive heart attack during spring training, collapsing and slamming his head on the sidewalk while three of his coaching colleagues tried to help him. He was dead in minutes at only 47 years old.
Jackie Robinson, himself not well with diabetes, said after hearing of his friend’s death, “He was the core of the Brooklyn Dodgers… I have tremendous feelings for Gil’s family and kids.” Dodgers’ pitcher Johnny Podres said, “I have never known a finer man.”
When one of his players in 1969 failed to hustle around the bases, manager Hodges decided to make a bold move. He did not send out another player to tell the dogging player he was benched. Nor did he wave the player in or yell from the dugout to punish him. Instead, in front of 40,000 fans, Hodges slowly walked out to second base, shook his hand and put his arm around him as they walked back to the dugout. It was the last time any Mets player failed to hustle and it was a scene that the few who saw never forgot.
Hodges’ Mass of Christian Burial was held at Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Midwood, Brooklyn, on April 4, Easter Sunday – his 48th birthday. Some 10,000 mourners jammed into the church and surrounding parish grounds to attend the mournful service.
“This is the worst day of my life,” Jackie Robinson said after seeing Hodges’ casket lowered into the ground. It remains a timeless, sad moment seared upon old-time Brooklyn Dodger fans’ memories.
On December 5, 2021, the Golden Days Era of Baseball ballot results were announced. Hodges received 12 of 16 votes, which is exactly 75 percent, electing him to baseball’s revered shrine with his posthumous induction occurring this summer in Cooperstown. The summer day of his induction will be 50 years and four months since his passing, and a timeless reminder that the greatness of baseball is that it has no clock helping things unfold.
By Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness