Gil Hodges: Keep the commandments, and pray for Gil Hodges
The Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s was a team made up of personalities as bold and diverse as the borough they represented. Duke Snider was the sulking Californian whose talent came to him so effortlessly that he was often criticized for looking like he wasn’t trying. Carl Furillo was the brooding Italian who was as quick with his fists as he was chasing down fly balls in right field. Second baseman Jackie Robinson’s name could be found in the newspapers for voicing his opinion on controversial topics as often as it would be for his on-field heroics. And then there was the man who stood out for his quiet, rock-solid presence. His intense stare alone could end any argument or threat without the need to resort to violence. His resolve to step up selflessly and get the job done reminded one of the sheriff played so perfectly by Gary Cooper in High Noon. That man was first baseman Gil Hodges.
He came from the coal region of southwestern Indiana. The family name was Hodge; an “s” would be added on the end sometime after Gil was born in 1924. When he wasn’t digging coal out of the mines, Gil’s father taught him and his older brother Bob how to play ball.
Solidly built like his father, Gil’s chosen position was catcher, but his natural athletic ability allowed him to play any position. He had hands so large teammates half-jokingly claimed he only wore a glove because it was fashionable.
The Brooklyn Dodgers signed him for a $500 bonus when he was still in his teens. He played one game in a Dodgers uniform before he joined the Marines in 1943. Sergeant Hodges landed with the assault echelon at Okinawa and was lucky enough to come home in one piece.
Gil was back in Brooklyn to stay in 1947. He was the team’s third string catcher, and the coming of Roy Campanella in 1948 made him redundant. Dodgers’ manager Leo Durocher handed him a first baseman’s mitt and, within a day, proclaimed Gil Hodges the best first sacker in the league.
Gil made Brooklyn his home. He married a local girl named Joan Lombardi and started a family right there on Bedford Avenue, three miles south of Ebbets Field. Fans learned that if they wanted to meet him, all they had to do was go to Our Lady Help of Christians Church on Sunday morning and the big first baseman would be there with Joan and their four kids.
Hodges became the backbone of the Dodgers team that would win five pennants from 1949 to 1957. At bat, he was the most consistent hitter on the club. He hit 20 or more home runs in 11 consecutive seasons and, at one time, held the National League record for most career grand slam homers. In 1950, he became one of just 18 players to hit four home runs in one game. Then came The Slump.
The Slump started in the 1952 World Series. Gil went 0 for 21 as the Yankees beat the Dodgers for the third time since 1947. When the 1953 season began, Gil found that The Slump followed him through the winter. Through May, his average hung below .190.
If The Slump had happened to any other player, the Brooklyn fans would have ruined him. But it was during this terrible period where Gil Hodges’ personality as the team’s stoic man of integrity brought out the best in both him and his fans.
As his average tanked, he didn’t tell the sportswriters, “I’m just not seeing the ball” or “I’m not getting the pitches I like.” He wasn’t looking for excuses, just answers. He didn’t break bats or smash the water cooler in the dugout. He fought his battles internally. He didn’t take it out on Joan, nor did he become irritable to his teammates. If anything, they all said, Gil just became a little more quiet than usual.
Instead of boos and hate mail, Hodges received rosary beads, good luck talismans, and mezuzahs. Everyone in Brooklyn was behind him. One hot Sunday in May, Father Redmond of St. Francis Church went off script for the first and only time in his priestly career. “It’s too hot for a sermon today,” he said. “Go home, keep the commandments, and say a prayer for Gil Hodges.”
Hodges took extra batting practice and studied film of his swing. He swallowed his pride and listened to advice. He worked through it because he had to. By the last week in May, he began making contact. There was no magic moment, no defining realization. It was hard work and determination. As he started hitting, the Dodgers started winning and didn’t stop until the pennant was theirs. Gil finished the 1953 season with 31 homers, 122 RBI and a .302 average. Sportswriters called it the “greatest comeback in baseball history.”
The Dodgers lost to the Yanks again that fall, but Hodges hit a resounding .364. From Coney Island to Canarsie he was the King of Brooklyn. But, instead of loafing it in his kingdom until spring brought baseball again, Hodges finished up his comeback season in a unique fashion: joining a mostly Black team assembled by Jackie Robinson for a 36-game tour of the deep south.
