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Still Hodges After All These Years

Up until January 22, 1969, Gil Hodges [1] was not a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in pretty much the same way you and I are not members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Unlike you and me, however, Hodges had played the requisite ten or more major league seasons to eventually be considered for induction, yet until that particular winter day, the former Dodger and Met first baseman (1943; 1947-1963) hadn’t been retired from playing long enough to have been on a Hall of Fame ballot whose results were known to the public at large.

On January 22, 1969, the results of the first election to consider Hodges were announced. Stan Musial [2] and Roy Campanella [3] were elected. Hodges wasn’t. On that Wednesday, Gil, preparing to commence his second campaign as manager of the Mets, became not a member of the Hall of Fame in a way that was different from you and me.

Over time he would be not a member of the Hall of Fame in a way different from all of us, whether we played baseball for a living or not.

Every January from 1970 through 1983, there’d be a day like January 22, 1969. Hodges would only live long enough to be told on three of those days that the Hall of Fame wouldn’t be inducting him into its ranks. He died just shy of 48 on April 2, 1972. His name remained on every Baseball Writers Association of America ballot for which he was eligible. The last of those such elections had its results announced on January 12, 1983. Brooks Robinson [4] and Juan Marichal [5] were chosen. Hodges, as his family and legion of fans had grown reluctantly accustomed to hearing, wasn’t.

Under the prevailing rules of the period, Hodges would next be eligible for consideration five years later by the 15-man Veterans Committee, a body whose process was less transparent than the BBWAA’s. There was no ballot; discussion and debate centered on whichever “old-time” candidates the committee cared to contemplate, a group that included managers, executives and umpires in addition to players who had not been chosen by the writers. Thus, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, it would be mentioned on a semi-regular basis that the committee had convened and, in the course of conducting its annual business, opted to not elect Gil Hodges to the Hall of Fame.

By 2002, the Veterans Committee that had failed to elect Hodges since 1988 was disbanded. Systems that promised to be new and improved supplanted those thought to be flawed and insufficient. The bottom line of all these 21st-century transformations and tweaks? Six separate elections during which Gil Hodges was considered for the Hall of Fame and rejected for the Hall of Fame. The most recent of those decisions was announced this past Monday [6], December 8.

Hodges received 3,010 votes in the 15 BBWAA elections that considered him — the most any single candidate has ever cumulatively received — but never more than 60.1% in a given year, which left him short of the necessary 75%.

In the Veterans Committee votes whose totals were never publicly announced, it has been reported and repeated that he missed out by one vote [7] at the meeting of February 23, 1993, and that the one vote belonged to a dying Campanella. Roy tried to cast it by phone but had it disallowed by influential chairman Ted Williams [8].

In 2003, the first of the broader post-Williams elections, Hodges received 50 votes — more than any of the 200 players considered. It was still short of the 61 required for election. A similar outcome unfolded in 2005: Hodges and Ron Santo [9] tied for the most votes with 52; 60 were needed to gain induction. Hodges finished in the top three in 2007 and top four in 2008. A smaller electorate was impaneled to determine the class of 2012; he came in third. Only this week, when his vote total for prospective 2015 induction was announced as “three or fewer,” did Hodges not come reasonably close to election.

When viewed through the prism of Baseball Writers elections, old Veterans Committee elections, reconfigured Veterans Committee elections and so-called Golden Era Committee Elections, there have been roughly 35 chances across a 46-year span to confer Hall of Famer status upon Gil Hodges. Those who do the conferring have failed to act in the affirmative 35 times.

On some level, in a manner that almost defies belief, Gil Hodges is not a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame like nobody else who has ever lived is not a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Gil Hodges hasn’t hit a home run since July 6, 1962. He has not been to bat since May 5, 1963. He hasn’t managed a ballgame since September 30, 1971. Yet it keeps being decided by those empowered to make such judgments that he is not a Hall of Famer. The Hall of Fame first opened on June 12, 1939; it hadn’t existed thirty years the first time those charged with determining membership denied Hodges. The Hall of Fame has existed that long and more than half as long again since its agents began making recurrently sure Gil Hodges wouldn’t get in.

Their loss.

***

We use the word “election” to describe the function of choosing Hall of Famers. It’s misleading. We have elections to determine who governs us. When those elections do not reach the conclusion we’d like, we’re not disappointed only in theory. The candidate we didn’t prefer doesn’t win, we are convinced there will be negative consequences. Our town or country, we are certain, may suffer. Our interests will conceivably suffer. But at least we had an actual say in how the vote turned out.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame does not request our input. And when our idea of a Hall of Famer doesn’t mesh with those who make those calls, there’s no substantive harm to our way of life. In that sense, it’s less important than the All-Star Game election never mind a congressional election. If we don’t pick wisely in June, our league might lose in July and our theoretical home-field advantage in the World Series would be taken from us. We’d have one fewer game to attend in late October on the off chance we’d have multiple games to attend in late October.

