Gil Hodges probably wouldn’t have wanted a big fuss over his election on Sunday to the Baseball Hall of Fame, but those who love him won’t have it any other way.
The former manager of the expansion Washington Senators and the skipper of the 1969 “Miracle Mets” in New York, as well as a beloved All-Star for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, was atop many lists of the most prominent omissions from Cooperstown. Before Sunday, he had been on the ballot 34 times and received more than 3,000 votes without being elected.
In Washington, where Hodges managed from 1963-67 between two trades that brought him in and out of the nation’s capital, he is remembered as the manager who helped turn Frank Howard from a streaky power hitter into a feared slugger.
Hodges replaced Mickey Vernon as the Senators’ manager after the team traded Jimmy Piersall to the Mets for him in 1963. Under his leadership, the team improved every year, going from 56-106 and 10th place in 1963 to 76-85 and seventh place in 1967.
Along the way, he developed some of the expansion Senators’ most notable players, including shortstop Ed Brinkman, catcher Paul Casanova, and third baseman Ken McMullen.
His biggest project was Howard, a former Rookie of the Year who came in a 1965 trade from the Dodgers with raw, unrefined potential as a slugger. Mort Zachter writes in his biography, “Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life,” that Hodges got Howard to open his stance, move closer to the plate, and keep his head and hands still in the batter’s box. But most importantly, he encouraged the Capital Punisher to keep a journal on every pitcher he faced and their tendencies. Howard jumped from 18 home runs and 71 RBIs in 1966 to 36 homers and 89 RBIs in 1967.
The even temperament Hodges was known for since his playing days might have helped Hodges save the life of a player struggling with alcoholism at the end of his career, Zachter writes.
Ryne Duren, a veteran relief pitcher known for thick spectacles and erratic control of his blazing fastball, wound up with the Senators in 1965.
After Hodges pulled him from mop-up duty in the ninth inning of an 8-2 loss to the White Sox, Duren had a few drinks.
He drove his car to the Taft Bridge, which carries Connecticut Avenue high over Rock Creek Park, and threatened to jump. Police summoned Hodges, who talked Duren down. The team immediately released Duren, but Hodges did not tell anyone the circumstances. Duren eventually quit drinking and became part of the major leagues’ alcohol awareness program in the years before his death in 2011.
Four years after the Senators traded for Hodges, they sent him back to the New York for Bill Denehey and $100,000 (a huge sum at the time). Of course, Hodges went on to manage the 1969 Mets to an improbable National League pennant and an even more unlikely World Series victory over Baltimore.
Hodges’ career with the Dodgers and Mets could have been Hall of Fame-worthy on its own.
At the time he retired in 1963, his 370 home runs were the most for a National League right hander, second-most by any right-handed hitter, and 11th all time. From 1948-59, Hodges led all first baseman in home runs, RBIs, and extra-base hits.
The reason he won only three Gold Gloves is that they were the first three awarded for an NL first baseman, in 1957, 1958 and 1959.
He is still widely regarded having redefined defense at first base.
As one of the “Boys of Summer,” Hodges was one of Jackie Robinson’s fiercest defenders after Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Hodges also postponed his baseball career to serve in the Marines during World War II. He was an anti-aircraft gunner in the battles of Tinian and Okinawa and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with a Combat V for heroism under fire.
Hodges was first on the Hall of Fame Ballot in 1969, before his Mets won the World Series, but he topped out at 63.4 percent of the vote in 1983, his final year of eligibility. The Veterans Committee passed him over several times, and its successor, the Golden Era committee, did the same in 2012 and 2014. Hodges’ election was further delayed when the COVID pandemic forced the Golden Era committee to postpone its vote until this year.