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On This Day in History, April 4: Overdue for Baseball Hall of Fame

Gilbert Raymond Hodges was born on April 4, 1924, in Princeton, Indiana, but  he was a part of Brooklyn; a New York baseball treasure, a naturalized Brooklyn “Bum.”

Hodges was 19 when he played third base for one game with the Dodgers in late 1943. He struck out twice and walked, then marched away as a WWII draftee in the Marines.

He returned to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 as a catcher, but on the insistence of Roy Campanella, he was moved to first base. Manager Leo Durocher said: “With my catching set, I put a first baseman’s glove on our other rookie catcher, Gil Hodges, and told him to have some fun. Three days later, I looked up and wow, I was looking at the best first baseman I’d seen since Dolf Camilli.”

Hodges proved to be the Dodgers’ Lou Gehrig — big, strong and gentle. He was 6 foot, one-and-a-half inches tall and weighed 200 pounds. The three-time Gold Glove winner played first base gracefully. His hands were so large that teammates joked that he didn’t even need a glove. His quick footwork provoked the allegation that he rarely had his foot on the bag for his putouts.

Hodges married a Brooklyn girl, Joan Lombardi, in 1948, and settled down in Flatbush to raise their four children. “If you had a son,” Pee Wee Reese once said, “it would be a great thing to have him grow up to be just like Gil Hodges.”

On August 31, 1950, against the Braves, Hodges hit four homers. His 40 home runs in 1951 were second only to Ralph Kinter’s 42, but he struck out a league-high 99 times.

He reached career highs in 1954, hitting .304 with 42 home runs and 130 RBI (second to Ted Kluszewski’s 49 and 141). During the 1952 World Series loss to the Yankees, Hodges went a dreadful 0-for-21, and prayers were said for the beloved Dodger in churches all across Brooklyn. In the following year’s Series he hit .364. Hodges homered in each of his last four World Series, his shots winning 1956’s Game One and 1959’s Game Four for the Dodgers.

Hodges played with the Brooklyn Dodgers until their move to Los Angeles in 1958. He went with them and played on the L.A. Dodgers team through 1963. Hodges ended his playing career with the New York Mets. He hit the first homer in their history on April 11, 1962, at St. Louis. Though he began the 1963 season with the Mets, he was sent to Washington, and took over as manager of the struggling Senators, who were 14-26 under Mickey Vernon. In five seasons, the best Hodges could do was a sixth-place finish in 1967.

Hodges was traded back to the Mets as manager in exchange for pitcher Bill Denehy and cash. His 1968 club finished ninth, but the following season, Hodges took the Mets to the pennant, skillfully platooning at five positions. The Mets swept the Braves in the League Series and took the World Series from Baltimore in five games. Hodges managed the Mets to a third-place finish in 1970.

Hodges died suddenly of a heart attack after a spring training golf game on April 2, 1972, two days before his 48th birthday. In 1978, a bridge that had opened in 1937 to provide access to the Rockaway Peninsula had Hodges’ name added to make it “The Marine Parkway Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge.” Brooklyn has also honored him with the Gil Hodges Little League team and the Gil Hodges Community Garden in Park Slope.

During 16 years on the regular Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, Hodges received the highest total number of votes cast without being elected. In 14 of the 15 years, he finished among the top ten in balloting. Six of his teammates — Reese, Snider, Don Drysdale, Campanella, Koufax and Robinson — are in the Hall, along with former managers Alston and Durocher. Gil Hodges’ beloved No. 14 has yet to be called to take its rightful place alongside the other “Boys of Summer.”

The Hall of Fame can stand for another thousand years and invite another thousand men to join the ranks of baseball’s best. But until Hodges is included, Cooperstown will never be complete. The decision falls to  the Hall of Fame’s Veterans’ Committee and with Hodges inevitably on the next ballot, you can bet the fans who continue to love his memory will be there championing for his ultimate place.

April 4, 2012 - 10:13am


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