Still beloved. Still respected. Still hailed. [10]

Still beloved. Still respected. Still hailed.

My idea of a Hall of Famer is Gil Hodges. It’s always been, ever since I learned a) there was a Hall of Fame and b) Gil Hodges was somebody who was said to be on the verge of being elected or, perhaps more accurately stated, selected. Gil Hodges was the embodiment of Hall of Fame of greatness when I first encountered him through television and radio and newspapers and magazines and statistics and stories. My filter was Metsian, so if you want to factor in bias, feel free. We’re all biased in favor of what we care about deeply.

Kids who grew up in the same approximate era when Hodges was a living, then tragically prematurely deceased legend might not have made Gil their Cooperstown Ideal if they didn’t grow up in the New York area. That’s fair. If you were eight years old in the Twin Cities in 1971, you likely revere batting champ Tony Oliva [11] in that fashion. If your formative baseball experience focused on Maury Wills [12] stealing more bases than anybody had in generations, you can’t be talked out of knowing in your heart of hearts that Maury Wills — or at least his legs — should be sped upstate. Twelve in 1975 and from somewhere in New England? How can Luis Tiant [13] not seem as worthy as anybody who ever pitched? If you were weaned on the White Sox way back when, Minnie Minoso [14] or Billy Pierce [15] or Dick Allen [16] all make Hall of Fame sense to you the way Gil Hodges makes Hall of Fame sense to me.

None of the above was selected by the so-called Golden Era Committee. Not Jim Kaat [17], Ken Boyer [18] or Bob Howsam, either. Ten candidates, ten honorable and outstanding careers, no dice whatsoever. The whole thing wound up an exercise in Hall of Fame self-congratulation. Look, they said [19], it’s a tough place to get into…why, we just went through a lengthy and detailed process of letting nobody in!

Should they be running the Hall of Fame to satisfy the inner child in every baseball fan? If they’re not to some extent, then they’re running it badly. There’s a kid I harbor in my heart of hearts. He came to baseball with Gil Hodges as his team’s manager. He saw Gil Hodges take his team to the World Series and win it when that was thought impossible. He saw Gil Hodges run that team for only a couple more years, but remembers the integrity he brought to the game and how he seemed to get the most out of his players. He never forgot the talk of what he did as a Brooklyn Dodger. He looked it up for himself and the facts aligned with the myths. That kid long ago hung a plaque for Gil Hodges. It would be swell if there was another one where more people can see it.

Whether they do or not, mine is never coming down.

***

It’s too late to electioneer — or selectioneer — but it doesn’t hurt to once again go over the basics of why Gil Hodges’s case is made over and over.

• Seven consecutive 100+ RBI seasons
• One of the top sluggers of all-time at the time of his retirement (when he delivered his 370th and final home run, it was more than any National League righthanded batter had ever hit)
• One of the best defensive first basemen ever…a Keith Hernandez [20] quality glove, by all accounts, except it was worn on the hand less inclined to handle the position
• Key on- and off-field role on one of the sport’s most legendary powerhouse teams, contributing mightily to seven Dodger pennants and two Dodger world championships
• Universal admiration and esteem while he played and while he managed — which matters not just in the fine print and on principle but also if you’re going to hold dubious character against the ballplayers who have since statistically surpassed him
• An outstanding leader of a previously pathetic expansion team…in the American League with the mid-’60s Washington Senators
• And, not incidentally, that whole Miracle thing that unfolded on his watch during his aforementioned second campaign as manager of the Mets

As a player, the numbers shone in their time. As a skipper, nobody has been hailed as a guiding force in quite the same awed tones since. As a citizen of baseball and America, as beloved and respected as they came. The past tense isn’t really appropriate here. He’s still beloved. He’s still respected. He’s still hailed.

He just hasn’t been selected is all.

***

Somebody has to bear the burden of being the one who represents the razor’s edge. Here on one side are those few granted membership to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Here on the other are those who aren’t getting in, which is basically everybody else. Just on the wrong side of admission, incongruously situated amid the mere mortals, stands Gil Hodges, slugger, fielder, leader, man.

We who aren’t getting in — everyone from Jerry Koosman [21] and Cleon Jones [22] to you and me — could do worse for someone to fall in behind.

Hodges deserves to be located among what we on Earth refer to as the immortals. That’s according to but not limited to me; we watched him manage and heard of his playing and, like the team he led, missed him terribly when he was gone. That’s also according to but not limited to me; we examine his qualifications in the context of postmodern framing and continue to find his achievements in the game extraordinary. We know he should be over there, on the other side of the line, alongside Stan the Man and Campy, keeping good company with his contemporaries and his peers.

He’s not, unfortunately. Somebody has to be the one at the front of the line, an arm’s length from the velvet rope. For a son of Indiana coal country; a Marine sergeant on Okinawa; a decorated combatant in six Subway Series; an Original Met battling a bum knee; a brand new manager elevating the stubbornly stagnant Senators; and the steady voice who told the Mets in no uncertain terms that they were ready to get real, it’s a burden easily enough borne.

