On praying again for Gil Hodges, an enlightening documentary before the next Hall vote, and one kid’s remembrance

Photo above:
The baseball career of Gil Hodges is memorialized on a 52-by-16-foot mural in his hometown of Petersburg, Indiana, painted in 2009. Photo by Richard G. Biever of the IndianapolisConnection.org.

Story updated on 11.29.21 with names of Golden Era Committee members who will vote:

Our latest piece for Angelus News focuses on how Gil Hodges’ long and winding road toward eventual induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame will be augmented this time by a new documentary that highlights his Catholic faith and influence on others in “Soul of A Champion: The Gil Hodges Story.”

The vote by another one of the Hall’s Veterans Committee offshoots — a lever that was finally pulled to get the Cooperstown induction of Pee Wee Reese in 1984 and Walter O’Malley in 2008 — takes place Dec. 5. Results will be announced that day at 3 p.m. PDT on the MLB Network. The 16-member Hall of Fame Board-appointed electorate charged with the review of the Golden Days Era features Hall of Fame members Rod Carew, Fergie Jenkins, Mike Schmidt, John Schuerholz, Bud Selig, Ozzie Smith and Joe Torre; major league executives Al Avila, Bill DeWitt, Ken Kendrick, Kim Ng and Tony Reagins; and veteran media members/historians Adrian Burgos Jr., Steve Hirdt, Jaime Jarrin and Jack O’Connell.

Alas, Hodges has been dead now longer than he was alive, and more than 50 years after his passing, one of the game’s most treasured and revered figures who somehow lacks the validation of a plaque among the game’s other elite.

We are not apt to refer to Hodges as a victim here (even though that’s what is says in the third paragraph of our Angelus story, inserted by perhaps an overzealous editor). We suspect he would rebuff that characterization as well. But as we continually review the process by which he has been as close as one vote in 1993 to get in, but has received less than three votes in a recent attempt, this begs for more refinement to make sure that, despite what many agree is an egregious oversight, eventually it can be corrected. This time, perhaps, while his wife, Joan, is still with us at age 95.

The documentary, from seeds planted by Kevin O’Malley of the Catholic Athletes For Christ organization and created by Spirit Juice Studios in Chicago, notes that the official Hall of Fame criteria for voters that focuses on integrity, sportsmanship and character is often used against some candidates who have been known to use steroids or be involved with gambling. Wouldn’t it be something if that was actually used to help someone’s case?

“I can argue that combining his playing time with his managerial success, he’s worthy of induction,” O’Malley says of Hodges. “But if you add integrity, sportsmanship and character, he’s in the upper echelon of all time. Our hope is that is now used as affirmation, otherwise why even have the clause in there?”

Gil Hodges Jr., living in Florida, adds: “It’s almost like they selected the perfect criteria for Dad, right?”

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The only son of Gil Hodges recalls how as a teenager when he traveled with his father on road trips, “there was never any question on a Sunday morning that we would be up early and go to Mass – just me and him,” said Gil Jr. “That was the path in his life from his strong faith. As far as what was right and wrong, and how each day would be better than before, that was instilled in me as much as being an altar boy, having trust in God’s will and let everything take its own course.”

That also applied to his father’s two years spent away from baseball as a medal-decorated Marine during the Allies victory in World War II’s defining Battle of Okinawa in the South Pacific.

In a biography posted by the Society for American Baseball Research, it notes that when Hodges died suddenly of a heart attack on Easter Sunday, 1972, his funeral Mass two days later on what would have been his 48th birthday “could easily could have been held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan” to accommodate the 3,000-plus mourners, “but that would have not been in keeping with his unassuming ways.”

The services at the Hodges’ family church in Flatbush, Our Lady Help of Christians, led to Fr. Charles Curley saying: “Gil was an ornament to his parish, and we are justly proud that in death he lies here in our little church.”

Several biographies that have come out have come out about Hodges in the last decade uncover more about that period, which also piqued O’Malley’s interest on a documentary idea.

Among those books: The 2015 “Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life,” by Mort Zachter; the 2012 “Gil Hodges: The Brooklyn Bums, the Miracle Mets, and the Extraordinary Life of a Baseball Legend,” by Tom Clavin and Danny Perry; and the New York Times bestseller from 2005 “Praying for Gil Hodges: A Memoir of the 1955 World Series and One Family’s Love of the Brooklyn Dodgers,” by Thomas Oliphant (who is in the new documentary).

Just about every bio on Hodges now comes out in the months prior to another Hall of Fame committee vote on his candidacy.

He had the standard 15-year process that began five years after his playing days ended (1969-1983). The first year of eligibility net just 24 percent, but it doubled after his performance as manager of the 1969 “Miracle Mets” seemed to shine a light on him. It only topped out at 63 percent during his final year, short of the necessary 75 percent needed to get in.

Then again, it took the Baseball Writers of America 11 seasons after Duke Snider’s career ended (he was a 37-year-old outfielder with the San Francisco Giants in ’64) to finally see the light and vote him into the Hall in 1980.

