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Remembering the Dodgers’ ‘Quiet Man’

Posted Aug 6, 2012 by Bob D'Angelo

Updated Aug 8, 2012 at 04:22 PM

My first exposure to Gil Hodges was a name on a baseball field.

Near my grandmother’s old house in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, where McDonald Avenue turns into Shell Road, there remains to this day a Little League ballpark named for the former Brooklyn Dodgers great. It’s more elaborate now, but back in the 1960s, it was a simple field that one gazed at from a car as you headed south under the elevated train tracks toward Coney Island.

It was quiet and dignified place. And that sums up the life and character of Hodges, who not only played for seven National League pennant winners with the Dodgers (six in Brooklyn, one in Los Angeles), but also managed the New York Mets to their first World Series championship in 1969.

Hodges anchored an infield of Hall of Famers and balanced the emotional Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider with his stoic demeanor. Teammates Robinson, Snider, Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella are Hall of Famers. And yet, 40 years after his death, two days shy of his 48th birthday, Gil Hodges remains outside the walls of Cooperstown.

The more one reads about Hodges, the more one wonders why. While his statistics may not stack up against many Hall of Famers, his numbers are certainly close to those of Ron Santo, recently inducted into the Hall by the veterans’ committee. When he retired as a player in 1963, Hodges held the NL record for homers by a right-handed hitter (370). Hi 1,274 RBIs are not too shabby for a player who typically batted fifth or sixth in a star-studded lineup. Perhaps Hodges’ time for enshrinement may come in 2014, when the veterans’ committee meets again.

Until then, authors Tom Clavin and Danny Peary have built a case for Hodges in “Gil Hodges: The Brooklyn Bums, the Miracle Mets, and the Extraordinary Life of a Baseball Legend” (New American Library, $$26.95, hardback, 404 pages).

This is the second collaboration by Clavin and Peary; they co-authored a book about Roger Maris in March 2010 (“Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero”). It’s difficult to write a biography about a ballplayer/manager who died in 1972, but the authors spent two years interviewing teammates, opponents, childhood friends, sportswriters and Hodges’ family, including his widow, Joan.

Much of Hodges’ history with the Dodgers and his managerial career with the Mets and Washington Senators have been documented. What makes this book interesting is that the authors also pay attention to Hodges’ youth in Indiana. The son of a coal miner, Hodges was obsessed with sports and actually thought he had a better chance as a basketball player.

But when it was baseball season, Hodges would rush from his job delivering groceries to get to his games on time.

“He’d be in such a hurry to deliver the groceries,” said Patty Manhart-Culley, “that he’d sometimes show up at the ball field wearing his apron.”

Hodges excelled in baseball and had a short college career before he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. He then served in the Marines during World War II, seeing action in Tinian and Okinawa. Although he was decorated for his service, Hodges never mentioned his military career in extensive detail.

“The only thing he’d volunteer about the war was that it was in the foxholes that he became a chain smoker,” the authors write.

Hodges’ military experience probably contributed to the anxiety he suffered as an adult, along with his habit of keeping his emotions bottled up.

While the authors do a nice job of interviewing, some of their baseball facts were off the mark. For example, they write that Donie Bush managed the Pittsburgh Pirates to a pennant in 1926, when in fact it was 1927 (The Pirates also won the 1925 pennant under Bill McKechnie). They also reference the Dodgers’ NL pennant in 1915, when in fact, Brooklyn won the flag in 1916 (the Philadelphia Phillies won their first pennant in 1915). And the name of the Dodgers’ organist, Gladys Goodding, was spelled as “Gooding.” It’s a common error, because it looks so odd with two “d’s.” But that’s how she spelled it.

Hodges married a woman from Brooklyn, lived in the borough and ran a bowling alley, Gil Hodges Lanes (now called Strike 10 Lanes). He was visible in his neighborhood, but his presence was felt on the field, too, in subtle ways. He was the Dodgers’ peacemaker; few, if any opponents wanted to tangle with the quiet, stern, but very strong first baseman.

Teammate Carl Erskine told the authors that Hodges “prevented fights and pulled guys off the pile at second base,” particularly in defense of Robinson.

“Nobody running between first and second challenged him, because he was big and strong and respected,” Erskine said. “Hodges’ subtle influence out there can’t be found in any record book, and if you didn’t play with him every day, you might not even have realized it was going on.”

Hodges’ authority as a manager was rarely questioned. He demanded professionalism and hustle, and would not hesitate to take a player out of the game if he was loafing. Not all of his players loved him, but to a man, Hodges’ former players told the authors there was plenty of respect for their manager.

“I had some little father-son confrontations with him, because he was a perfectionist and I wasn’t,” former Senators pitcher Jim Hannan told the authors, “but I always respected him.”

That respect helped Hodges guide the New York Mets to its first — and most improbable — pennant and World Series title. The 1969 Miracle Mets swept Atlanta in the playoffs and then defeated a powerful Baltimore squad in five games, sweeping the last four games after losing the World Series opener.

“Despite feeling pressure and anxiety throughout his adult life, Hodges never shirked responsibility or left an obligation unfulfilled,” the authors wrote.

Clavin and Peary give Hodges his due as a player, but they do a better job presenting his character: humble, stern and dignified. An extensive biography on Hodges has been long overdue, and the authors have filled that void ably.

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