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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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On Outliving Gil Hodges

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:

Gil Hodges.

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.

The only manager I could imagine.

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.

Watch out fellas, there's 120 losses under your feet! From left to right, it's Original Mets Thomas, Hodges, Zimmer and Craig.

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.

20 comments to On Outliving Gil Hodges

  • Amazing to think of an alternate reality in which Gil is 86 today, and still spry enough to wave at Citi Field crowds for the ’69 commemorations. Alas, real reality makes other plans.

    Meanwhile, I’m 41 and feel rather thoroughly ancient. Happy birthday, older timer.

  • tim

    Great piece. Imagine if today’s smoking laws and statin drugs and all the other wonders of modern life had been available in ’72. The Mets could have had a Dodger-like dynasty in the 70’s. They probably find a way to win in ’73. The transition between Joan Payson and Nelson Doubleday and the Wilpons would have been much smoother. There’s no way Gil lets M. Donald Grant execute the Midnight Massacre, and Tom Seaver wins 300 games (and maybe another ring or two) for the Mets.

  • Rob D.

    I turned 48 in March, just came back from the doctor’s who told me I’m healthy as a horse. I often talk to buddies of mine who agree with me when we say “I remember my dad at (name an age), and I don’t feel as old as he must have felt.” I look at Gil and see what he accomplished personally and professionally by the time he was my age, and as you said, Greg, I’m not even in the same league.

  • Happy Birthday, my friend. Many, many more.

    PS — When’s the next Two Boots Amazin’ Tuesday??

  • Happy Birthday/New Year. There’s Gil Hodges…and then there’s just a list of others who occupied the Mets manager’s office.

  • Dave

    The Sainted Gil was, as Tom Brokaw observed, of the Greatest Generation. Like many others born in the 20’s, he had to learn to stand up and be a man (if gender-specific language can be excused) and do what had to be done, because this was a generation who had nothing handed to them and could take nothing for granted. I passed 48 a few years ago, and I look back and remember my father at the same age. Even accounting for the cultural differences between generations, my father never would have had any use for the overgrown adolescence of my generation. I saw Pee Wee Herman on Broadway a few weeks ago, my wife got me a really cool David Bowie box set for Christmas. People from the America that produced my father and Gil Hodges had no time for that type of frivolity, extending childhood into chronological adulthood…not that they didn’t enjoy life, but they set higher standards and expected more of themselves and of others.

    Maybe this is what makes me feel good about Alderson taking over…I still think of someone older than me as automatically being more in charge, more in command, providing more leadership. Minaya and I are the same age and it felt like the kids were in charge. But as you point out, I’ve often daydreamed of what the rest of the 70’s would have been like had Gil lived…never would have traded Seaver, never would have sunk into that dreadful abyss of irrelevance. He’d have handed over the managerial reins to a trained, worthy successor, perhaps become team president and set the tone for the entire organization for years to come as a disciplined, focused and proud franchise.

    And even my 16-year-old knows that the stadium should be named in his honor.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by You Gotta Believe!, Greg Prince. Greg Prince said: How strange to realize I'm now older than Gil Hodges ever got to be. #Mets […]

  • Gil Hodges Jr

    Greg, thanks for the kind thoughts. It’s hard to believe how time has passed and yet my dads memory lives on. I think back to that day when he passed, I was coming out of church on Easter Sunday and heard the news on the radio. A moment I will never forget. I am 60 years old now, hard to believe I have outlived my dad for so long. It’s people like you though that make it somewhat easier. The kind words and your memories. Thanks again………Happy New Year to you and all of yours……Gil Jr.

  • Metsadhd

    Mozel tov
    Many many more and may the Mets be world champs before we are kicked off this mortal coil
    Heck I have clothes older than u
    Lol ha ha
    Six more weeks until the best three words in the English language
    Pitchers And Catchers

  • Mets adhd

    Gil jr
    Not ashamed to say I cried when u heard the news
    I have a metal serving plate and a set of coasters with this face on it
    Would you like it?

