Gil Hodges: A Man for All Baseball Seasons
A new film details the storied career of the Catholic baseball player and manager, who will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, July 24.
On Dec. 5, 2021, the family of the late Gil Hodges, star first baseman for the Brooklyn-Los Angeles Dodgers and player and manager for the New York Mets, got a present they have patiently hoped for over the last five decades.
Hodges, who compiled a batting average of .273 over his 18-year career and managed the “Amazin’ Mets” to their first World Series championship in 1969, was selected for the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. He will be inducted July 24. Ultimately, though, there was much more to Hodges than his baseball career.
“When one combines Gil’s impressive and consistent play on the field … leadership of the New York Mets culminating in the greatest upset in baseball history in 1969, and his unwavering commitments to his faith, family, country and social justice, you have the rare instance of the ideal candidate,” Hall of Fame broadcaster and fellow Catholic Vin Scully wrote for MLB.com a week before the 2021 vote confirming Hodges, who died in 1972 at the age of 47. As the voice of the Dodgers in both Brooklyn and Los Angeles, where Hodges played most of his career, Scully, who was a baseball and sports announcer for 67 years, knew the many sides of Hodges.
When Kevin O’Malley of Catholic Athletes for Christ would talk with Scully and others in the circles he met, Hodges’ name often came up. To learn more about him, O’Malley decided to read a biography about the legendary baseball player’s life.
“After finishing the book, I told my wife, ‘I can’t believe nobody made a film about him,’” O’Malley said. Members of “the Mets organization talk about him in such high regard, not just as a player, but as a man.”
Scully confirmed this in his recent article.
“Gil stood out as not only one of the game’s finest first basemen but also as a great American and an exemplary human being, someone who many of us were in awe of because of his spiritual strength. I often heard Dodgers players refer to Gil as a ‘saint.’”
O’Malley did decide to make a film and sent the biography to Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker David Naglieri, who “had the same reaction as I did,” he told the Register. Naglieri, whose documentary on Pope St. John Paul II (JP2Film.com) had been hailed as a “documentary masterpiece” by First Things magazine, joined the project, as did the award-winning Spirit Juice Studios.
“The Holy Spirit was at work here,” O’Malley explained. “The timing was unbelievable.”
Soul of a Champion: The Gil Hodges Story did not premiere until November 2021, a month before the vote to see if Hodges would be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, because of the pandemic delays a year earlier.
“The premise of the film was not only telling the story of a great American baseball player and manager, but also to make the case for why Gil Hodges should be inducted into the Hall of Fame,” said O’Malley. “It highlights an aspect of Hodges never told before — the importance of Hodges to the integration of Jackie Robinson into baseball. He was incredibly close to Robinson, and their families were close on and off the field. That story of the Jackie Robinson perspective resonated with the voters because the Hall of Fame and their rules are not only concerned with what the players do on the field but also the character and integrity of the players and managers. It’s the story we wanted to tell.”
Soul of a Champion brings out these qualities in different ways, including the all-important part Hodges played in integrating baseball. in 1947 Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, the first African American in Major League Baseball. He faced tremendous discrimination, but Hodges, who had been awarded a Bronze Star for his action in the Battle of Okinawa during World War II, immediately came to defend Robinson.
“Gil was always there to protect Jackie as the unassuming, yet effective, peacekeeper on the field,” recalled Scully. Both quickly became close friends. In fact, both their families bonded into a close friendship. “Everything Gil did for Jackie and his family was done quietly and without any fanfare or attention drawn to himself.”
So close was their friendship that the film brings out a moving tribute from Robinson at Hodges’ funeral.
Hodges played one game for the Dodgers in 1943 and became a regular in 1947, after two years in the military. He played for the Dodgers through 1961, appearing in seven World Series. The Dodgers won the World Series in 1955 and 1959. When the Dodgers beat the New York Yankees in the 1955 Series for their first world title, Hodges drove in the only two runs in the deciding game. Four years later, against the Chicago "Go-Go" White Sox in the World Series, his home run in Game 4 was crucial to the Dodgers’ eventual victory.
By 1957 he set the National League record for career grand slams — a record that remained unbroken until 1974. After the Dodgers announced their intention to depart Brooklyn for Los Angeles after the 1957 season, Hodges drove in the last run ever at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. As one of the original New York Mets in 1962, he hit the team’s first regular-season home run. He finished his playing career with the Mets after the 1963 season.
After serving as the manager of the Washington Senators for parts of five seasons, Hodges returned to New York in 1968 to manage the Mets. In 1969, Hodges led the team to win the World Series in a major upset of the powerhouse Baltimore Orioles, earning the team the nicknames “Miracle Mets” and “Amazin’ Mets.”