Even if it’s difficult to accept that 35 times in 46 years he hasn’t been invited in.

***

The last 31 times the Hall of Fame has opted to pass on the chance to enshrine Gil Hodges, it’s been left to his family to absorb the bad news without him, which serves to make the whole ritual that much more distasteful. Starting January 24, 1973, and running through this past Monday, his wife Joan and his son Gil, Jr., have gotten the word whenever whatever body who thought about it makes its decision public. To say of your late husband or late father that “he was and forever is a Hall of Famer” would mean so much to them. You find yourself rooting for posthumous induction because of wonderful it would be for the living. Gil, Jr., however, was able put this latest disappointment in perspective [23]: “I try to impress to my mom that he’s treated like he’s in the Hall of Fame. And that’s what she’s gotta remember.”

In Flushing, the treatment is royal enough so you wouldn’t know he’s not.

The Gil Hodges entrance anchors the first base side of Citi Field.

Gil Hodges’s likeness greets the observant visitor who turns left upon walking into the New York Mets Hall of Fame and Museum; he and George Weiss composed the sophomore class of inductees in 1982.

No. 14 above the left field wall is a 24/7 reminder that Gil managed the 1969 Mets to the unlikeliest of world championships.

At McFadden’s Citi Field on Saturday, January 10, those who attend the Queens Baseball Convention [24] will be treated to the presentation of the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award, recognizing a Met who, when we think of him, will always warm our hearts, brighten our spirits and light our way…just as the thought of Gil himself still does. (The identity of the highly worthy recipient will be announced shortly).

Back in Brooklyn, where he defined an era every bit as much as Campy, Pee Wee, Duke and Jackie — four Hall of Famers who proudly called Gil a teammate and a friend — there’s a bridge, a park, a Little League field and street named for him.

And for what it’s worth, on July 17, 1993, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art to take in an exhibit of the Burdick Collection, ostensibly the world’s largest set of baseball cards. I loved it enough to buy two posters portraying the cream of the crop of those cards. Forty-two different players are featured on this pair of posters [25]. Forty of them are in the Hall of Fame. The only outliers are Shoeless Joe Jackson [26], barred by dint of the Black Sox scandal, and Gil Hodges, whose 1951 Bowman image is the first one pictured in a row that goes on to include Musial, Dizzy Dean [27] and Henry Aaron. He sits right above Bill Dickey [28].

Gil fit in perfectly with that crowd in 1993. He fits in perfectly with them still.

***

It was nice, I suppose, to have a reason to think about Minoso and Oliva and Kaat and Tiant and Allen and Howsam and Boyer and Wills and Pierce and Gil Hodges for a few weeks in late autumn. It would be nicer if one of them — preferably Gil, of course, but any of them — had been tabbed a Hall of Famer. They have families and fans, too. Each of them compiled a track record in the sport we love that almost nobody else has approached.

Otherwise, nothing tangibly good comes out of a process that considers ten baseball greats and selects none. Nobody wants to dwell on process. Nobody wants to be told that this one took it stoically or that one was philosophical or that next time, here’s what should be done so it doesn’t happen again. You have a National Baseball Hall of Fame so you can celebrate baseball. Leave terms-of-service minutiae to other endeavors.

The Hall is a tough ticket. It should be. How tough, I’m not certain. If it’s not going to be the Hall of Willie Mays [29] and Tom Seaver [30] and hardly anybody else (that train pulled out of the Cooperstown station ages ago), it can lighten up a little by my reckoning. I don’t like to play the game of “how can they keep Gil out if so-and-so is in there?” So-and-so had a fine career. So-and-so meant a lot to a lot of people. I’d rather have a Hall of Fame that’s reasonably expansive rather than overly exclusive, one that leans toward warmly welcoming as opposed to stringently discriminating. One of those ten “Golden Era” rejectees in the Hall would have made it a better institution. Any one of those ten.

Conversely, I don’t need a Hall of Fame to define greatness. The fun lies in figuring it out for yourself.

***

An unscientific sampling indicates a vast majority of Mets fans were let down and maybe offended that Gil Hodges didn’t make the Hall of Fame on his 35th try. Maybe that’s intangibly good. Not that we needed another dollop of disappointment, but it was gratifying to sense how much his legacy belongs to all of us. That includes the Mets fans who came along well after April 2, 1972 [31]. You didn’t have to be alive and sentient when he was around to appreciate Gil Hodges’s significance to the Mets and to baseball. You read and you listen and you get it. You tell the stories that have been told to you. You tell your own stories that you’ve put together on your own and those get told again. The fun lies in that, too.

You, my fellow Mets fan, have something to take uncommon pride in. You root for a team that at one of its absolute peaks was led by a manager who made all the difference in the world…a player who was among the very best at what he did…a man who hasn’t been noticeably bettered by anyone who’s followed in his wake.

That’s Gil Hodges’s legacy to us. That’s ours for keeps. It beats a plaque upstate any old day.