  • Well-Meaning Phils Troll

    Excellent tribute for a great man. And containing yet another fantastic turn of phrase I will now adopt: “Manager I rooted under.” Signifies a military unit style authoritarian position as well as incorporating a sense of organizational belonging on the part of the fan. Love it.

    And happy 48th. Many happy returns.

  • srt

    All Met fans and many baseball fans mourned the loss of Gil Hodges.

    My dad, who is 76, still tells the story on how he wound up under the stadium one day and ran into Mr. Hodges. Gil stopped to talk a minute and thanked my father when he told him how much he admired him as a ball player. He shook his hand and walked on. To this day, my dad still comments on how surprised he was concerning how big his hands were and the strength in that handshake. He always finishes that story with how he’ll never understand how he’s not in the HOF.

  • Michael

    Happy Birthday/New Year! I think that those of us born in the mid-to-late 20th Century find it hard to understand how difficult life actually was for the average person in the decades before we graced the earth with our presence. My four grandparents were born between 1909 and 1923. When they were born many people outside of the major cities did not have running water, electricity, cars (indeed, the horse and wagon were still popularly used as the major source of transportation in parts of rural America well into the late 1930s) or telephones. Indeed, many of those people who lived in rural America were raised much the same as their ancestors from 200 years before.
    The Great Depression and World War II changed life greatly for the average American. People learned to be frugal and appreciate life more. Their standard of living became the envy of the world following World War II.
    Gil Hodges lived in a point in history that could prematurely age someone. Few Americans are now living who remember battles where Americans lost 50,000 (and their enemies over 100,000) casualties in addition to hundreds of thousands of civilians killed or wounded. And this was just one battle of the war (as a point of reference, it is estimated that in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan there have been around 5875 killed since 2001).
    I absolutely believe that all the accolades Gil Hodges has gotten over the years were well earned. I most certainly wish he were with us still. And it is sinful that he has been continually passed over for the Hall of Fame (mostly as a player, but also as a Manager). Yet, the makeup of a man comes, largely, from the background of his life and how he rises to challenges put before him before he is in the spotlight. Thus, Mr. Hodges is still missed by many. Alas, even more now than ever, good men are hard to find.

  • Andee

    Belated happy!

    Yeah, people just seemed so much older then, didn’t they? And in those days, cardiovascular medicine was still in its infancy, they didn’t have all those fancy stents and angioplasties and different kinds of bypass surgery and anticoagulants (they didn’t even know to take aspirin to thin out the blood!). He basically had nitroglycerin and maybe Coumadin, and prayer, to go on. Kinda like Roger Sterling, except Roger Sterling is rich, and Hodges was born too soon for that.

    • Roger Sterling brought the national sales manager from Chrysler to Gil’s office the morning of Game Five. Normally Gil wouldn’t allow visitors so close to game time, but the Mets were up three to one and Jim Thomson, the club’s business manager, said it would be a big help, Plymouth being the Official Car of the Mets and all. Even though Sterling and Hodges came from totally different backgrounds — and Roger was a Navy man — they hit it off once they both bummed cigarettes from Rube Walker (neither carried his own). “You know what you should do?” Roger suggested between puffs. “Get the clubhouse kid to smudge a few balls with shoe polish — just in case. You never know. When you have more time, I’ll tell you about something hilarious I used to do with shoe polish every Kentucky Derby day. Nobody has a sense of humor anymore.”

      And that, truly, was Sterling’s Gold.

  • […] him for eternity in an L.A. cap, well, he’ll still be Mike Piazza, New York Mets legend to me. Gil Hodges is that. So is Keith Hernandez. So is John Olerud. I’m going to continue to think Lee Smith was a […]

  • chris williams

    i remember that day when he died. the next day we went to pick up tickets for a game.

    We stopped in the parking lot and saluted the american flag flown at half staff at shea.

  • chris williams

    Base ball can be a “twilight Zone” sport.
    Gil suffered the heart attack during a mets braves game on Sept. 24th 1968
    The mets won the division title. Sept 24th 1969
    Gil died of a heart attack after a mets-braves game in flordia.