Coutinho: Remembering Gil Hodges 40 Years Later

By Rich Coutinho
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Even though it was 40 years ago today, I can remember it like it was yesterday — my father coming into my room to give me the first dose of reality in my childhood life — Gil Hodges, the man who managed my team to a World Championship, had passed away. I remember it hitting me like a ton of bricks in my 11-year-old stomach. It was my first exposure to the fact that people die. Obviously, I did not know Gil Hodges, but he was the leader of a team that won a World Series and made my team matter more than the other team in town. And being a Met fan who resided in the Bronx, that made me feel like he was part of my family.

To grow up in that era — late 60’s, early 70’s — you must understand it was a turbulent time and the country was all hyped up about the war in Vietnam, civil rights, and a variety of other topics that catalyzed a social metamorphosis in our country. And my neighborhood was no different. But when the topic of the Mets came up, all of us could agree the two people most responsible for transforming our team from a joke to a champion were Tom Seaver and Gil Hodges. Seaver was an absolute rock star in this town in a time when athletes like Joe Namath and Walt Frazier also reached that status.

But Gil Hodges was the man who made sure the Mets would no longer be a punchline and make no mistake about it — he was the man in charge. The Brooklyn native was never afraid to make his presence known. Even in that magical year of 1969. In August after a summer of chasing the Cubs the Mets hit tough times and on a warm day at Shea Stadium, Hodges made a point that less than 100% effort would not be tolerated. Cleon Jones, who led the Mets with a .341 average that year, fielded a single in a very lazy fashion. The Met manager proceeded to walk towards the pitchers mound but kept walking and walking till he got to Cleon Jones in left field. He had a brief conversation with him asking the Met outfielder if he was hurting and when Jones said he was fine, Hodges told him to come with him because that lack of effort would not be tolerated.

And you know what? There was not an inch of complaining from Cleon because he knew the manager was right. There was no altercations in the dugout similar to the Reggie Jackson/Billy Martin confrontation nine years later. That is because Gil walked out there himself — he did not send Paul Blair out to do it as Billy Martin did on that day in Fenway Park.

There were no back and forth newspaper articles debating the merits of the decision. Today we live in a different time and we all feel that we need consensus to validate every decision we make. Gil Hodges, having served in the US Marines, knew you can not run a baseball team like you run a church social. There is only one way to do things–his way. “Gil Hodges remains the most important influence on my career,” says Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, “because he taught me what being a professional entails. It does not matter if you are playing before 500 people or a packed stadium, you must put forth effort. Sometimes you do not have your best stuff because you can’t control that. But you can always control your effort.”

Hodges was old school, but never afraid to try new things like a platoon systems in which certain position players would only play against certain pitchers. His platoon of Art Shamsky and Ron Swoboda in right field and Ken Boswell and Al Weis at second base made all four better players and kept them well-rested in the dog days of the late summer. He even tried positioning four outfielders against Frank Robinson in the ninth inning of Game 2 of the World Series to prevent the future Hall Of Famer from getting an extra base hit in a key situation.

What did watching Gil Hodges teach me? That dreams are not only permissible but they are mandatory. However, there are no shortcuts. Demand from others only what you would demand from yourself. And most importantly, loyalty towards the people you love is unconditional even in the most trying of times. I learned that from him even having never met him — only watching him transform the Mets into champions.

So even at the age of 11, I knew how devastating a blow this was to the Mets. Sure, they would get to the World Series in 1973 with the players Hodges assembled but they would never really be the same until Frank Cashen took over this team in 1980. That is how important he was to the organization. And 40 years later, we should remember that. So, the next time you take your young son or daughter to Citi Field, talk about that #14 logo and why no Met will ever wear that number because when Gil Hodges took over this team in 1968, that was the first big step towards making “The Miracle Mets”  a moniker that all New Yorkers would forever remember.

Thank you Gil Hodges.

Leave your memories of Gil Hodges below.

  • Greg McGowan

    Fabouous article Rich
    I was only about 9 when “The Quiet Hero” died, but I can tell you that as a Brooklyn native, allot of that borough’s heard died that day as well.
    In fact I had just the year before met Gil Hodges at the opening of his Little League and always got a kick out of seeing his trophy case at the Gil Hodges Lanes bowling Alley on Ralph Ave.
    What make Hodges loved was that even when the Bums left Brooklyn, Gil and Joan stayed in their Bedford Ave home to raise their family and the nation’s “4th largest ciity” never forgot that. How many ballplayers have a bridge named in thier honor!
    Joan (not Gil) was a Brooklyn native – Hodges is a native Hoosier, but he made Brooklyn his chosen home.
    The fact that Gil Hodges in NOT in the HOF is disgrace and a continued blot on that organization and makes the Veteran’s Committee a mockery.
    I appreciate all that Tom Seave SAYS on Gil Hodges behalf, but it’s time for him to get off his wine kegs and DO something on that committe to get thiis ALL TIME GREAT first baseman, slugger, manager, war hero and ultimate roll model for us all IN THE HOF where he BELONGS!!!!

  • Bob M

    I was 10 at the time and remember it exactly as you did – a huge kick in the gut. I felt horrible for days after that and even had my aunt take us down to his viewing in a church somewhere in Brooklyn I believe. I lived in Rockland. I remember being on line at the church for an eternity and finally going up the stairs at one end and seeing him laying in the casket and exiting the other end. I remember the size of the man, the size of his feet and remembering his importance to the Mets. As I grew up I learned how much more he meant to the Dodgers and the people in New York. I just wish I understood that a little earlier.

    The man needs to be in the Hall of Fame.

  • sarcasticallytrue

    Good article on a NY Legend.

  • Dave

    I grew up in Illinois, in Cardinals and Cubs country, but followed the Dodgers and became a Gil Hodges fan when I was about 10, after reading a story by Arnold Hano in Sport magazine: “Gil Hodges, Best-Loved Dodger.” Later, I became a sports writer and became friends with Gil because I covered the Mets-Cardinals or Mets-Cubs game almost every time they visited to St. Louis or Chicago, which were a couple of hundred miles away. He remained my idol till the day he died, and on the day he died, I got the news at my newspaper office, when it came over the UPI wire. I was 23, and went home and cried like a baby.

  • Chris

    Nice job on this one Rich! I only remember Mr. Hodges a bit, but he definitely had a big impact on us as little kids, playing the game the right way. Wish they would get him in the Hall of Fame while Mrs Hodges is still alive. They both deserve it!

  • Larry

    Re: Cleon being removed from the game by Hodges. As recently as 2009, Jones claimed that he was playing with a sore ankle, and Hodges came out to him and said “ankle still a little sore, isn’t it?”, to which Jones nodded affirmitively. Then Hodges told him to go into the clubhouse to get treatment, although his teammates recall the incident differently. Fortunately for Cleon, no one but he and Hodges actually know what was said between the two.

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