Typically, Gil was quiet about his reasons for joining Robinson’s tour. If anything, being on the road for another five weeks after such a tough season would be a hassle for both he and his family. And he certainly didn’t need the money; as one of the most beloved Dodgers, Gil was bombarded with lucrative endorsement deals and invites for paid appearances without having to travel outside Brooklyn. But, knowing what kind of a man he was, it may be speculated that Gil agreed to tour with Robinson because it was the right thing to do.
Jackie Robinson had led southern barnstorming tours in 1948, 1949, 1950 and 1951, but this one was different; whereas his previous teams fielded all Black players from the majors or Negro Leagues, his 1953 lineup would include four White players. An integrated barnstorming team was a daring venture for the time. Many southern states still had Jim Crow laws on the books, including ordinances that prohibited Blacks and Whites appearing on the same baseball field. Robinson’s reason for poking Jim Crow by touring with an integrated team was to give desegregation a firm push in the right direction.
Two years earlier in the Fall of 1951, Gil had led his own all-star team on a post season tour. The plan was for Hodges’ all White team to play against Roy Campanella’s all Black team in 16 cities throughout the south.
The first thirteen dates were played without any serious issues. In fact, the Hodges-Campanella tour successfully shattered the Jim Crow ordinances that previously prohibited mixed race sporting events in both Augusta, Georgia and Charlotte, North Carolina. Unfortunately, Jim Crow had the final word when the teams reached Louisville, Kentucky. Authorities refused to allow the mixed competition, and the local NAACP chapter threatened to picket the ballpark. To avoid any controversy, the group promoting the event cancelled the game. The sour ending to his 1951 tour must have been on Hodges’ mind when Robinson invited him to join his integrated team.
On the surface, Robinson and Hodges made an unlikely combo. Where Hodges went out of his way not to cause a stir, Robinson had emerged as an outspoken mouthpiece for hot button issues such as race and anti-communism. But the two men also had some similar traits. Both were admired veterans of the game who commanded respect through their actions as well as their silent intensity. Like Gil, Jackie possessed the same piercing glare that could remedy a situation without the need for words or action.
New York Herald-Tribune sportswriter Roger Kahn followed the Dodgers daily during the 1952 and 1953 season and observed both men up close. Kahn later recalled, “Gil lockered next to Jackie, and though I didn’t observe much back and forth between the two of them, I could tell Gil enjoyed him. Sometimes he just bust out laughing at something Jackie said. It was the same with Campy. Gil was just a solid guy. Conservative, certainly, but without the slightest trace of bigotry.”
The team Robinson assembled was a mixture of young and old. Luke Easter of the Cleveland Indians would play first. Though he was at the end of his big league career, Easter’s powerful bat would make him a legend in the minor leagues for the next decade. Bob Trice would be one of the team’s starters. The big right hander was a Negro League veteran and, just that year, had been the first Black player to wear a Philadelphia Athletics uniform. Al “Buster” Haywood was another Negro Leagues veteran. He had both caught and managed the Indianapolis Clowns. He would be the All-Stars primary catcher.
The rest of the team was manned by young Black players from the Dodgers minor league system. The best of the bunch were the two infielders, Maury Wills and Charlie Neal. Wills would star for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1959 through 1972, and Neal played in the majors from 1956 to 1963. Joining them was shortstop Lacey Curry of the Pueblo Dodgers; infielder Clyde McNeal and outfielder Ed Moore of the Elmira Pioneers; and Johnny Glenn of the Newport News Dodgers. Several other players would cycle through as the tour progressed, but these were the main players.
The White component of the team consisted of four established big leaguers, but the undisputed star was Gil Hodges. His comeback story in the recently completed season had been a huge story across the country, and his was a household name that would draw fans out to the ballpark. While Hodges had made his living as a first baseman for the past five seasons, on the tour he would once again don the catcher’s equipment when the heavy-hitting Luke Easter played first or Buster Haywood needed a rest.
The other White players joining the tour were Ralph Branca, Al Rosen, and Bobby Young. Pitcher Ralph Branca had been one of the first Dodgers to befriend Robinson when he joined the club in 1947. Now nearing the end of his career with Detroit, Branca would do the bulk of the pitching on the tour. Al Rosen was the Cleveland Indians star third baseman. 1953 was his finest season, leading the American League with 43 homers, 145 RBI and just missing the Triple Crown by 2 batting average points. Bobby Young was a slick-fielding second baseman for the St. Louis Browns. He led the league in double plays in both 1951 and 1952 and finished second in 1953.
The Robinson All-Stars’ opponents for the tour would be players from the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League. They would be randomly billed as the “Philadelphia Stars,” “Indianapolis Clowns,” Negro American League Stars,” “Negro League All-Stars,” and other similar names.
