By Mark Pattison
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Repeat after me: Gil Hodges is not in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. A lot of people think he’s in already.
And a lot of the people who know that he’s not in the Hall think he should be there.
One of them, not surprisingly, is his son, Gil Jr.
“I was talking to MLB (Network) this morning and they thought he was in already. ‘He’s not in?'” Hodges Jr. told Catholic News Service in a Nov. 9 phone interview from his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
“I run into people every week that talk about him, and they talk about him as if they had dinner with him last month,” he said. “I find it just amazing that one individual in such a short span of time could have such an impact. And I think a lot of that is praise to him.
“Not only for his athletic prowess, but also because of his integrity and his character. His belief in God, his faith, his country, his family. I think that just shows that good people can leave indelible marks.”
A new film, “Soul of a Champion: The Gil Hodges Story,” made its online debut at gilhodgesfilm.com Nov. 8, mere weeks before the Hall of Fame’s “Golden Days Era” committee considers the on- and off-field attributes of Hodges and a fistful of other players from the post-World War II years. Hodges needs 75% — 12 of 16 — of the committee members’ votes to be enshrined.
Hodges has already been marked on 3,010 ballots during his Hall eligibility — more than any other player not already in Cooperstown.
Spirit Juice Productions made “Soul of a Champion” with Catholic Athletes for Christ, for whom Spirit Juice had done several film and video productions previously.
“I had never heard of Gil,” said Rob Kaczmark, a co-director and co-producer of the film. After being briefed on Hodges, he said, Kaczmark thought, “Wow, this sounds like an incredible story to tell, for something to happen. I’m excited to see him push the needle a little to get him into the Hall of Fame.”
Production began in 2018, but stalled a couple of times, Kaczmark said. But “we tried to do everything we can to get this out in time to put the vote over the edge.”
For the uninitiated, Hodges was the first baseman for the Dodgers, both in Brooklyn, New York, and Los Angeles. He was an eight-time All-Star, a three-time Gold Glove winner and won the World Series with the Dodgers in both Brooklyn and L.A.
Hodges wound up his career playing with the expansion New York Mets in 1962 and ’63. He was traded to the expansion Washington Senators, retired as a player and took over the team as manager. As a manger, he was traded back to the Mets — for a player — and piloted the “Miracle Mets” to their 1969 World Series win over the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles.
He died after playing a round of golf on Easter in 1972 with some Mets coaches. “I heard it on the radio after leaving Mass, in the car,” Hodges Jr. told CNS.
At the funeral Mass at Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Brooklyn, sportscaster Howard Cosell sought out young Hodges Jr., then 22, and took him to a limousine parked outside. In the back seat was Gil’s Brooklyn teammate Jackie Robinson, who was weeping inconsolably.
“Next to my son’s death,” Robinson told Hodges Jr., “this is the worst day of my life.”
Baseball-Reference’s webpage for each major league player offers a “similarity score,” ranking other players’ whose careers came closest in terms of performance. In Hodges’ case, 1960s Detroit Tigers first baseman Norm Cash comes closest. Cash had 373 home runs to Hodges’ 370. And Cash has never been seriously considered as Hall of Fame material.
But two Hall criteria often overlooked — except when it comes to the game’s cheaters — are sportsmanship and character. And that is where Hodges may have the edge that puts him over the top.
“I heard players refer to him as a saint,” said longtime Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully in “Soul of a Champion.” “He never missed Mass. Road trips were no excuse,” said Scully, himself a Catholic. His priorities were “God, family and country, and those didn’t get altered.”
Scully told of Hodges declining a steak dinner served on a flight after playing both games of a rare Friday doubleheader. Indicating that he was some 20,000 feet in the air, Hodges said, “I’m too close to the Boss.”
Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, another Catholic interviewed for the movie before he died, was known to cuss up a blue streak at times. “I wish I could be like him,” Lasorda said of Hodges. “This guy did nothing wrong, and he’s not in the Hall of Fame!”
Hodges’ integrity might have helped the Mets win the World Series. In Game 5, the Mets were down 3-0 when Cleon Jones led off the bottom of the sixth inning. A Dave McNally fastball was way off target. Jones skipped out of the way of the errant pitch, which skittered into the Mets’ dugout. Hodges emerged holding a baseball and showed home-plate umpire Lou DiMuro a scuff mark, indicating it was shoe polish from Jones’ cleats. DiMuro ruled Jones had been hit by the pitch, and the next batter, Donn Clendenon, blasted a home run to bring the score to 3-2.
On Jones’ next trip to the plate in the eighth, he hit a long double and scored the go-ahead run on a Ron Swoboda double. Jones also caught the final out in the ninth inning to secure the Mets’ improbable 5-3 win.
Hodges Jr., now in his 70s, remembers tagging along with his dad in the summers with the Senators and Mets, and was even able to take batting practice with the big-leaguers as a kid.
Voting for long-retired players “used to be more often, but how it’s every other year, and it’s going to turn into every five years with the selection committee. It’s been a long, arduous process. We’ve had the players, God rest his soul. Tommy Lasorda, God rest his soul. Tom Seaver talked about him all the time and tried his best,” he said.
Now, Hodges Jr. added, “all we can do is pray.”