In April 1943, my father left for the army from his small row house in Paterson, NJ where he lived and helped support his widowed mother and sister at the age of 34,m to serve in the Second World War. Before he left, my grandmother made a promise to him that she would follow his favorite baseball team for him while he was overseas. That team was the Brooklyn Dodgers, or as their loyal fans would affectionately call them, “Dem Bums.” My grandmother knew nothing about baseball at the time, but out of love for her son, she became a loyal Brooklyn fan. By the time my father came home in October 1945, she knew in detail about every player and would never forget to tune into a game that was broadcast on the radio. She remained a loyal Dodger fan until her death in 1950.

In the same year as my father left for war, a very young Indiana boy of 19 was recruited right out of St Joseph’s College and signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but he played only one game that year at third base and struck out twice. Just as the war called my father, it came calling for young Gil who had been in the Marine ROTC program at St Joseph’s. He was shipped off to the Pacific with the U.S. Navy where he was involved in the battles Tinian and Okinawa. Even though he was young, he was a hero and was awarded the Bronze Star before leaving service in 1946.

Once he arrived home  “Dem Bums” called him back in 1947. He became a hero of Brooklyn, but this time in the position of first base, and by the end of that decade, was counted as one of the best at that position in the National League. In the following decade he made Brooklyn proud with hitting 30 or more home runs for five years straight; two of those years he hit 40 or more. He also had more RBI’s (1001) than any other player in the National League in the 1950’s. He was named eight times to the National League All- Star team. He became so beloved by the people of Brooklyn that many people prayed for him during the 1952 season when he had a long batting slump. Leading the way Father Herbert Redmond of St. Francis Roman Catholic Church who one hot Sunday during his homily, “It’s too hot for a sermon. Just go home and say a prayer for Gil Hodges.”

The 1950’s Brookyn Dodgers Boys of Summer, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campenella

Baseball was different then – most of the Brooklyn players lived in the same modest working- class neighborhoods as their fans. The stars of the team – Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson and Gil Hodges rode the subway to Ebbets Field more often then not. The “Bums” were part of the extended family of Brooklyn. The “Bums” faced their Bronx nemesis the Yankees, many times in the World Series but always managed to pull defeat from the jaws of victory. The famous retort used by Brooklyn fans after each loss “Wait until next year” almost became a joke until their skill as a team and the favor of the baseball gods smiled upon them in 1955 with a World Series win against the Yanks in seven games.

 Then, two years later on October 9, 1957, Brooklyn woke up to a headline in the New York Herald-Tribune confirming the terrible news that still haunts Brooklyn to this day – the Dodgers were moving to Los Angeles. Gil moved with the team to the west coast for his last three seasons with the Dodgers, but he never forgot New York. In 1961, an offer came to him to play for the new expansion team the New York Mets. Gil, who suffered from knee pain in the last years with the Dodgers, considered retirement but decided to return home to his beloved New York and finish his career with the Mets.

 I was born the year the Dodgers starting playing in Los Angeles, and by the time I became interested in baseball in the mid-late 1960’s, I was a Met fan through my father, who adopted the Mets after the heartbreak of the Dodgers’ west coast move. What can I say about the Mets of the early mid 1960’s.? They were lovable losers who took losing baseball games to a new art form. In 1962, the Mets started playing at the old home of the New York Giants, the polo grounds with its enormous center field (Over 500 feet) nicknamed the bath tub because of its strange shape. Its huge outfield sign advertising “Bromo Seltzer” was an omen to the new team and its fans that they better stock up on the product since it would be a long and hard, and sometimes laughable, road until the Mets would finally have a season over .500. They achieved the amazing distinction of being the worst team in baseball history since 1899 in 1962, with a record of 40 wins and 120 losses. Gil Hodges played his last game of his career as a Met in 1963, but no one knew at the time what an enormous role he would play in the history of New York baseball in the near future when the word “amazing” would have a much different meaning.

 When the Mets moved to their new home (Shea Stadium) for the 1964 season, they continued their losing ways. The Mets’ first manager, Casey Stengel, joked when asked by a reporter about the Mets playing an exhibition game in Denver a mile above sea level quipped “We can lose in any Altitude”. Even with such a terrible team, their fans (mostly old Brooklyn Dodgers or New York Giants fans ) loved them, and they even outdrew in attendance the Yankees, who had a much better record and had been in the World Series in 1962 and 1963.

The antics of the early Mets become legendary, such as the time when then Met player Jimmy Piersall hit his 100th career home run in 1963 and ran around the bases backwards after saying to then teammate Duke Snider “I bet I’ll get more publicity for my 100th home run then you got for your 400th. In fact, the Mets had lost 100 or more games each year until 1968, the year Gil Hodges became the manager of the beleaguered but lovable losers.

 Gil had quite a job ahead of him he had to finish rebuilding a team that in the beginning of its history was made up of unproven rookies and veteran players. In his first year at the helm, the Mets record improved very modestly to 73 wins and 89 losses but they had three young pitchers that would prove to be the hallmark of the Mets future greatness (Seaver, Koosman and Ryan).

Gil Hodges with Jerry Kooseman with future hall of fame pitchers Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan in 1969

No one predicted the outcome of the 1969 baseball season, and I found out that the Las Vegas odds makers were giving the New York franchise the odds of 100 to one to win the National League Pennant, and another 100 to one odds of winning the World Series on top of that.

1969 Miracle New York Mets

Gil was great at molding the young players and most of them thought of him as their second father. As a young boy, I loved the Mets precisely because they were underdogs and up until the “miracle” 1969 season, they were never given much of a chance. My team idol was the young Tom Seaver who won rookie of the year in 1968. I remember trying to copy his windup as a young boy when I pitched for my towns “farm league” for sixth and seventh graders. Even how Tom Seaver who helped lead the Mets to the World Series came to the team is a long story that seemed out of fiction. In brief, he was chosen by a special lottery held by the baseball commissioner and his name was literally picked out of a hat. Seaver later recounted how lucky he was to have Gil Hodges as his first Major League manager and how he shaped him become a hall of fame pitcher.

New York Daily News Headline

Gil Hodges managed the Mets until he suffered a massive heart attack in 1972, two days before his 48th birthday. He was mourned by old Brooklyn Dodger and Mets fans alike. Today he is remembered for his charitable work and as one of the baseball’s royalty. Gil is unfortunately also remembered as being the last “Boys of Summer” (The stars of the 1950’s Dodgers) that never made it into the Hall of Fame. This oversight should be corrected by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA). I urge all baseball fans to urge them next year to give Mr. Hodges this well deserved honor, for when baseball was king, Gil was a true prince of the game.

Just my opinion –D.B.