“Even if he doesn’t get voted in, we’ll have shown how his life still resonates as a positive example of an athlete who always maintained his values,” said O’Malley of Hodges. “We’ve already had a lot of response: I knew the name Gil Hodges, but I didn’t know his story. Now I do. This is a combination of a baseball film, a Catholic film, an American film and a family film.”

And to someone like Jay Wilson, it’s a film that encapsulates something he’s felt deeply about Hodges going back decades ago, when the two helped each other out by just being present and offering hope.

Jay Wilson, with his collection of Gil Hodges memorabilia, at his home in Dana Point.

As he has been doing social justice work these days for the parish of St. Edward the Confessor Catholic Church in Dana Point, Jay Wilson, even at the ripe age 75, says that anything he comes across that might be Hodges related – such as this new documentary – just “brings out the little boy in me. Here’s a real person who cared and stood up and did the right things every single day.

“I think of him to this day for all sorts of sports-related things when the issues of values, approaching the game and everything he gave to it.”

Some 60 years ago, something Hodges actually gave Wilson has never been forgotten, either.

Wilson still tells the story of growing up in the Atwater Village area of Los Angeles, bordering Griffith Park. It is about 10 miles north of the Coliseum, where he said he saw the Los Angeles Dodgers’ first game in 1958 after they moved West from Brooklyn.

Even closer to home was Dodger Stadium, opening in 1962 — a place he started working as a 16-year-old usher and attended the first game played there.

In late July of ’59, a Thursday night, and the Dodgers were at the Coliseum facing the Chicago Cubs, 10 games above .500, a game and a half behind San Francisco for the top spot in the National League.

In that game, Hodges hit a two-run homer in the fourth inning off Moe Drabowsky to give them a 2-0 lead. In the sixth inning, he drew a one-out walk. As Don Demeter was hitting into an inning-ending double play, Hodges’ slide into second trying to break it up not only didn’t accomplish his intentions, but it left him with a badly twisted knee. He had to be carried off the field.

“I was listening to the game on the radio at home, and Vin Scully was saying they’d have to take Gil to the hospital,” said Wilson. “I was devastated. Gil’s the glue to the whole team. He can’t be hurt.”

After going to Mass with his family later that week, Jay said he was moping around in his bedroom – and then decided he wanted to visit Hodges at Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood. He told his mom, Grace, a New York native and Brooklyn Dodgers fan, of his plan.

So, she wanted to know: How would you get there? It’s more than 20 miles away.

Take a taxi, he replied. He had a couple of dollars to use for the ride.

“Get in the car,” his mom said. “I’ll take you there.”

When they arrived, he bravely went to the front desk.

“I’m here to see Mr. Hodges,” Wilson said.

The nurse matter-of-factly directed him to Hodges’ room.

“I get to the room, right in the door, I see Gil in his bed sitting up and I’m frozen,” said Wilson. “My mom gently pushes me in.”

Hodges greets him with a “good morning!” and asks his name.

“Mr. Hodges, I’m Jay Wilson.”

“Well, thank you for coming to visit me.”

In Wilson’s hand was a blessed relic of St. Anthony Claret that his mom had as a family treasure for years. His mom thought it was a great gesture for him to bring it.

“I want to give you this to help you get better,” Wilson said giving the medal to Hodges.

Hodges thanks him and stretched out his enormous right hand to shake with the 13-year-old Wilson.

“His hand just swallowed mine up,” said Wilson. “No wonder he could catch anything thrown in the dirt.”

Wilson said he fumbled around trying to make small talk – he told Hodges about how he played first base on his Pony League team and also wore No. 14.

The 10- to 15-minute visit seemed forever.

Funny, the other things you remember, too. Wilson noticed that sitting on the bedside table next to Hodges was a carton of Kent cigarettes.

“It was a different time,” said Wilson.

Of course, he couldn’t wait to get home and tell his friends about what happened, whether they believed him or not.

The Dodgers, by the way, really tried to just tread water without the injured Hodges, who had 19 homers, 61 RBIs and heading for an MVP-type season at that point. As Norm Larker took over first base, the team went 14-13 in his absence and at one point fell into third place, four and a half games behind the Giants and a half-game behind the Braves. Hodges also missed playing in the Aug. 3, 1959 All Star Game held at the Coliseum.

As soon as the 35-year-old Hodges came back into the Dodgers’ lineup in early August – he had been used only as a pinch hitter for a long stretch, but finally started back at first base by the end of the month – he tied Mel Ott’s National League record by hitting 20 or more homers in 11 straight seasons.

In a key series, the Dodgers swept three in San Francisco in late September. In a regular-season ending series at Wrigley Field on Sept. 25, Hodges’ 11th inning homer – his 25th of the season — gave the Dodgers a 5-4 win, putting the a game up over Milwaukee.

The Dodgers’ 86 wins tied the Braves at season’s end. In a best-of-three playoff, the Dodgers won the opener in Milwaukee. They captured the pennant at the Coliseum the next day when, in the bottom of the 12th,  Hodges came around from second base to score the game-winning winning run when Carl Furillo grounded a ball up the middle that Braves shortstop Felix Mantilla flagged down but threw wide to first.

