Saturday, July 24, 2010

Gil Hodges: A Mets Legend, But Not A Dodger Great

I was watching the Mets-Dodgers game on Friday night and something caught my eye when Jamey Carroll came up to bat. Something about the red number on his white Dodger jersey stood out for me. Jamey Carroll was wearing #14.

Instantly, my thoughts turned to former Mets manager and Dodger great Gil Hodges, whose #14 has been retired by the Mets. Then I wondered, "wait a minute, does that mean Gil Hodges' number hasn't been retired by the Dodgers?"

At first, I thought Hodges might have worn another number when he played for the Dodgers, so I did some research and found out that he did wear #4 as a teenager for the Dodgers in 1943. However, that uniform only saw game action one time.

Hodges made his major league debut as a fresh-faced 19-year-old in the Dodgers' regular season finale on October 3, 1943. Starting at third base (a position he didn't play again until 1957), he made three plate appearances in the game, going 0-for-2 with a walk and a stolen base. After the game, he did not return to the major leagues until 1947 due to military service for the United States Marine Corps.

When he returned to the major leagues in 1947, he came back as a catcher. He was Bruce Edwards' backup during the season most known for Jackie Robinson's major league debut. Hodges was still not at his customary first base position because Robinson was the team's first baseman during his rookie season.

In 1948, Hodges began his second full season with the Dodgers, this time as their primary catcher. However, future Hall-of-Famer Roy Campanella was waiting in the wings, potentially leaving Hodges without a position. However, by that time, Jackie Robinson had already been playing some games at second base, shifting back and forth between first and second base as needed. So in one of his final moves before being let out of his contract to manage the New York Giants, manager Leo Durocher moved Gil Hodges to first base and Jackie Robinson to second base on a permanent basis on June 29. Three days later, Campanella became the Dodgers' #1 catcher.

The move to first base launched what should have been a Hall-of-Fame career for Hodges. His first full season as a first baseman in 1949 produced the first of seven consecutive seasons in which Hodges drove in 100 or more runs. Prior to Hodges' seven year stretch of 100 RBI seasons, the only National League player to have a longer streak of consecutive years with 100 or more RBI was Mel Ott, who accomplished the feat eight straight years for the Giants from 1929-1936.

The 1950s were owned by the Dodger duo of Duke Snider and Gil Hodges. Only two players in the major leagues hit as many as 300 home runs and drove in at least 1,000 runs over the decade. Those two players were Snider and Hodges. Snider was the decade's top power hitter, collecting 326 HR and 1,031 RBI, but Hodges was not far behind, hitting 310 HR and driving in 1,001 runs in the 1950s.

For a time, Gil Hodges was the National League's all-time career home run leader for right-handed batters. When he retired as a player following the 1963 season, his career total of 370 home runs was the tenth highest total in major league history. Only Jimmie Foxx had more home runs as a right-handed batter at the time.

Hodges' exploits for the Dodgers were not limited to his performance at the plate. He was also an outstanding defensive player. From 1949-1961, Hodges finished in the top five in fielding percentage every year, leading all first basemen in fielding percentage in 1949, 1950, 1960 and 1961. For his defensive prowess, he was awarded with three Gold Glove Awards in 1957, 1958 and 1959. He could have won more Gold Gloves, but the prestigious award did not exist before 1957, meaning Hodges was the initial recipient of the award at the first base position.

It is clear from the information above that Hodges was not just a good player, he was a great player, one of the best in the 1950s. He was one of the premier sluggers of his era and was not one-dimensional, as evidenced by his defensive numbers and awards. Yet somehow, despite all his talent, the Dodgers have failed to retire his number.

The Dodgers have retired ten numbers over their long and storied history. Nine of the ten men who wore those numbers are in the Hall of Fame. The only man whose number has been retired by the Dodgers and has not been enshrined into Cooperstown is Jim Gilliam.

Gilliam, a teammate of Hodges from 1953-1961, had a good, but not great career in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. The 1953 National League Rookie of the Year started off strongly, scoring 100 or more runs in each of his first four seasons in the major leagues. However, in his final ten years in the majors, he was mediocre at best, never scoring 100 runs again, and only hitting .259 after 1956. He was even worse in the postseason.

