Is Gil Hodges really shy of being a Hall of Famer?

Gil Hodges in the Ebbets Field batting cage . . .

Gil Hodges in the Ebbets Field batting cage . . .

How beloved and respected was Gil Hodges during his playing career? Enough that when he sank into a ferocious batting slump crossing the end of the 1952 season and the beginning of the 1953 season, the entire borough of Brooklyn, if not all New York City, took up prayers for him. A devout Roman Catholic, Hodges was genuinely touched that even non-Catholic churches joined the prayer chain.

The thing that most people hear about that one is that a priest stood in a Brooklyn pulpit that Sunday and said, “It’s too hot for a sermon. Just go home and say a prayer for Gil Hodges.” Well, I know that I’ll never forget that, but also I won’t forget the hundreds of people who sent me letters, telegrams, and postcards during that World Series. There wasn’t a single nasty message. Everybody tried to say something nice. It had a tremendous effect on my morale, if not my batting average.

Gil Hodges.

Maybe the one character flaw Hodges ever had was a pronounced inability to manage stress. Roger Kahn in The Boys of Summer has described Hodges’s lifelong propensity to suck it down, stand in, and take it, but it took its toll. Teammates witnessed his hands shaking violently when trying nothing more demanding than lighting a cigarette, a seeming anomaly in a man whose physical strength was considered singular.

Did you hear what happened when Hodges landed in Okinawa? The Japs surrendered. So did half the Marines. went one joke about Hodges’s strength. You know what happens when big Gil squeezes that bat? Instant sawdust. went another. Once, when he managed the second Washington Senators, he announced hundred-dollar fines for four players he said violated the team curfew, saying he expected to see $400 in a cigar box on his desk later that day. He opened the box and found $700.

“[H]e knew how weak physical strength could be,” Kahn wrote.

He had learned that watching his father die one part at a time . . . [H]e drove himself to move ahead and drove himself to fight down fear, and what can give a strong athletic man a frightful heart attack at forty-four is the war he wages within himself, even if he is soft-voiced, like Hodges, and blankets the conflict under casual remarks, a hard blank look, bantering ways, and the faint, almost casual smile.

A year after that heart attack, Hodges managed the 1969 Mets to their improbable World Series conquest. Asked to explain it in the immediate aftermath of the clinching Game Five, Hodges smiled a little more than casually, spread his hands, and replied, “Can’t be done.” Three years later, a second heart attack killed him during spring training. At 47.

It’s entirely possible that, with all due respect to Dale Murphy and his supporters, Hodges is the most popular former player who isn’t in the Hall of Fame. He achieved 60+ percent of the Baseball Writers Association of America vote twice during his eligibility and missed getting in by way of the Veterans Committee by a single vote in 1993, when (it was alleged) Ted Williams refused to sanction ailing Roy Campanella’s vote by telephone.

Hodges never got that close again. He came up for election on the Golden Era Committee ballot three years ago; that committee elected nobody, with two players—Dick Allen and Tony Oliva—missing by a single vote. Hodges, Ken Boyer, Billy Pierce, Luis Tiant, and longtime executive Bob Howsam each received three votes. They meet again next year, and Hodges could still make a return engagement.

Which doesn’t mean he’s any closer to being elected to the Hall of Fame than he was in 2014. And, as is the case with such public favourites as Murphy and Don Mattingly, Hodges has a case that, regretfully enough, brings him home short of being a bona fide Hall of Famer. Like them, Hodges would be a Hall of Famer if all you needed was character. Unlike them, Hodges’s case wasn’t derailed by injuries, though he did begin dealing with knee issues in earnest in 1960.

In any fresh review of Hodges’s Hall case, he has two problems going in: a) He’s not the best first baseman who isn’t in the Hall of Fame. b) Keith Hernandez is the best first baseman who isn’t in the Hall of Fame, maybe the best all-around first baseman who ever played the game, and one who revolutionised how the position is played defensively while he was at it, and Hernandez’s Hall case, too, was paddywhacked by injuries when he should have had two or even three more seasons to secure his case.

Hodges was the best first baseman of a time that actually didn’t produce truly great first basemen. He won three Gold Gloves and might have won a fourth if the Gloves had been introduced earlier during his career, and lifetime he was worth 48 runs saved defensively. And he did play on six pennant winners and two World Series winners as the Dodgers’ regular first baseman.

Hodges with (from left) his son, Gil, Jr., and his wife, Joan, while he managed the Senators . . .

Hodges with (from left) his son, Gil, Jr., and his wife, Joan, while he managed the Senators . . .

Hodges may have been beloved, but he was never the best player on his teams. Campanella, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, and Pee Wee Reese were far enough superior players among his Brooklyn teammates. When the Dodgers went west, Hodges earned a final Gold Glove and finished eighteenth in the league’s Most Valuable Player voting while playing on a World Series winner that was, arguably, one of the worst teams ever to win a Series.

He finished his career with 370 home runs, tenth all-time when he retired, but as Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated points out, he played his absolute prime seasons in the Ebbets Field bandbox while never finishing higher than fifth among his league’s leaders in OPS, higher than sixth in OPS+, or fifth in slugging percentage.

