Monday, December 1, 2014

Gil Hodges Belongs in Cooperstown

By Jeff Kallman

When Jim Bouton edited a volume of writings about baseball managers, I Managed Good But Boy, Did They Play Bad, in 1973, he included a photograph of Gil Hodges taken at a supermarket aisle. The caption: "Gil Hodges really was like this. The kind of man who would pick up groceries for his wife on his way home from the ball park."

That's one testament to Hodges's overall decency, but it's not necessarily the reason you consider a man for the Hall of Fame even if character does count to a particular extent. Come December 7, the Golden Era Committee will convene during baseball's winter meetings in San Diego. Their mission: vote on Hall of Famers whose playing careers occurred between 1947 and 1972, or on executives whose impact was in the same time frame.

They have ten candidates this year — nine players, plus one executive. Of the 10, Hodges has maybe the most unique case.

If the Golden Era Committee's job is to measure a candidate in the context of his actual time, Hodges measures up considerably, if peculiarly. In an era that didn't produce genuinely great first basemen overall, Hodges was a genuinely great first baseman. As if to suggest that having been one of the Boys of Summer Dodgers grants a penchant for peculiar achievements, Hodges went on to become the first expansion-team manager to win a World Series.

Not just any old expansion team. Hodges just had to manage the once-absurdist New York Mets to a staggering Series upset in 1969. The quietest Dodger of them all just had to lead a team who once led the league in comic losing to a five-game Series triumph that included four straight wins after a Game 1 loss. It was like Edward R. Murrow turning vaudeville into newsmen.

But we're getting a little ahead of ourselves. It's been 51 years since Hodges played a major league game. (Knee injuries kept him to sparing 1962-63 play with the expansion Mets.) Thanks to Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci, who's performed the heavy labour, we can isolate just how great a player Hodges actually was despite the time that's passed.

* He is one of only two National League first basemen, ever, to produce seven straight seasons hitting 23 home runs or more and driving in 100 runs or more. He holds hands with Albert Pujols in that regard. It took 38 years for the National League to find a first baseman who could and would have seven straight such seasons. (Lou Gehrig owns the American League honors with 12 straight.)

* Among major league first basemen Hodges led the Show in runs created, total bases, OPS, times on base, home runs, runs batted in, and extra base hits, from 1948 through 1959.

* In the same period, Hodges was second among position players in home runs (his teammate Duke Snider was the leader), second in runs batted in (Yogi Berra and Stan Musial sit tied ahead of him), fourth in runs created (behind Snider, Musial, and Ted Williams), and third in total bases, runs produced, and extra base hits. (Behind Snider and Musial, again.)

* Hodges' teams won seven pennants and two World Series (including one in Brooklyn), and you could actually make the argument that, if relief pitcher Larry Sherry hadn't shone the way he had in the 1959 Series, Hodges and second baseman Charlie Neal might have shared Series MVP honors if Neal didn't win them by a slim margin.

* Verducci notes Hodges having played the most World Series games at first base in major league history. He went to as many Series as Gehrig did (seven), but Gehrig played in five four-game sweeps and one five-game Series. It's as often as not a matter of circumstance how many Series games you get to play, but Hodges playing first base in 39 World Series games is a remarkable achievement by any definition.

(In case you were curious, Yogi Berra is the all-time leader with 75 games played. The only non-Yankee to play 50 or more is Frankie Frisch; the only other non-Yankee to play 40 or more is Pee Wee Reese.)

* Hodges is still the only player in World Series history to drive in multiple runs in a Game 7 and have those the only runs his team scored in the game: it was 1955, and the Dodgers won the game 2-0, clinching the Series behind Johnny Podres's stellar pitching. (And, with a little help from Sandy Amoros's staggering sixth inning, left-field line catch off Yogi Berra's opposite-field drive — which turned into a double play when Hodges caught Reese's relay to double up Gil McDougald.)

* He's also the only man in major league history to hit 370 home runs lifetime and become a World Series-winning manager. (Rogers Hornsby with 301 is a distant second, but Hornsby won a Series as a player-manager; Hodges is the only man in this category to hit for that kind of power and manage a Series winner after his playing days ended.)

You might also note Hodges won the first three Gold Gloves at first base and might have one three more, at least, if the Gloves had been awarded prior to 1957.

And to those who might think he got a little extra help hitting in a bandbox home park (Ebbets Field) for long enough, or in a park with a super-short left field porch (the ridiculous Los Angeles Coliseum period), be advised that Hodges was, essentially, the same hitter on the road that he was at home; he actually has a few more hits (including extra base hits) on the road and his road batting average is six points higher than his home average.

Now, about that Series triumph. If you're my age, you might remember Hodges sitting in his office, after the Miracle Mets finished the job, asked to explain how his charges brought it off against the heavily-favored Orioles, then spreading his hands and grinning before saying, "can't be done."

Actually, it can be done. And not just by way of how Hodges out-thought Earl Weaver. All season long, Hodges developed deft positional platoons and provided a model for handling young pitching. He kept his position players fresh and at good advantage; he went to a five-man rotation that included rotating his swing men as often as not.

He got a Cy Young season out of his future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, key pitching from Jerry Koosman and veteran Don Cardwell, solid stretch drive pitching from rookie Gary Gentry, and adroit bullpen work from Ron Taylor, Tug McGraw, Calvin Koonce, and a swift but wild kid named Nolan Ryan. He got a career year from his left fielder Cleon Jones, staggering defense from his position players, and veteran clubhouse leadership from first baseman Donn Clendenon and third baseman Ed Charles.

It helped him manage the 1969 Mets to a 27-game improvement over 1968. His adroit managing made sure his starting pitchers got extra rest, his bullpen never lacked for a fresh arm, and his position players were well prepared for a postseason once thought somewhere between impossible and a rubber room candidacy.