In 39 career World Series games (there were no divisional playoff series or league championship series prior to 1969), Gilliam hit a mere .211 with only 15 runs scored, despite the fact that he was counted on to be a tablesetter in the powerful Dodger lineup.

After the 1964 season, Gilliam became a player-coach for the Dodgers and became a full-time coach after his retirement as a player in 1966. He continued to coach the Dodgers, helping them to two National League pennants in 1974 and 1977, and was a part of the coaching staff on the 1978 team that eventually repeated as National League Champions. Sadly, Gilliam did not live to see the Dodgers return to the World Series that year. On September 15, he suffered a massive brain hemorrhage and lapsed into a coma from which he did not awaken. Gilliam passed away on October 8, one day after the Dodgers won the National League pennant. On October 10, right before the Dodgers played the opening game of the World Series, Gilliam's #19 was retired by the team to honor his services as a player and a coach.

It is possible that Gilliam's number might never have been retired had he not passed away when he did. He played 14 seasons for the Dodgers and was great in the first four years of his playing career, but only good over the final ten years. He only coached for the team, never managing them. Yet his number has been elevated to a level that Gil Hodges' number has not.

Meanwhile, the Mets have retired Gil Hodges' number. He played for the team in 1962 and 1963, but was already on the downside of his great career. He only played in 65 games for the Mets over those two seasons, compiling a .248 average with 9 HR and 20 RBI over 167 at-bats. His legacy for the Mets was cemented when he became their manager after he was traded by the Washington Senators to New York in November 1967.

In his initial campaign as Mets' skipper in 1968, he led the franchise to their best season at the time, finishing in ninth place in the ten-team National League with a 73-89 record. He shocked the baseball world the following season when he led the Mets to their first 100-win season and the World Series championship.

Although the team didn't revert to its losing ways after their title, they were only mediocre in Hodges' next two seasons as manager, finishing with identical 83-79 records in 1970 and 1971. Sadly, just before beginning his fifth season as manager of the Mets, Hodges died of a heart attack while playing golf with members of his coaching staff in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Despite the memorable 1969 season, Hodges' record in his other three seasons as Mets manager was eight games below .500 (239 wins, 247 losses). Yet, he is regarded as the man who brought the Mets from lovable losers to confident contenders during his tenure as manager. For being an original Met and for leading the team out of the cellar in the National League, the Mets retired his number in 1973.

Since Hodges' death in 1972, no Met has worn his #14 jersey. However, the Dodgers have given his number to journeyman players like Jamey Carroll. Other than Jim Gilliam, do the Dodgers only care about their great players, coaches and managers AFTER they get elected into the Hall of Fame?

Gary Carter's number hasn't been officially retired by the Mets, but ever since he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2003, no Met has worn his #8. The Dodgers don't have to retire Gil Hodges' number if they don't want to. They can choose to retire it if the Veterans Committee decides to enshrine Hodges into the Hall of Fame (he fell one vote short in 1993). But for the love of Tommy Lasorda, don't give Hodges' number to guys like Jamey Carroll.

Gil Hodges was a leader, both offensively and defensively, for a Dodger team that won seven National League pennants during his tenure with the team. He should be treated like one by the Dodgers. The Mets have honored their field general by respectfully retiring his number. Shouldn't the Dodgers do the same?


nutballgazette said...

The Dodgers should be ashamed of themselves
Looking at the History of the Dodgers the only class they have had is Vin Scully, Walter Alston, Jr Gilliam, Pee wee Reese, Roy Campanella, and Duke Snyder, Maybe a few others. Do not anyone say Lasanga

Anonymous said...

There have been players and coaches who have worn #8 after Gary Carter left the team.

Ed Leyro (and Joey) said...

That is correct, but as my post says, no Met has worn #8 since Carter entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003. Coach Matt Galante was the last Met to wear #8 back in 2002.

craig hill said...

That's Lasorda to you, bubbuh.

Anonymous said...

If the Dodgers would have retired Gil Hodges number he would be in the Hall of Fame