- Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life by Mort Zachter
When he embraced Mets manager Gil Hodges after the team clinched the 1969 National League pennant, New York City mayor John Lindsay gushed, “Gil, you’re the most wonderful man I’ve ever seen.” Brooklynite and Hodges biographer Mort Zachter agrees. A Hall of Fame Life is an admirable chronicle of a man with few apparent flaws.
Hodges’ father, a coal miner in tiny Princeton, Indiana, urged young Gil to play baseball as a way of escaping a life underground. Hodges became a power-hitting prospect at St. Joseph’s College, where he caught the eye of a stringer for the Dodgers. Hodges joined Branch Rickey’s massive farm organization in 1943. He barely had a chance to get his cleats dirty before volunteering for the Marines and shipping off to the Pacific.
Hodges’ participation in the Battle of Okinawa changed him forever, and not just because there he acquired the smoking habit that eventually killed him. The Marines’ emphasis on teamwork and discipline informed both his playing and managerial careers.
Peacetime found Hodges back with the Dodgers. He overcame his defensive shortcomings to become a solid catcher, then an exceptional first baseman. Hitting was never a problem for the beefy slugger. Hodges played alongside such all-time greats as Sandy Koufax, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, and Duke Snider on the extraordinary Brooklyn teams of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Unfortunately for them, the Yankees were usually just a bit better. The boys in pinstripes won five of their six World Series matchups against the Dodgers between 1947 and 1956.
Hodges stayed with the team when it moved to Los Angeles, although he maintained his home in Brooklyn. He returned to New York in 1962 when the expansion Mets picked up the aging veteran. After retiring as a player, the Washington Senators, recognizing his leadership skills, named him their manager in 1963. Manager Hodges emphasized the fundamentals of the game. He disliked big personalities and struggled to accommodate [End Page 464] the brash young players who started hitting the big leagues as the 1960s progressed. His last great achievement came in 1969, when he steered Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, and the rest of the Amazin’ Mets to a World Series victory. Hodges died of a heart attack in 1972 at the age of forty-eight.
A Hall of Fame Life is primarily an on-field biography and a good one at that. Zachter mines contemporary newspapers, autobiographies, and dozens of interviews to create a strong portrait of Hodges the baseball player. As the author acknowledges, it is far more difficult to capture Hodges as a man. Hodges therefore emerges as a rather two-dimensional character. He was a devout Catholic who signed baseballs for kids, delivered presents to sick children, and exchanged pleasantries with umpires. In essence, he was John Wayne in a baseball cap: strong and silent, aloof yet compassionate, a defender of traditional values in an era of moral flux.
Zachter’s well-researched work follows a pattern common to baseball biographies, in which each chapter generally revolves around a single season of on-field action. Hodges’ career offers additional opportunities for discussions of race (Jackie Robinson), urban rivalries (Dodgers-Yankees), community identity (Brooklyn), and evolutions within the mass media (the rise of television). For the most part, however, the focus remains squarely between the chalk lines.
A Hall of Fame Life also raises interesting questions regarding the use of statistics in baseball biographies. Zachter relies on so-called counting stats such as home runs, runs batted in, and batting average. This is typical, as even such “basic” advanced stats as On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) and Wins above Replacement (WAR) have barely infiltrated the baseball biography genre. Hodges is actually a flashpoint in the debate over statistics. In his afterword, Zachter uses home-run numbers, Gold Gloves, and “intangibles” such as leadership and character to make a case for Hodges’ admittance into Cooperstown. Sabermetricians might...