Hodges died from a sudden heart attack on April 2, 1972, Easter Sunday that year, two days before his 48th birthday. He was buried from Our Lady, Help of Christians Church in Brooklyn, the family’s parish. Crowds lined the streets as more than 10,000 people came to the church that day.
Ron Swoboda, a key member of that 1969 team, said via email, “To put it simply, there would have been no 1969 World Championship for the Mets without Gil Hodges. He was a manager ahead of his times. … I can’t wait until July when Gil gets his proper due at Cooperstown.”
Hodges’ widow Joan, who is 95, will be unable to attend, but his son, Gil Jr., and his daughters Irene and Cindy will be in attendance for the July induction. Gil Jr. told the Register that for all the athletic achievements and accolades he received, his father was first and foremost a Catholic gentleman, family man, husband, father and American.
Sharing memories of his father, Hodges told the Register, “He was very strong in his religious beliefs. It’s not something he discussed with people, but he did instill in his family, especially his children, the importance of it and Christian beliefs and how it helps build character.”
Because the family lived a few short blocks from the church where the younger Hodges was also an altar boy, the family would walk to Mass.
“Being the only boy in the family, I was very fortunate I got to travel with Dad during the summers. It was great for me. Regardless of where we were and what transpired on Saturday nights or how long the game was with extra innings, Sunday morning we were up and we were on our way to church. We never missed Mass. He was a firm believer. That was something he did. That helped create his character and give him that inner strength.
He added: “As a manager he was responsible for all 25 players. As a manager it takes on a little different venue, and it gave him strength to deal with that.”
Hodges remembers his father telling him stories about how Dodgers’ manager Leo Durocher would give his dad $100 — a lot of money in those days — to curse at an umpire and get thrown out of a game, but those interviewed in Soul of a Champion make it clear that no one ever heard Hodges swear or yell.
Hodges remains well-remembered and loved today, 50 years after his death.
Our Lady, Help of Christians Church was again packed this April 2 for a memorial Mass on the 50th anniversary of his death. Days before the Mass, Father Dwayne Davis, the parish administrator, told the New York Daily News, “He was a very faithful Catholic. It was important to him in raising his family. That’s a connection that will live on for us. No matter how big he was, faith was important to him ...”
When at Mass, Hodges preferred sitting in the last row. His daughter Irene Hodges told the Daily News, “I can see him sitting there now. Not to bring attention to himself, but just to go to Mass.”
During his homily at the memorial Mass, Father Davis told the congregation that Hodges had a servant’s heart. “No matter how famous he was, he always made time for his family, for his Church, for his team, for his God, and for his community. … He taught us what humility is.” Fittingly, his daughter Irene crowned a statue of St. Joseph, which was dedicated to her father and will remain in the sanctuary.
Louis Savelli, the husband of Hodges’ granddaughter, said Hodges “would show everyone how to live a life of love, respect, integrity, faith, patience, tolerance, equality and family — that’s how he would want us all to live today.”
“Hodges has been dead for 50 years, yet he still impacts people,” O’Malley said. The film helps to show what Gil Hodges can teach athletes, and all of us, today.
“No matter what your profession, especially sports, where it could be difficult to continue to practice your Catholic faith,” O’Malley explained, “you don’t have to sacrifice your Catholic beliefs and your Catholic faith because of your workplace.” Gil Hodges didn’t.
Even youngsters can understand. O’Malley said his young son has followed this journey with the film, and when his Little League time arrives, he grabs No. 14. “Even a 10-year-old understands Hodges.”
July 24 will bring the ceremony inducting Gil Hodges into the Baseball Hall of Fame. “Joan has been waiting for her husband to be inducted into the Hall of Fame for many years,” O’Malley said. Before that, on June 4, the Los Angeles Dodgers will hold a ceremony prior to their game with (appropriately) the Mets. “They will officially retire No. 14.” He explained it took all this while because of the Dodgers’ rule: In order for a number to be retired, the player must be in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. And before the ceremony, Soul of a Champion: The Gil Hodges Story will be shown on the stadium’s big screen.
O’Malley also pointed out that Catholic Athletes for Christ and Spirit Juice are hoping to add to the film an epilogue with pictures and film from the induction.
In light of all these events, Gil Jr. is “hoping that a lot more people get to view the film to get an insight into who my dad was and how [and why] 50 years after his passing people talk about him and remember him. To have such impact speaks volumes of the person.”
Soul of a Champion: The Gil Hodges Story is currently streaming for free at GilHodgesFilm.com.
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