- Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life by Mort Zachter
Which World Series-winning manager hit the most home runs in his playing career? The correct answer is Gil Hodges, whose 370 home runs were good for tenth place on the all-time list when he retired, and who later managed the Mets to triumph in the 1969 classic. Hodges is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but Mort Zachter's excellent new biography leaves little doubt that he should be.
There have been prior biographies of Hodges—by Marino Amoruso (Eriksson, 1991), and Tom Clavin and Danny Peary (New American Library, 2012)—but Zachter's offering is the most thoroughly documented, with a Notes section that often reads like a separate volume. It is beautifully written and generously illustrated with thirty-nine vintage photos, many from the collection of the Brooklyn Public Library. Never showy, the narrative manifests a cumulative power; key plays and crucial decisions effortlessly emerge from the text, and one often feels Hodges' pent-up tension radiating from the page. No detail escapes Zachter, down to manager Hodges asking inattentive players on the bench for the count on the batter.
Hodges's story spans his youth in rural Indiana, where he was a four-sport athlete in high school, service with the marines on Okinawa, baseball years with the Dodgers and (briefly) the Mets, and finally managerial stints with both the Washington Senators and the Mets. In these varied roles, Hodges displayed that rare amalgam of physical strength, intelligence, and integrity that mark a natural leader. Carl Erskine and Vin Scully called him the conscience of the Dodgers, and Jackie Robinson remembered him as the team's core.
Spotted by the same birddog scout in Indiana who found Erskine, Hodges was sent to a tryout camp in Olean, New York, in 1943. There, his power impressed Jake Pitler and Branch Rickey, Jr., who sent him on to Brooklyn, where the elder Branch Rickey signed him. Installed at first base by Leo Durocher in 1948, Hodges was arguably the best fielder at that position during [End Page 242] the 1950s, winning the inaugural gold glove in 1957, repeating in 1958 and 1959. Naming his personal All-Star team, Dizzy Dean said, "I'd want Hodges on first base because there ain't no first baseman in the last ten years done what I seen him do game after game" (196).
Hodges hit for power, swatting more than twenty home runs in eleven successive years and knocking in more than 100 runs seven years in a row. When he retired in 1963, the only right-handed batter with more career homers was Jimmie Foxx. Zachter takes us through the many highlights of the Dodgers years. Here are several: in 1951, Hodges hit twenty-eight home runs before the All-Star Game, and Branch Rickey commented that with Hodges at bat "the runner on first was always in scoring position" (114); in 1954, Hodges, playing every game, hit .304 with forty-two homers and 130 RBI; and in the World Series of 1955, he knocked in both runs in the Dodgers' 2–0 seventh game victory over the Yankees. These feats speak for themselves, but Zachter gives them new life. And I was there with my uncle Al when Hodges hit four home runs in a single game in August 1950!
Hobbled by injuries in 1963, Hodges retired and was signed to manage the tenth-place Washington Senators. There he instilled professionalism, motivation, and discipline, "fitting the strategy to the material" (231), a philosophy he learned from Walter Alston, who managed the Dodgers to the 1955 championship. Once, Hodges "announced that he had seen an unnamed player out late, and asked that he leave a $100 check on his desk." The next day brought seven checks (233). Under Hodges' tutelage, the Senators rose to sixth place in 1967, and the Mets brought him back to New York as manager in 1968.
Hodges was more than a disciplinarian; he was also compassionate, talking despondent...