Richard Reeves

Gil Hodges: There Was a Man

NEW YORK -- On slow days, I read Wall Street Journal editorials to get me going. Invariably, I disagree with most every word -- and every comma. Even the punctuation seems too far right to me. Last Friday, I agreed with every word, comma, period and thought of a Journal editorial titled, "A Man for All Seasons."

The man, and he really was, is Gil Hodges, the first baseman of the great Brooklyn Dodger teams of the 1950s and the manager of the Miracle Mets of 1969. The Journal, in a rare flash of inspiration, boomed that it is an outrage that Hodges is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that the editorial was in the Journal's Weekend section. Those back pages are not about ending taxation, but are, rather, a guide to the comfortable about spending the money President Bush will give them if he has his way.)

"They're looking at the wrong man," the Journal thundered. "While the entire baseball world fixates on the ban on Pete Rose, a true injustice goes almost unheralded: the exclusion of Gil Hodges from baseball's Hall of Fame."

Yes! My mind went back to a day at Shea Stadium when I was lucky enough to be among the 55,000 New Yorkers, mostly, chanting, "Rose eats s---!" We had begun when Rose of the Reds, Cincinnati that is, had tried to cripple the Mets' little shortstop, Bud Harrelson, with a body block from behind as the Mets turned a double play in a playoff game. To this day, I can't figure out how television and radio managed to keep our exercise in free speech from being broadcast to the rest of America.

Those were Hodges' Mets, the team that had gone from a laughable last place the year before to world champions, defeating the then-mighty Baltimore Orioles in a five-game World Series that literally changed the air and attitude in New York. It was a time of hard times in the Big Apple, and Hodges and his hodgepodge team energized this city.

Before that, Hodges had played 16 seasons for the Dodgers -- missing four years as a decorated Marine in World War II -- a couple of them, unfortunately, after the team was moved to someplace on the West Coast, never to be heard from again. Hodges redeemed himself by coming back East to play a few games for the Mets and by continuing to live on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. With two friends, I once tried to find his house, but we screwed up and never did find it. Twenty years later I met the man and interviewed him for The New York Times. I was in a perfect state of awe.

He hit 370 home runs for the Dodgers, the 16th best career number in the National League. During his best years he batted in 100 or more runs for seven straight seasons and won Golden Gloves at first base three times. He was a stalwart of the great Brooklyn teams that suffered terribly -- as did kids like me -- in losing one World Series after another to the New York Yankees. That was until the first wonder year of 1955, when Brooklyn finally beat the damned Yankees. The second wonder year was glorious 1969.

Now, Hodges, who died of a heart attack when he was 48, is one of 25 candidates on the ballot of the Veterans Committee of the Hall of Fame. He, and the others, need 75 percent of the votes of 84 Hall of Famers and others voting this month. Many of the other names are impressive. You read them and wonder why most of them aren't already in the Hall in Cooperstown, N.Y.: Curt Flood, Ted Kluszewski, Don Newcombe, Tony Oliva, Allie Reynolds, Joe Torre, Maury Wills.

No wonder the Journal stepped up to the plate on this one. Hodges was their first choice and this, in their words, is the reason:

"The Hall of Fame isn't supposed to be just about numbers. Rule No. 5 states that voting should be based not only on the player's stats but on 'integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.'"

The Journal also used one anecdote that tells you something about Hodges, a farm boy from Indiana. He won a bronze star as a Marine on Guadalcanal, but his wife, Joan, only learned that years later from a newspaper reporter.

As for me, until now, I never realized what a great paper The Wall Street Journal is.

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