Hodges has seven consecutive 100+ runs batted in seasons but never led his league in that category. He has eleven straight seasons of 22+ home runs including a four-year streak in which he hit 40, 32, 31, and 42, but never led his league in that category, either. From 1949-1957, his 40.9 wins above a replacement-level player was ninth in the Show and third on the Dodgers, behind Snider’s 58.2 and Robinson’s 53.0. And his career WAR is 11.4 below the average Hall of Fame first baseman.

How did Hodges finish on the six pennant winners for whom he was a regular player?

1949—Eighth. (3.2.)
1952—Second. (5.5.)
1953—Sixth. (4.5.)
1955—Fifth. (4.4.)
1956—Sixth. (3.5.)
1959—Seventh. (2.8.)
Total—23.9. Average—3.9.

While I was at it, I thought I’d look at Jackie Robinson for 1949-56 (he retired after the 1956 season) and Duke Snider for the same six as Hodges:

Robinson:
1949—First. (9.6.)
1952—First. (8.5.)
1953—Third. (7.0.)
1955—Eighth. (2.6.)
1956—Fourth. (4.5.)
Total—32.2. Average—6.4.

Snider:
1949—Fifth. (5.2.)
1952—Fourth. (4.6.)
1953—First. (9.3.)
1955—First. (8.6.)
1956—First. (7.6.)
1959—Ninth. (2.3.)
Total—37.6. Average—6.3.

Think about that for a moment. Measured by their wins above a replacement-level player, Duke Snider was the Dodgers’ best player in half the pennant-winning seasons on which he played as a regular and one of the five best in two others. Jackie Robinson was the Dodgers’ best player in two and one of the five best in two more, and overall covering their participation in pennant winners together Duke Snider was only a sliver behind him.

Gil Hodges, God love and keep him, was never the absolute best player on six pennant-winning Dodger teams for which he played as their regular first baseman; he was one of their five best for two of those seasons and between their sixth and eighth best in four others. Then, what about the seasons in which Hodges was the Dodgers’ regular first baseman but the Dodgers didn’t win the pennant?

1950—Seventh. (3.5.)
1951—Third. (5.7.)
1954—Second. (6.2.)
1957—Fourth. (4.4.)
1958—Seventh. (1.3.)
Total—21.1. Average—4.2.

Hodges was slightly better in seasons where the Dodgers didn’t win the pennant while he was their regular first baseman; he was one of the team’s top three players three times, one of their top four once, and less than one of their top five once.

Asked to explain how the Mets delivered a 1969 miracle, Hodges smiled, spread his hands, and purred, "Can't be done."

Asked to explain how the Mets delivered a 1969 miracle, Hodges smiled, spread his hands, and purred, “Can’t be done.”

All the foregoing by itself is not a bona fide Hall of Fame playing record. Now, what if we marry Hodges’s above average playing career—he’s a classic case of an above- average player who was periodically great, and that’s allowing for the two seasons he spent in the Marines in World War II—to his managing career, as so many including myself have liked doing in the past? After all, he did bring off the impossible in 1969.

Hodges managed the Senators for five seasons before returning to the Mets (who sent the Senators pitcher Bill Denehy in return) for 1968. The good news is that the Senators improved in every season Hodges managed them; they won a few more games under his command each time out.

The bad news is that, through little enough fault of his own, he never managed higher than a sixth-place team, the finish in his final year in Washington. Except for bombardier Frank Howard, some superb glove men like Ed Brinkman and Ken McMullen, and the occasional quality pitcher like starter Pete Richert or relievers Ron Kline and (later) Darold Knowles, Hodges never really had solid Washington teams.

When he became the Mets’ manager, Hodges took them to a ninth-place 1968, an improvement over their 1967 season. After the 1969 miracle, he led them to identical third-place National League finishes with identical 83-79 records. He’d kept them pennant-competitive but unable to stay the full course.

His death in spring 1972 robbed him of the chance to continue leading a pennant-competitive team who eventually snuck into the National League East championship of 1973 and took the Oakland threshing machine to a seventh World Series game they damn near won—under Yogi Berra’s command.

It also stuck Hodges with a .420 winning percentage as a manager lifetime, which tells you something about death too often being a thief of more than just life itself. Two or three more winning seasons, and maybe the 1973 pennant and a little more managing the Mets, had he lived, might have flipped it over just enough to put Hodges a handful of points above .500 as a manager.

Don Drysdale said he couldn’t leave his house for three days upon learning of Hodges’s death; it hurt too deeply. Jackie Robinson, six months shy of his own premature death, weepingly embraced Gil Hodges, Jr. at the funeral and told him this was the worst day of his life next to the death of his own oldest son. New York only led the mourning for Hodges.

I’m not entirely convinced that being the ninth best player of his prime seasons is really enough to put Gil Hodges in the Hall of Fame, no matter how popular, beloved, or respected he was (and remains). I’m not entirely convinced that marrying that to his managing record, even with the Miracle Mets, is really enough to put him in the Hall of Fame.

But if they ever decided to open up and consecrate a National Baseball Hall of Decency, you can bet Hodges will go in undebated as part of the charter class.

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