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Prologue: His Reputation Preceded Him

No man lives his image.
–Gil Hodges

Gil Hodges stepped out of the Mets’ dugout holding a shoe-polish stained baseball in his right hand.

It was a chilly October afternoon in New York and the Mets manager wore a dark-blue baseball jacket over his uniform. Although the familiar number 14 that had been stitched onto his jersey ever since his playing days in Ebbets Field wasn’t visible to the standing-room-only crowd at Shea Stadium watching the fifth game of the 1969 World Series, it made no difference. If, like Neil Armstrong, who that past July took, “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Hodges had been wearing a NASA space suit complete with helmet and darkened visor, the fans would’ve still recognized him.

He had been, wrote Roger Angell, “…perhaps the most popular ballplayer in the major leagues….”, and although Ebbets Field had crumbled beneath an iron wrecking ball almost a decade before, whenever Hodges stepped onto a baseball field he fortified fading memories of warm summer days when Brooklyn was the best the National League had to offer and no one had yet heard of the New York Metropolitans.

Hodges headed towards home plate slowly in that funny, pigeon-toed walk he had – ramrod straight like John Wayne in The Searchers — but with surprisingly small strides for a man who stood almost six-foot two-inches tall. His toes touched the ground first, then his instep, and finally the heel of his spikes. A little over a year after surviving his first heart attack, Hodges looked much older than 45. Yet, there was still a grace and athleticism in his bearing that exuded a sense of confidence and power.

The Mets were playing in what would turn out to be the final game of the Series. But despite the tension of managing in baseball’s ultimate pressure cooker, Hodges appeared no different than usual. “When everyone else got excited…Gil remained calm,” recalled his best player, Tom Seaver. “The tenser the situation, the more he concentrated. He never wavered, never came within a mile of panic, always observing, always maneuvering, always thinking.”

“He had,” said Mets’ catcher J.C. Martin, “cold water running in his veins.”

That morning, Hodges had driven to Shea with his brother, Bob. Throughout the car ride, Gil Hodges never mentioned the game — not once. To Bob, his kid brother seemed so at ease on the ride up the Grand Central it felt as if they were heading out to play eighteen holes of golf. Decades later, their sister Marjorie told me it must have been a very long car ride for the outgoing and personable Bob, who would have loved discussing that afternoon’s game.

Gil Hodges’ silence didn’t surprise her a bit. The defining experience of his formative years, surviving the savagery of Okinawa during WWII, had only added to an inborn solemnity. The defining experience of his final years, that afternoon stroll to home plate, was the high point of his professional baseball career. Yet, to him, it wasn’t life and death, just a ball game. To a deeply religious man like Gil Hodges, there were more important things.

He wore a wedding band on the ring finger of his left hand. And the cross hanging from a thin chain around his neck was not only tiny, but – unlike later generations of athletes — tucked beneath his uniform. On the ring finger of his right hand was a 1955 World Series ring – the only championship the Brooklyn Dodgers ever won. The two rings, and the cross, symbolized the three things that meant the most to Hodges: family, God, and work – in that order. And if ever there was a man who could keep his priorities straight, it was Gil Hodges.

On this particular day, he slowed his pace to give himself time to think about the situation. That was what he did best. From the time he started to play baseball as a boy on Jim Higgins’ farm in Petersburg, Indiana, Hodges had shown a knack for determining exactly what had to be done to win. So by the time he reached home plate, his piercing-blue eyes locked and loaded, Hodges had the big picture sized-up just right.

He considered the Mets’ opponent: the Baltimore Orioles, heavy favorites to win the World Series. That season, the Orioles had won 109 games – the most in the majors. Baltimore had won the 1966 Series (and would win another in 1970) with the same core group of players that took the field that afternoon. They had two first-ballot Hall-of-Fame players in their everyday lineup: outfielder Frank Robinson, who finished his career with 586 home runs in an era when hitting 500 or more home runs didn’t require a visit before Congress to explain that you hadn’t used steroids, and clutch-hitting Brooks Robinson who set the gold standard for fielding for all subsequent generations of third-basemen. In addition to the Robinsons, the slugging first baseman Boog Powell, the feisty second baseman Davey Johnson, and the ever so smooth centerfielder, Paul Blair, had all been named to the 1969 all-star team.

Compared to Earl Weaver, the Baltimore manager, Hodges had slim pickings. The Mets line-up consisted largely of journeymen Hodges had platooned depending on whether they were facing a right or left-handed pitcher. That not only maximized his team’s limited hitting skills, but also kept them fresh for the stretch-run in September.

The Mets’ rival for the National League East title that season, the Chicago Cubs, were led by Hodges’ first major league manager, Leo Durocher, a man with the unique ability to irritate a team contending for a pennant to victory. But he didn’t that season. Durocher overworked his starting pitchers and stuck with his everyday players for far too long. Hodges’ team blew past the more talented—but tired—Cubs and won the Eastern Division and went on to defeat the Western Division champions, the Atlanta Braves, to win the National League pennant.