The tour began in Baltimore on October 9 and wound its way south through Delaware and Virginia, with one or two games each day. On October 14, the All-Stars reached Charlotte, North Carolina. Before the game that evening, Al Rosen announced he was pulling out of the tour. The official reason given was Rosen had injured his back and the damp fall weather was hindering it healing. Promoter Ted Worner recalled a much different reason for Rosen’s departure: “What had happened was that Hank Greenberg (Cleveland’s General Manager) gave him five thousand not to go barnstorming. He thought he might get hurt.”
The tour pushed into Dixie without any issues until the October 18 game in Birmingham loomed. Jackie Robinson told the New York Age that Ted Worner had been assured there would be no trouble in Birmingham, but the opposite soon became apparent. Birmingham was a bastion of Jim Crow and the scene of many past and future violent opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. As the game’s date grew closer, controversy began to swirl around whether Robinson’s integrated team would be allowed to play.
The Pittsburgh Courier reported that a plan by city officials to amend Birmingham’s sports segregation ordinance was abandoned after the “Civic Protection Committee” urged pro segregationists to show up at City Hall and protest the change.
Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, later made infamous in 1963 when TV cameras captured his police turning fire hoses and dogs on peaceful protesters, made it clear he would not allow a mixed team to play in Rickwood Field. His chief deputy confronted promoter Ted Worner in his hotel room and threatened to lock up not only him but Jackie Robinson and any White player who attempted to take the field for the game.
Robinson was faced with a tough decision. It was out of the question that he would risk arrest for him and his White teammates. Being arrested for Civil Rights protesting in 1953 Birmingham was no joke. The laws were on the side of segregation, and police did not take kindly to outsiders “stirring up trouble” in their town. So, Robinson had to choose one of two options.
On the one hand, he could cancel the game outright and move on. This would mean thousands of fans would miss their chance to see their hero Jackie Robinson and a whole crop of young, inspirational Black talent. On the other hand, he could bow to Jim Crow and just field his Black players. Either choice meant Robinson would take a major loss in his original plan of giving desegregation a firm push in the right direction.
In the end, Robinson chose to play the game without his White players. As a compromise, Hodges, Branca and Young would sit in the stands in their civilian clothes and be introduced to the crowd before the start of the game.
To replace the White players, Robinson recruited Willie Mays, who was visiting town while on leave from the army, and former Negro League star and current minor leaguer Artie Wilson. Before the game, Bull Connor’s deputies barged into the All-Star’s dugout to make sure no Whites were suiting up to play. According to promoter Ted Worner, “One cop came over to Maury Wills, and looked at him, he says Maury Wills is quite light, he says, ‘Are you a black man?’ And Wills stars laughing, he said, ‘If I’m not black,’ he said, ‘I’ve been laboring under a misapprehension all my life.’”
Hodges, Branca, and Young watched along with 6,000 fans as the Robinson All-Stars beat the Negro League Stars 10-4. Replacement Willie Mays got two hits and drove the crowd wild when he executed a delayed steal of home in the sixth inning, and Artie Wilson went 4 for 5 at the plate.
The tour moved on to Nashville, Tennessee and two more Alabama cities without a problem before Jim Crow reared his ugly head again in Memphis. Robinson again fielded an all-Black team and introduced Hodges, Branca, and Young before the game as they sat in the stands.
The decisions Robinson made in Birmingham and Memphis would raise a tremendous outcry from the Black press. The Chicago Defender published an op-ed piece titled, “Jackie Disgraces the Race” and former New York Cubans owner Alex Pompez told sportswriter J. Don Davis, “Jackie made a great mistake in taking a mixed team into Memphis. The publicity is embarrassing in more than one way. It is not good reading for the liberal areas.” He went on to summarize that the promoter should have gone “all the way with the program.” To these detractors and many others, Robinson’s team appearing sans White players in Birmingham and Memphis was a very public victory for Jim Crow.
After these two roadblocks, the tour continued without controversy through Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Florida before wrapping up with three games in Mexico City. On the field, Luke Easter was the undisputed star; in 36 games he hit 20 home runs, including a 400’ shot in Mobile and a 350’ in Shreveport. Gil Hodges had a great tour as well, hitting a handful of home runs and leading the All-Stars in extra base hits.
Over the 36 games, over 145,000 fans watched the Jackie Robinson All-Stars win 26 out of 36 and tie two. The experience gained while playing alongside Robinson, Hodges and Young helped Maury Wills and Charlie Neal reach the majors with the Dodgers in the coming years. Perhaps more importantly, thousands of southern fans could say they watched Black and White players compete peacefully on the same field without issue.
