Gil Hodges was one of the most beloved and respected figures in baseball history. He was a star player for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, a World Series-winning manager for the New York Mets, and a Hall of Fame inductee. But his life was cut short by a sudden heart attack at the age of 47, leaving behind a legacy of excellence and integrity.
A Stellar Playing Career
Gil Hodges was born Gilbert Ray Hodge on April 4, 1924, in Princeton, Indiana. He changed his surname to Hodges sometime before 1930, according to the U.S. census. He was a four-sport athlete in high school, excelling in baseball, basketball, football, and track. He turned down a contract offer from the Detroit Tigers in 1941 and enrolled at St. Joseph’s College, where he played baseball and basketball.
He signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943 and made his major league debut on October 3, the last game of the season. He went 0-for-2 and committed two errors at third base. He then joined the Marine Corps and served as a gunner in World War II, earning a Bronze Star for his bravery.
He returned to the Dodgers in 1947 and became their regular first baseman. He was widely regarded as the best first baseman in the National League in the 1950s, hitting 310 home runs and driving in 1,001 runs in that decade. He was an eight-time All-Star, a three-time Gold Glove winner, and a key member of the Dodgers teams that won six pennants and two World Series titles in 1955 and 1959. He also hit four home runs in one game on August 31, 1950, becoming the sixth player in history to do so.
He played for the Dodgers until 1961, then joined the New York Mets as a player-coach in 1962. He retired as a player after the 1963 season, having hit 370 career home runs and 1,274 RBIs. He held the NL record for career home runs by a right-handed hitter until 1964, when he was surpassed by Hank Aaron. He also held the NL record for career grand slams with 14 until 1974, when he was tied by Willie McCovey.
A Miracle Manager
Hodges became the manager of the Washington Senators in 1963, leading them to a 65-96 record in his first season. He improved the team’s performance in the next four years, but never finished higher than sixth in the 10-team American League. He left the Senators after the 1967 season and returned to the Mets as their manager in 1968.
He inherited a team that had never finished higher than ninth in the 10-team National League and had lost 100 games or more in five of their first six seasons. He instilled a winning attitude and a disciplined approach in the young and inexperienced Mets, who improved to 73-89 in his first year.
In 1969, Hodges led the Mets to one of the most improbable and remarkable seasons in baseball history. The Mets, nicknamed the “Miracle Mets”, won 100 games and the NL East division title, then swept the Atlanta Braves in the NL Championship Series. They faced the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles, who had won 109 games and the AL pennant, in the World Series. The Mets stunned the baseball world by defeating the Orioles in five games, with Hodges making several bold and brilliant moves, such as playing four outfielders against power hitters, using a platoon system at several positions, and pulling out his ace pitcher Tom Seaver in Game Four after a controversial interference call.
Hodges became a hero in New York and a legend in baseball, as he guided the Mets to their first championship in franchise history. He was named the NL Manager of the Year by The Sporting News and received votes for the NL MVP award.
A Tragic Death
Hodges remained the manager of the Mets in 1970 and 1971, leading them to third-place finishes in both seasons. He was widely respected and admired by his players, his peers, and the fans, who considered him a man of integrity, dignity, and class.
On April 2, 1972, two days before his 48th birthday, Hodges was in West Palm Beach, Florida, for the Mets’ spring training. He spent the morning playing golf with his coaches Joe Pignatano, Rube Walker, and Eddie Yost. After finishing the round, he collapsed in the parking lot of the golf course. He had suffered a massive heart attack and was rushed to the Good Samaritan Hospital, where he died within 20 minutes of arrival.
His death shocked and saddened the baseball world, as tributes poured in from all over the country. His funeral was held on April 6 in Brooklyn, where thousands of fans lined the streets to pay their respects. He was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn.
A Hall of Fame Life
Hodges was survived by his wife Joan, whom he married in 1948, and his four children: Gil Jr., Barbara, Cynthia, and Russell. He was posthumously inducted into the New York Mets Hall of Fame in 1982, and his number 14 was retired by the Mets in 1973. He was also honored by the Los Angeles Dodgers, who retired his number 14 in 1972.
Hodges was eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976, but he fell short of the 75% vote required for induction. He received his highest percentage of votes in 1983, when he got 63.4%. He remained on the ballot until 1989, when he was dropped for failing to receive the minimum 5% of votes. He was later considered by various Veterans Committees, but he never got enough support to be elected.
In 2021, Hodges was finally elected to the Hall of Fame by the Golden Days Era Committee, which voted on candidates whose main contributions came from 1950 to 1969. He received 12 of the 16 votes cast, or 75%, the exact threshold needed for induction. He will be enshrined in Cooperstown in July 2022, along with fellow inductees Jim Kaat, Minnie Miñoso, Tony Oliva, Bud Fowler, and Buck O’Neil.
Gil Hodges was a Hall of Fame player, a Hall of Fame manager, and a Hall of Fame person. He lived a life of excellence and integrity, and left a lasting impact on the game of baseball and the people who knew him. He was a true legend of the sport, and his legacy will live on forever.