Remembering Gil Hodges

Gil Hodges as manager of New York MetsToday we honor #14, the great Gil Hodges.

Number fourteen. Huh, it just so happens that 14 is the Mets’ magic number.

Anyway …

Some argue that Gil Hodges deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, based on the fact that he led the National League in RBI for the decade of the 1950s. However, his career numbers aren’t quite gaudy enough when compared to the greats of the game — 370 HRs, 1274 RBI, and a .273 average. And though he had some outstanding years with the Dodgers, he never won a homerun title, batting title, nor MVP — partially because of his teammate Duke Snider and partially because his contemporaries included Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Ernie Banks, and Eddie Mathews, among others. Hard to be a star outshining those guys.

Still, Hodges was a solid, steady, and intelligent ballplayer, beginning his career as a catcher before moving to first base — because Brooklyn’s catcher was Roy Campanella). He was a natural at the position, and his defense was revered — evidenced by his 3 Gold Gloves. One of his standard techniques is the first baseman’s “trick” of pulling the foot off the bag a millisecond before the infielder’s throw is caught. Oldtimers will tell you he fooled umpires all the time on close plays with that sleight of foot.

Perhaps more significant was the remarkable popularity of the gentle giant. The rabid baseball fans in Brooklyn revered him above all save perhaps their beloved Duke Snider. Talk to a Brooklynite who grew up in the 1950s and he may tell you that the priests and nuns of the city instructed children to pray for Gil Hodges.

By the time he returned to New York as an original Met, his skills were greatly diminished. He was a shell of his former self, but still heady and a team-first player (think: Shawn Green). He hit the first homerun by a New York Mets player on April 11, 1962, but only hit 7 more before being dealt to the Washington Senators for Jimmy Piersall (who hit his 100th career homer as a Met, and to celebrate, ran the bases backward). With the Senators, he immediately became their manager, and held the helm until 1967. Ironically, though no longer a player, Hodges was traded back to the Mets for Bill Denehy to take over as skipper in 1968. The rest is history — after a typical 9th-place finish in 1968, Hodges guided the Mets to a World Series Championship in 1969 (as well as third-place finishes in 1970 and 1971).

His number 14 was retired by the Mets in 1972, soon after he died at the age of 48 of a heart attack (he was playing golf during off hours of spring training).

Above and beyond his contributions as a baseball player, Gil Hodges served our country during World War II in the United States Marine Corps. He battled in Tinian and Okinawa, earning a Bronze Star and attaining the rank of sergeant. Though he hasn’t yet made it into Baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, he was enshrined into the USMC’s Sports Hall of Fame — the induction was celebrated last Friday at Shea (September 7th).

Often, a man’s life on this planet is measured by how he is remembered. If dedications to Gil Hodges are any indication of his greatness, consider this:

… and that’s just a few of the dedications to Hodges in Brooklyn, much less the rest of the US. Not bad for the son of a coal miner from Princeton, Indiana, eh?

Once again … number 14 … hopefully tomorrow we can honor Edgardo Alfonzo or Ron Darling !

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.