I have written previously about how Gil Hodges has been an idol of mine since I was a boy growing up in Brooklyn. So imagine how excited I was when a new biography of Hodges was published in August.
I would say “Gil Hodges: The Brooklyn Bums, the Miracle Mets, and the Extraordinary Life of a Baseball Legend” by Tom Clavin and Danny Peary is a “warts and all” biography, except it appears Hodges did not have any warts. We’ve always heard what a great man Hodges was, and it was apparently not a myth.
His teammates, players and friends all speak in glowing terms of Hodges, as a baseball player, a manager and a man. So many of them called him the greatest man they had ever met. Aside from some typical player grumbling, the only person who ever said anything negative about Hodges was Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, who played for Hodges when he managed the Washington Senators. Harrelson trashed Hodges in his autobiography that came out during the Mets run in 1969. Dozens of players jumped to Hodges’s defense. No one came out to defend Harrelson.
Hodges was not perfect, of course. His wife admitted that he could be stubborn. He couldn’t hit the curve ball. He was a chain smoker and he internalized everything, both of which contributed to his untimely death of an apparent heart attack in 1972, two days before he would have turned 48.
The book itself is well-researched and thorough — perhaps a bit too thorough at times. A large chunk of the book is rightly devoted to Hodges’s playing days with the Brooklyn Dodgers, with a chapter dedicated to each season; a common baseball biography structure. But at times the book seemed to be more about the Dodgers than Hodges. I’ve read several books about the Dodgers that had the same format, so it seemed redundant to me. The book really shines when it just tells us about Hodges.
There were several tidbits in the book that I don’t think are widely known. One of them is about one of the most famous plays in Mets history — the notorious “shoe polish” ball. The story goes that during Game 5 of the 1969 World Series, Cleon Jones was hit on the foot by a ball. The umpire ruled the ball hit the dirt. The ball rolled into the dugout and Hodges picked it up, saw shoe polish on it and showed the umpire, who awarded Jones first base. He would later score on a home run.
But is that the way it really went down? Ed Kranepool said Hodges “took a ball out of a discard bucket and gave it to the umpire, who saw scuffmarks.”
Jerry Koosman has a different and more damning story. He claims that he picked up the ball when it rolled into the dugout and that Hodges told him to rub it on his shoe to get polish on it.
Jones, though, insists the ball hit him, and that Hodges would never pull such a stunt.
“You’ve got to know the type of individual Gil Hodges was,” Jones said. “There was no way Gil Hodges would ever do anything dishonest. He wasn’t a cheater.”
The book ends with an impassioned plea for Hodges’s much-deserved enshrinement into the Hall of Fame. There was one year when it looked like the Veterans Committee was on the verge of electing Hodges. Former teammate Roy Campanella was not well enough to cast his deciding vote in person and wanted to do it over the phone. Ted Williams allegedly refused to allow him to do it and Hodges did not get elected. Some say Williams, a key figure on the Veterans Committee, often talked down Hodges’s candidacy while promoting his fellow American Leaguers.
I am hoping this fine book will allow people to get a fresh look at Hodges’s career and his life, leading to him finally getting to Cooperstown where he belongs.