And it made the Mets pennant competitive until Hodges' untimely death in spring 1972 of a second heart attack. Essentially, Yogi Berra, his successor, got an unlikely 1973 pennant out of a Hodges team.

(Come to think of it, Hodges's first managing job after ending his playing career was an expansion team, too. He took over the Washington Senators for 1963. Hodges' Senators were never truly pennant competitive, but he did manage them to improved finishes each season, before he went to the Mets in a deal that brought the Senators a non-descript left-handed pitcher. Hodges just might have planted the seed that became the surprise 1969 American League East contenders under Ted Williams. Might.)

You may care to note that Hodges has actually come closer to making the Hall of Fame without getting in than just about any other man. Verducci has:

* He has the most total votes of any man not elected to the Hall.

* In fifteen different Baseball Writers Association of America votes, Hodges got more votes without getting in than 27 men who did get in.

* Hodges almost got in on a Veterans Committee vote in 1993. That year's committee chairman, Ted Williams, disallowed Roy Campanella's vote when Campanella was hospitalized and unable to attend the vote in person. (Three months later, alas, Campanella died.)

* When the Veterans Committee was remade/remodeled for 2003, 2005, and 2007 elections, Hodges got the most votes of any player not picked in those elections and even out-polled eventual inductee Joe Gordon by a whopping 108 votes.

I've been on the fence about Hodges for many years, but I've always said I could be persuaded either way with the right evidence. He has this much in common with Dale Murphy, who isn't going to be a Hall of Famer barring any future Veterans Committee or offshoot vote: if all you needed was character, Hodges would have gone in in a walk long ago.

It only begins with his World War II service, earning a Bronze Star as a Marine seeing Pacific theater action in 1944-45. Hodges was so decent a man that, when he hit a ferocious batting slump beginning in the 1952 World Series and carrying into the 1953 season, including a benching by manager Charlie Dressen, that all of Brooklyn took up prayers for Hodges, a practicing Catholic — even churches where he didn't worship, Catholic or otherwise.

"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," Hodges would remember. "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. Remember that in 1952, the Dodgers had never won a World Series. A couple of base hits by me in the right spot might have changed all that."

When managing the Senators before returning to the Mets, Hodges' pitchers included Ryne Duren, once the formidable Yankee closer now near the end of his career but early enough in his life as an alcoholic. In 1965, Duren sank into a depression that culminated in walking onto a bridge intending to jump to his death. Hodges went out to talk the pitcher out of it.

But you don't become a Hall of Famer simply because you're a decent guy. You become a Hall of Famer by way of what you did on the field, in the dugout, or both. If you look at Hodges as a peak value candidate he doesn't have a case, but if you look at his career value, he has one. He lacks black ink almost completely as a hitter but has a considerable amount as a defender. He's actually one of those players whose greatness is in his career consistencies more than it is in any peak period.

There are a considerable number of career-value Hall of Famers in hand with a considerable number of peak value Hall of Famers. Almost none of them combined stellar playing careers with a World Series-winning managerial career. (Joe Torre had a career-value Hall of Fame case as a player, though you had to look deep to see it, before he made himself a Hall of Famer managing all those great Yankee teams.)

Is Hodges the absolute best of the 10 Golden Era Committee candidates who aren't in the Hall of Fame? Let's look quickly at the other candidates. First, the players:

Dick Allen — He has an overwhelming peak value case, but his career was compromised by issues Allen himself now admits he handled terribly. He's also compromised by the perception that he might have done as much to keep his teams from winning as to help them win because of how he handled those issues.

Ken Boyer — Arguably the best all-around third baseman in the National League before Ron Santo came into his own toward the end of Boyer's career. He doesn't have the power numbers that made contemporary Eddie Mathews a no-questions-asked pick, but he has a powerful career value case.

Jim Kaat — Bill James was right: re-arrange Kitty's best seasons and you'd have a Hall of Famer. Kaat's been hurt by having his best seasons when someone else was having an off-the-chart season. His career's a near-match to Robin Roberts, otherwise, even if Kaat didn't have Roberts' peak, even if Kaat (and anyone else) didn't give up half the home runs Roberts did.

Minnie Minoso — He was, essentially, Jackie Robinson ... if Robinson had been a black Cuban and an outfielder who got caught stealing a couple of extra times. The color line delayed Minoso's entry into the Show and, like Robinson, he made the most of what prime time he did get.

Tony Oliva — His knees killed his Hall case, basically. He probably needed two or even three more seasons at or knocking on the door of his prime period to make the case, but he couldn't convince his knees to quit barking otherwise.

Billy Pierce — A terrific pitcher but not to the level of a Hall of Famer. Pierce was also hurt by the perception that he didn't know how to win unless his best fastball was working.

Luis Tiant — On career value, El Tiante has something close to a career-value Hall of Fame case. But close may not be quite enough.

Maury Wills — Bust a long-revered single-season record by a long-gone immortal and you'll be overrated in the public eye. Just ask Roger Maris, who also wasn't a Hall of Famer (his health probably kept him from making a bona fide case), but was 10 times the player Wills was when healthy. Why is Wills even in the Hall of Fame conversation, then? Because he did bust Ty Cobb's single-season stolen base record, and because people remember him.

Now, the executive:

Bob Howsam — He finished building what became the Big Red Machine. But he was also known as a hard-liner who went to rather grotesque lengths to suppress players when he ran both the Reds and, previously, the Cardinals. (Several members of the 1964 Cardinals' World Series champions eventually revealed Howsam sent just about the entire team contracts for 1965 that called for pay cuts.)

For whom would I vote if I had a vote? Easy enough, and in order — Gil Hodges, Minnie Minoso, and Ken Boyer.

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