The Dodgers were off to Chicago, as Scully told the radio listeners. They brought down the Chicago White Sox in a six-game World Series where Hodges went 9-for-23 (.391) with a home run and a triple.

Now it’s June, 1960. Hodges had been in and out of the starting lineup, platooning with Larker at first, sometimes playing third base. The defending World Champion Dodgers didn’t seem to be making much of a dent wedged in the middle of the NL standings.

But it was that summer, Wilson said, when he needed surgery on his own leg. He had polio as a young boy and had gone back for treatments multiple times to correct nerve damage. He was frightened by the process.

He didn’t know his mom had come up with a plan that would help.

Grace wrote a letter to Hodges, addressed to the Mayfair Hotel on 7th Street in L.A. – it was fairly common knowledge that is where Hodges lived at the time. She explained how Jay had visited him the previous season and now he was in this situation.

A few weeks after the surgery, Wilson was back home. A package arrived. It wasn’t just a letter of encouragement from Hodges, but also a baseball signed by him, Duke Snider, Charley Neal and Joe Pignatano.

Wilson can recite the letter: “Dear Jay, I heard you were having surgery and I’m hoping you’re doing well at this time. Enclosed is an autographed baseball I thought you would like. Hope you recover soon.”

And, best of all, Wilson says he signed it:

“Your friend, Gil Hodges.”

“Man, oh, man,” Wilson said.

In October of 1960, a book came out called “The Gil Hodges Story,” meant for young readers, but written in a very through and substantive way by author Milton J. Shapiro.

In contrast to the bios written about Hodges in the decades following his death, this one sizes him up as he is still a player, in L.A., and the inside cover of the bookjacket calls Hodges “stalwart, uncomplaining, quietly good humored and religious,” as well as someone who has “won the respect and admiration of baseball men and millions of fans in the course of setting more than a dozen hitting and fielding records with the Brooklyn (now Los Angeles) Dodgers.”

It ends with the paragraph: “Gil Hodges is regarded as an eventual member in baseball’s Hall of Fame.” On the back cover, Shapiro adds:

Over the years, the memories survived longer than the ball and the letter that Jay Wilson received from Gil Hodges.

That ball, Wilson laments, somehow was seized by the family dog and ended up as a chew toy. The letter sealed in plastic eventually faded away and deteriorated.

“It’s all still locked in my mind,” Wilson says. “It’s such a cool thing that it still resonates today.”

Playing in adult softball leagues later in his life, Wilson said he still took over first base and wore No. 14. Now his grandson does the same on his Little League teams.

Wilson, who attended St. Francis High in La Canada and was part of the first graduation class in the mid-‘60s at the now-closed Paster Noster High in northeast L.A., still has a framed autographed photo of Hodges that he got when Hodges made an appearance at an El Monte shopping center. More artwork of Hodges dons the walls of his Dana Point home.

Jackie Robinson, left, with Gil Hodges, from the film, “Soul of a Champion.”

“I’ve told my grandson all the stories about the Brooklyn Dodgers and the ‘Boys of Summer’ and what an influence Gil was,” said Wilson. “He really was a pioneer of social justice when some of the bad things happened to his teammate Jackie Robinson as he was coming up with the team. Gil had his back 100 percent. He was the consummate leader.”

Having signed petitions and championed the cause for Hodges’ induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, Wilson says he can’t think of any reason why Hodges isn’t included.

“I know all his stats – 370 home runs, the Gold Gloves, the World Series – and then you look at what the Hall is about and all he did as a great person. You could count on him for power, for average, for defense, for following the rules, setting an example.

“If he gets into the Hall of Fame, I’m going back there for the ceremony.”

That could be in July, 2022. To be determined.

His 1966 Topps baseball card says it all: “Gil is the epitome of courage, good sportsmanship and integrity in America’s favorite pasttime.”

More to read:
== The Catholic News Service writes about the Hodges’ documentary: “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 Sports Illustrated in Nov. 2014, Tom Verducci made the case for this under the headline: “Time for the Hall of Fame to right a wrong by electing Gil Hodges.” For what it’s worth, Verducci is related to Hodges’ wife, Joan.

== A selection of stories posted over the years in The Tablet, from the Archdiocese of Brooklyn and Queens, N.Y.

== A 2020 issue of the Indiana Historical Society that featured a 13-page feature on Gil Hodges’ life.

== A Twitter account called “Put Gil Hodges In the Hall” launched in January 2021. @InductHodges.

== Gil Hodges’ Wikipedia page has an entire section his Hall of Fame consideration over the years.

Gil Hodges, left, with Gene Hermanski, Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson at Yankee Stadium on the eve of the 1949 World Series. (Associated Press)
Gil Hodges, left, is at home in Brooklyn with his family in January, 1958 — his son Gil Jr. (7), daughters Cindy (1 1/2) and Irene (6) and wife Joan. (Photo by L.A Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images)

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