The Mets possessed three essential ingredients needed for winning a short series: pitching, defense, and Hodges. As a result, although a 100-to-1 shot to win the World Series when the season started, the Miracle Mets, as they were then referred to (despite the fact that the Mets’ players hated it when they were), had won three straight games behind the outstanding pitching of Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry, Nolan Ryan, and Tom Seaver. Two spectacular catches by centerfielder Tommy Agee, and one for the ages by right-fielder Ron Swoboda proved pivotal. Despite losing the opening game of the Series, the Mets never lost confidence.

“The leadership of Hodges,” wrote Leonard Koppett, “created this.”

As a result, when Hodges strolled out to the mound with his team holding a three to one lead in the Series, the Mets were only one victory away from becoming champions. For New Yorkers who had come to believe the words Mets and comical were synonymous, this was nothing short of a revelation. Beginning in their inaugural season (1962), the Mets had set records for ineptitude finishing last in the National League five times. But in 1968, when Hodges took command, he instilled a seriousness not seen on that side of the East River since the Dodgers left for Los Angeles and by the summer of 1969, the fans, not just in New York, but nationwide, believed that if a man could walk on the moon the Mets could win the Series.

But the game was in the sixth inning with Baltimore leading, 3 – 0 and the Mets needed reviving. If they lost, the balance of the Series would be played back in Baltimore. Hodges knew that momentum in the post-season is simply who won the last game; and if the Orioles won, odds were they’d continue winning back in Baltimore. And the Orioles were dominating the game behind some marvelous pitching by their twenty-game winner, Dave McNally. The lefty’s curve was breaking sharply and the Mets were struggling to just get a man on base.

Providence provided one.

The Mets’ left-fielder Cleon Jones was at bat when he was hit in the foot by a curveball in the dirt. But home plate umpire Lou DiMuro didn’t think the ball had struck Jones. With their team desperate for base runners, most hitters would have dropped their bat and head towards first base as a reflex-action. But despite a Series batting average less than his weight—and the on-deck hitter, Donn Clendenon, having already hit two homers in the Series – Jones wanted to hit. So it was left to Clendenon to argue with DiMuro to no avail.

After striking Cleon Jones’ shoe, the ball improbably traveled over 50 feet bouncing into the Mets’ dugout. What occurred there, after the ball bounced in, but before Hodges stepped out with a shoe-polish streaked ball in his hand, remains one of New York City’s great twentieth century mysteries. Ron Swoboda didn’t see what happened, but decades later could still recall watching Hodges play cribbage and how only a few seconds would pass from the time Hodges was dealt his cards until he determined which to keep, and which to throw back. Such skills were easily transferable to any and all developments in the dugout.

“What ever happened,” Swoboda said, “happened very quickly.”

Earl Weaver remembers otherwise. The Baltimore manager told me, “They had time to do anything they wanted with the ball.”

Three things are certain. First, immediately after the game, no less an authority than legendary Yankee manager Casey Stengel made it known that ever since the 1957 World Series between the Milwaukee Braves and the Yankees, when a Milwaukee player named Nippy Jones was awarded first after convincing the umpire that the polish on the ball had came from his shoe (which in turn led to a Championship for the Braves) — Stengel always kept a few shoe polish streaked balls close at hand in the dugout for just such occasions.

In addition, before the fifth game of the 1969 World Series, as he did before every game, Nick Torman, the Met clubhouse man, applied shoe polish to all the Mets’ game-shoes. For this, and all his hard work during the season, the players would take the unusual step of awarding him a full share of their World Series winnings.

But Hodges’ reputation for integrity would prove to be the most crucial certainty that day. Hodges treated umpires with respect. As a player, he held the distinction of never having been thrown out of a game. As a manager, Hodges would argue a call only if he was sure he was right. The umpires in turn, respected Hodges. Tom Gorman, a National League umpire for a quarter of a century wrote, “…Gil Hodges, [was] as good a man as you’ll find in a long day’s march.”

Contemporaneous newspaper accounts reported that the ball rolled into the hands of Mets’ catcher Jerry Grote, who flipped the ball to Hodges as he was stepping out of the dugout. When Hodges reached home plate, he handed the ball to DiMuro and said, “ Lou, the ball hit him.”

Hodges didn’t yell or scream. He didn’t have to. It was all measured and calculated—even the modulation in his deep voice. But despite Hodges’ quiet demeanor, there was “a certain menace” in his physical prowess that made you wonder “what he would do if he got going.”

Decades later, NY Times reporter, George Vescey, who was at the game, told me, “Hodges had DiMuro hypnotized.”

DiMuro looked at the ball. Then he looked at Hodges. Then he reversed his call.

Weaver immediately bounded out of the Orioles’ dugout to ask DiMuro if he had kept his eye on the ball the entire time it was in the Mets’ dugout. The question implied that shady-shoe-polish doings must have occurred there. But Weaver didn’t get too excited. The day before, he had become the first manager in 34 years to be tossed out of a World Series game, and he didn’t want that happening again. Weaver couldn’t bring himself to strenuously argue against a call he knew was correct. After the game, Weaver acknowledged that everyone at Shea – except DiMuro—saw the ball hit Jones. But Hodges had done much more than just supply the Mets with a base runner. Five years before, a little known act of kindness on his part had helped bring the next batter to the Mets.