The phrase “48th birthday” carries a Metsian resonance that resounds beyond the usual suspects. Randy Tate, Randy Myers, Aaron Heilman (I suppose)…all valid identifiers for we who are tenured fans/MBTN bookmarkers, yet when I found myself earlier this week noticing the nearness of my 48th birthday, one name unattached to uniform No. 48 planted itself in my mind:
I could do math very well as a kid, so when I received my 1972 yearbook in the mail and opened to the first inside page, it was an easy calculation. Printed under the suitable-for-framing photo of our late manager were his birthdate — April 4, 1924 — and his astoundingly untimely death date — April 2, 1972. That was 48 years minus two days, and that would become the last line of every biographical summation of the man’s life. Hodges was felled by a heart attack two days shy of his 48th birthday.
So close to 48. Not that there was anything magical about 48 except that it would have been a blessing to all concerned had Hodges reached it. The Mets would have been a better place if Gil had made it to 48, then 49, then 50 and so on. The world at large probably would have benefited, too. In Gil Hodges’s not quite 48 years, he fought for his country at Okinawa, caught the last out of the World Series for Brooklyn and worked miracles in Queens. Gil Hodges accomplished a great deal in a short time. One can only speculate what a longer life might have yielded.
Everything I’ve ever read about Gil Hodges, from his Indiana coal country upbringing to the way his days ended with a literal thud on a Florida golf course, dwells on how strong he was. Physically strong. Constitutionally strong. Strong as a Marine in World War II. Strong as the powerful corner infielder who anchored Ebbets Field’s epoch of glory. Strong as the manager who raised expectations for each individual New York Met until they were strong enough to lift themselves, as a unit, to the pinnacle of their sport.
Strength Gil Hodges did not lack. Yet he didn’t make it to a 48th birthday. An inveterate smoker, he was strong enough to survive one heart attack, at age 44, but not a second. This is Gil Hodges we’re talking about, the Mets’ one-man Mount Rushmore, the first manager I ever rooted under, the only manager I could, in my early years of fandom, ever imagine commanding my team. I’m sure I didn’t know Gil Hodges’s age until it was announced in the past tense. I’ve been amazed ever since I bothered to do the arithmetic that he was a mere 45 when he steered the 1969 Mets to their destiny. When I was a kid, I had no concept of 45. It sounded old. So did 70. So did 28.
As of today, I am 48 years old and, quite frankly, I can’t believe I’ve outlived Gil Hodges. I’ve never seen a photo or a film clip of him, certainly not from the time he was a Dodger fixture onward, in which he didn’t seem older than me right now…to say nothing of more substantial. Even in that incongruous image of Gil Hodges leaping loonily into the abyss that was about to become the 1962 Mets — the shot in the Polo Grounds where he’s wearing a road uniform and a mitt while brandishing a bat alongside several hammy teammates — he instinctively maintains his dignity. Gil Hodges was 38 when that season began. His designation as the starting first baseman for those inaugural Mets is often invoked as a symptom of the deleterious franchise-building philosophy that hamstrung our collective baby steps. Sure, he was beloved locally. Sure, he was winding down a stellar playing career. But Gil Hodges was 38. He was ancient.
I don’t remember feeling ancient when I was 38. I don’t feel ancient at my newly minted age of 48, certain undeniable physical trends notwithstanding. Maturity was held to a different standard in 1962, the year I was born. It was hanging tough in 1972, the year Gil Hodges died, two days before he could make it to 48.
I may be older than Gil Hodges ever was, but I doubt my maturity will ever be in the same league.