Gil Hodges (1924-72) was finally elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame earlier this month. This overdue honor makes him the fifth member of The Boys of Summer ensconced in the Cooperstown hall. I would have written shrine, but Walter O’Malley’s also there. The other four are Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, and Jackie Robinson. There should be a sixth member of this elite club – Carl Furillo – but that’s a subject for another post.
Hodges was the best first baseman in the National League over the decade long span that the Brooklyn Dodgers dominated the league. From 1946 to 56 the team won 6 pennants, 1 World Series, and lost the pennant on the last game of the season three times. He initially joined the Dodgers in 1943 playing one game as a third baseman before joining the Marine Corps. He saw combat in the Pacific and received a bronze star with a combat V.
In 1946 he played in the Dodgers minor league system. He joined the team in 1947, the same year that Jackie Robinson made his epochal major league debut. Hodges was initially a catcher, but the appearance of Roy Campanella sealed off that position. Manager Leo Durocher moved him to first base where he became a virtuoso fielder despite being right handed, a hardship for a first baseman. He won three Golden Glove Awards so good was his defensive play. He likely would have won more had the award existed before 1957.
Adding to his value was that he was a power hitter. He was only the second player to hit four home runs in a nine inning game – August 31, 1950. The first was Lou Gehrig. I remember seeing him hit all four home runs on four different black and white televisions sets as I wandered around south Brooklyn for some long forgotten reason. He was voted to the All-Star team eight times. He also set the National League record for career grand slam home runs – 14, eventually broken by Hank Aaron. In 18 major league seasons, Hodges hit 370 homers, produced 1,274 RBIs, and 1,921 hits. He retired with the third-highest home run total by a right-handed hitter, behind only Jimmie Foxx and Willie Mays.
Hodges was a gentle giant whose baseball intelligence was in proportion to his athletic skills and size. These qualities explained why he was so well liked and why he rapidly became a big league manager when his playing days were over. After managing the Washington Senators, he returned to New York in 1968 to manage the pitiful Mets. The following year he led the team to first place in the National League followed by a 4 games to 1 victory over the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. The Miracle Mets became not only the first expansion team to win a World Series, but also the first team ever to win the Series after finishing at least 15 games under .500 the previous year. Hodges was named The Sporting News Manager of the Year.
On Easter Sunday (April 2, 1972) he died suddenly from a heart attack. A long time heavy smoker, he was 47 years old. Everyone who knew him, even if only by reputation or via TV, was devastated by his premature death. For decades he was universally considered the best player, untainted by scandal, not in the Hall of Fame. Now that oversight has been rectified.
Next it’s time for Carl Furillo to be appropriately recognized. He’s the only core member of the Boys of Summer not in the Hall of Fame.