Gil Hodges and the Elusive Hall of Fame
When members of the media contacts us or when we’re with audiences at speaking engagements, invariably the first question is, “Why isn’t Gil Hodges in the Hall of Fame?” His absence in Cooperstown is arguably the worst miscarriage of justice by the voters in the history of the Baseball Hall of Fame. His family, friends, and legions of fans have wanted that rectified for more than 40 years.
A Hall of Famer was supposed to be the dominant person at his position during his era. Hodges not only was the major league’s premier first baseman, making eight All-Star teams, but also was one of the most dominant of all players. From 1949 to 1959, he averaged 30 homers and 101 runs batted in. In his time, he was the only player to drive in 100 runs in seven straight seasons. He had five straight seasons with more than 30 homers and eleven straight with 20 homers, tying a league record. He had at least 23 doubles and 23 homers for nine straight years. For the 1950s, he ranked second in the majors in homers and RBIs behind Duke Snider, and third in total bases behind Snider and Stan Musial. He ranked in the top 10 in runs, hits, and walks. He also received the first three Gold Glove awards given to a first baseman. Moreover, he helped the Dodgers capture seven pennants and two world titles.Hodges’ 370 home runs put him above Mize, DiMaggio, Berra, and Kiner, whom he passed to become the National League’s right-handed home run king in 1962–not just for his era, but for the 86-year history of the National League. Hodges also tied the all-time record with four home runs in a game, he set a new NL record at the time with 14 grand slams, and he tied Mel Ott’s NL record for seven consecutive 100 RBI seasons.
A Hall of Famer is also supposed to be someone of impeccable character. No one was more beloved than Hodges, no one had more integrity and decency on and off the field, and nobody ever had such a profound positive affect on the people he met. As teammate Carl Erskine always points out, Pee Wee Reese was selected to Cooperstown partly because he was helpful to Jackie Robinson, but Robinson was equally appreciative of what Hodges did for him. Reese famously said if he had a son, he’d want him to be like Hodges. Others saw Hodges as a buddy, a brother, a father figure, a mentor, even a confessor.
“I appeal to fellow-voters who have not yet mailed in their ballot,” wrote Dick Young in the New York Daily News in 1980, “take a hard look at Rule 4 which accompanied your ballot: ‘Candidates shall be chosen on the basis of playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, their contribution to the team on which they played and to baseball in general. No man more qualifies on all counts than Gil Hodges.”
Hodges was the recipient of the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award in 1959, the perfect credential for a Hall of Fame member.
“I don’t know how many columns I’ve written supporting Hodges’ induction into the Hall of Fame,” says Dave Anderson of The New York Times. “If you saw him every day you knew he was a great player and a Hall of Famer.”
All his Dodgers teammates considered him a marvelous hitter, an incomparable fielder, and a calm leader. Over the years Erskine, Reese, Snider, Preacher Roe, Clem Labine, Roy Campanella and the others would shake their heads and ask repeatedly, “Why isn’t Gil Hodges in the Hall of Fame?” It didn’t seem possible that Hodges’ great career had been forgotten just like that.
In 1969, his first year of eligibility, he received only 82 yes votes of the 340 ballots cast, for only 24.1 percent of the needed 75 percent of votes cast required for election. Two nominees got in: Stan Musial with 317 votes, or 93.2 percent, and Roy Campanella with 270 votes, for 79.4 percent. Of the other 11 players in front of Hodges in the voting in ‘69, eight would eventually be enshrined at Cooperstown.
In the next 14 years, as he finished third to seventh in the balloting, every player who received more votes than Hodges would be voted in that year or in a future year. In every one those years, between five and twelve future Hall of Famers received fewer votes than Hodges; in both 1976 and 1977, the next nine players behind Hodges in the voting were future inductees. Overall, Hodges received 3,010 votes, the most of any candidate in history who wasn’t eventually enshrined.
It was disappointing that when Hodges’ name was submitted in 1984 to the Veterans Committee, which included some of his peers, he still couldn’t get the necessary number of votes from them. He continues to be denied even though over the years he has had such staunch supporters as Ralph Kiner, Tom Seaver, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, and Joe Morgan, who said in 1992, “Gil Hodges should have been in the Hall of Fame a long time ago.”
“Gil was a heck of ballplayer,” says Yogi Berra. “I always voted for him for the Hall of Fame, what does that tell you?”
Supposedly, one year Hodges was on the verge of being elected but Campanella wasn’t well enough to deliver his decisive vote for Hodges in person. He asked that he be allowed to vote over the phone, but was denied. Many baseball writers who hadn’t covered the Brooklyn Dodgers had little sympathy for the players on that team, and Hodges has paid the highest price for that.
While it’s true that many of his records have been surpassed, his power numbers still compare favorably to inductees whose careers began after his, including Orlando Cepeda, Tony Perez and Johnny Bench. His slumps are looked upon derisively, but he still drove in 1,274 runs. Hall of Fame voters hold back votes from designated hitters, emphasizing how important fielding is, yet with few exceptions they ignore a player’s fielding prowess when they cast their ballots. Hodges won countless games with his glove and revolutionized the first base position.
If the writers and veterans have an excuse for their faulty voting over the years in regard to Hodges, it is that the Los Angeles Dodgers, unlike the Mets, have never retired his number. The Mets have, but not the organization he belonged to for more than 15 years. The Dodgers’ backward policy has been to only retire uniform numbers after a player has been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Thus, the Hall of Fame voters have been able to say: If the Dodgers don’t even consider Hodges for their Hall of Fame, there’s no reason I should consider him for ours.
The rules for induction into the Hall of Fame changed in recent years. Voters can select players from specific eras. In the vote held last December, advocates for Ron Santo made a big push and were successful in getting him elected even though no candidate from “The Golden Era” (1947-1972) stands out more than Hodges. It helps that his playing career and managing careers can now be combined, but that hasn’t yet righted a huge wrong.
All through the years Joan has kept her hopes alive that her husband will someday make the Hall of Fame. She wants baseball history, and Gil Hodges’ place in it, to be corrected for posterity. She doesn’t want her husband to be known as just another very good player when he put his body and soul into the game and deserves to be remembered for his vast contribution.
Tom Clavin and Danny Peary are co-authors of “Gil Hodges: The Brooklyn Bums, the Miracle Mets, and the Extraordinary Life of a Baseball Legend.”