And while Robinson was given a working over by the Black press for his decision to play in Birmingham and Memphis, events would show that his 1953 tour likely did play a part in defeating Jim Crow in those cities. Four months after the Robinson All-Stars played in Birmingham, the city dumped its sports segregation ordinance. And on April 8, 1954, Minnie Miñoso appeared with the Chicago White Sox in an exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals, marking the first time Black and White players were allowed to compete against each other in Memphis.
Gil Hodges returned from the tour to spend Christmas with his family in Brooklyn. The next season would be his finest. His 42 home runs became the new Dodgers record, and his 19 sacrifice flies is still the major league record. Gil batted a career-high .304 and led the league in both putouts and assists. He would remain a fixture at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers through their one and only World Championship in 1955, follow the club to Los Angeles, and on to another championship in the 1959 World Series.
Back in Brooklyn, Gil Hodges was still a legend to his old fans. So much so that when the New York Mets were created in 1961, Gil was among the first players the team chose in the expansion draft. He would hit the first home run in franchise history and retire as a Met after the 1963 season.
In 1968, after a stint managing the Washington Senators, the Mets traded a young pitcher and $100,000 to bring him back to manage. He led them to their best season since their formation seven years earlier and followed it up by taking the “Amazin’ Mets” all the way to a World Championship in 1969.
In the spring of 1972, Gil suffered a fatal heart attack after finishing a round of golf under the Florida sun. It was Easter Sunday and he was just 47. When word reached New York, thousands of his fans once again offered their prayers for Gil Hodges. In the decades since his passing, fans have continued to pray for him. Except this time there was no slump to overcome or need to help grease his way past Saint Peter. No, this time his fans prayed that Gil’s life of quietly doing the right thing the right way at the right time would be rewarded with a plaque in Cooperstown.
For decades, those prayers went unanswered as lesser men with bigger egos and louder mouths took their place among the immortals. But then, some fifty years after he left us, Gil Hodges was voted into the Hall of Fame. There wasn’t some big push or flashy campaign, just a steady, unyielding effort by the fans and sportswriters who cared about the soul of the game and rewarding a job well done.
It was done the way Gil Hodges himself would have done it.
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When I decided to write a story on Gil Hodges, I figured it would be a straightforward piece, mainly focusing on The Slump and his 1953 season. However, while going over my research file, I got stuck on a mention of his participation on the 1953 Jackie Robinson All-Stars tour. The more I dug into it, the more I realized that this seldom written about part of Hodges’ career was the perfect way to illustrate the kind of man he was.
This touched off many late night hours of researching Robinson’s 1953 tour and the incidents in Birmingham and Memphis. I also painstakingly (I ain’t kidding about that!) documented every game, score, and location played by the All-Stars. No full schedule has been published to my knowledge, so I’m not shy in saying I was pretty excited when I was able to recreate its entirety in this booklet. (If anyone would like a copy of the tour schedule, send me an email and I’ll make it available).
I hope you enjoyed the final Booklet of Season 4. For all the bush league rogues and big league bad guys I write about, I wanted to end with a real role model. It’s hard understand what an impact Hodges made in his short lifetime, but if you go by the number of places and things named for him, you get an idea: schools, streets, little league fields, and awards have all been named in his honor. I know this isn’t what you could call an accurate measure of the man, but I don’t think there’s any other athlete in the world who has two bridges named for him!
So, while no one is perfect, I’ve come to find Gil Hodges to be about as close as one can pray for.
In writing this piece I think I used more than 55 different 1953 newspapers and periodicals from Conover, North Carolina to Brooklyn, New York. And I tell you, I never tire at reading the words penned by some of those long forgotten scribes. Besides the usual contemporary newspaper articles, Gil Hodges: The Brooklyn Bums, the Miracle Mets, and the Extraordinary Life of a Baseball Legend by Tom Clavin and Danny Peary was a big resource for the overview of Hodges’ short but impactful life. Then there is the old classic, Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer. Dripping with nostalgia before nostalgia was a thing, Kahn’s interviews with starting lineup the 1952-53 Dodgers is wonderfully done and gives one a brief and poignant glimpse into the private lives of the great Brooklyn Dodgers.
This week’s story is Number 53 in a series of collectible booklets.
Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 4 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 042 and will be active through December of 2022. Booklets 1-41 can be purchased as a group, too.