By Jim Mancari
“Behind every great man, there stands a great woman.”
Such is the case for the iconic Gil Hodges. On Dec. 26, 1948, Hodges married East Flatbush’s own Joan Lombardi.
The soon-to-be 85-year-old Joan Hodges was born a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, so meeting Gil just seemed right. The couple had four children – a boy and three girls – all of whom attended the family’s parish school at Our Lady Help of Christians, Midwood. Gil, Jr. went on to the old Brooklyn Prep, Crown Heights, while the three girls – Irene, Cynthia and Barbara – attended St. Edmund’s H.S., Sheepshead Bay.
“He [Gil] respected his religion immensely and made sure we lived up to it in every way possible,” Mrs. Hodges said.
Gil and Joan spent their honeymoon in Vero Beach, Fla., the home of the Dodgers’ spring training facility. While there, the team’s general manager Branch Rickey explained to Joan why the players slept in army barracks with their beds nailed to the wall.
“In spring training, ballplayers are treated like soldiers,” Rickey told Mrs. Hodges. “It’s training.”
This mentality forced the players to think of each other as brothers, while the players’ wives acted as sisters. Joan befriended many of Gil’s teammates’ wives, including Rachel Robinson, Dottie Reese, Ruth Campanella and Betty Erskine.
Ebbets Field, Flatbush, was a home away from home for Joan. She used to make her own scorecards on paper to follow along with the game, especially Gil’s at-bats.
Gil set a Major League record on Aug. 31, 1950 by being the first and still only player to hit four home runs in a single game, with each one coming off a different pitcher. After he had hit three home runs, Joan, who happened to be seated next to Don Newcombe’s father, covered her eyes and placed her head in her lap as Gil came to the plate.
“I couldn’t look,” said Mrs. Hodges. “But all of a sudden I heard, ‘Joanie! Joanie! Take your hands off your eyes! Look where it is. Centerfield!’”
Though Gil experienced a world of success in a Brooklyn Dodger uniform, he battled through a terrible slump starting in the 1952 World Series. Luckily, he had the support of the Catholic Church.
“It’s far too hot for a homily,” said Father Herbert Redmond of St. Francis Xavier Church, Park Slope, on a sweltering summer day in 1953. “Keep the Commandments and say a prayer for Gil Hodges.”
“I never ever heard my husband booed in any ballpark,” said Mrs. Hodges. “People absolutely worshipped him.”
When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles after the 1957 season, Joan had a rough time adjusting at first and, in fact, lived out of her suitcase for the entire first month.
“I was a Dodger fan ever since I knew what a baseball was,” Mrs. Hodges said. “I was still with the Dodgers, but being away from Brooklyn was a very big blow.”
Luckily, Gil was selected by the expansion New York Mets in 1962, which allowed the family to return home. But soon after, Gil retired from playing and accepted the managerial job of the Washington Senators.
“Just think, we won’t have to face Willie Mays anymore,” Mrs. Hodges joyfully recalled. “But we now have Mickey Mantle.”
Managing consumed as much of Gil’s time as playing. One day, Joan accused Gil of not listening to a word she said while trying to fill him in on the kids’ lives.
“I’m going to get uniforms for all the children, and I’m going to take the rugs out of this whole house and put Astroturf down,” Mrs. Hodges said laughing. “Maybe then I can have your undivided attention.”
But Gil treated all the players he managed like his own children. It was this sense of discipline that allowed him to act as a miracle worker in turning the Mets from ‘Lovable Losers’ to 1969 World Champions.
“It was like he adopted first graders and made them college graduates,” said Mrs. Hodges.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck the Hodges family during spring training 1972. Gil died suddenly from a heart attack after golfing with the Mets coaches. He was two days shy of his 48th birthday.
At the funeral, famous sports journalist Howard Cosell asked Jackie Robinson how Gil’s death affected him.
“Almost as bad as when I lost my son,” said Robinson, who lost his 24-year-old son Jackie, Jr. in a car accident in 1971.
“I’ll never forget this as long as I live,” Mrs. Hodges said. “That’s how much respect they had for each other. Gil’s first word in life was respect.”
Gil’s respect and love for the game led to his No. 14 being retired by the Mets and the Brooklyn Cyclones. The 18-year veteran was an eight-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner and even has the Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge in Marine Park named in his honor.
But according to Joan, Gil’s crowning achievement is the fact the he helped bring the Dodgers their first-ever World Series title in 1955, and then later he was the first to bring a National League World Series championship back to the people by winning the Mets first-ever title in 1969.
Though he was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame in 1982, he has yet to be selected as a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Though Joan is perplexed as to why she has not received the call, she tries not to discuss the matter, since she feels Gil would not want her to.
“His stats speak for themselves,” said Mrs. Hodges. “I just cannot give a reason why he hasn’t been enshrined in the Hall of Fame. I don’t live a day without hearing it.”
Let’s all keep praying that Joan gets the call soon from Cooperstown, because she and the scores of New Yorkers who saw Gil play and manage certainly deserve the honor.
“He’s in my Hall of Fame forever,” said Mrs. Hodges. “And my children’s and all the people that had the privilege of knowing him.”
Mets Commemorate 9/11 At Pre-game Ceremony
Mike Piazza and John Franco, two former Mets both of whom are Catholic, were on hand for a pre-game ceremony at Citi Field, Flushing, on Sept. 11 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Piazza hit the go-ahead home run during the first game back on Sept. 21 – a home run that has been called the “Healing Power of a Swing.” Robin Ventura, Todd Zeile, Steve Trachsel and Rusty Staub were also part of the pre-game memorial service.
Follow Jim Mancari on Twitter @JMMancari