Mort Zachter was too young to actually see the late Gil Hodges play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Hodges was, in fact, a neighbor when Zachter was a child. Although the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, the Hodges family still lived in Brooklyn.
Zachter developed an affinity for this quiet yet strong personality over the decades, to the extent that he devoted almost 10 years to writing Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life (University of Nebraska Press).
Although Hodges’s statistics may not appear impressive compared with those of contemporary players, he was one of the most feared power hitters of his time and an outstanding defensive first baseman. Over an 18-year career (1943-63, with a two-year absence to serve in the Marines in World War II), he hit 370 home runs and drove in 1,274 and was one of the staples of the “Boys of Summer” Dodgers celebrated in baby boomer nostalgia.
“He was my childhood hero,” said Zachter, a resident of Princeton, in a phone interview. “And since his death at the age of 47 (in 1972), he has largely been a forgotten figure, and I think the emphasis of his life…was beyond just a cliche with him: He really was a very decent guy.”
The book cites numerous examples of Hodges’s leadership skills, both as a player and later as a manager. He took over the reins of the New York Mets in 1968 and led them to their first world championship the following season. Three years later, Hodges died of a massive heart attack during spring training.
Eligibility to be elected into the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America expires after 15 years; it was Hodges’s misfortune to be on the ballots with such superstars as Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Mickey Mantle, and Sandy Koufax, among others, all of whom made it in in their first year. “[Hodges] accumulated more votes…than anyone else who was not subsequently elected,” said Zachter, whose previous book, Dough, was an award-winning memoir.
After 15 years, the Veterans’ Committee, which consists of former players, managers, and other baseball personnel, take under consideration those who were not selected by the writers. Zachter believes cronyism has had a great deal to do with Hodges’s inability to achieve the honor.
“There’s a Jewish saying, ‘If you save one soul, you save the world,’” said Zachter. “In his time…Gil Hodges helped a lot of players; he really worked on the 24th or 25th guy on the roster to try and improve them and help them, and he did wonders.”
Hodges was also a mensch off the field.
Shortly after he returned to New York after suffering a heart attack in Atlanta late in the 1968 season, Hodges received word that a number of synagogues in Brooklyn had been firebombed and vandalized and that one shul was having a particularly difficult time and needed help to rebuild.
“He went to the shul and he handed over an envelope with $500 cash and told the rabbi, ‘Here, the boys raised this for you.’” Hodges gave attention to the situation at a time when he easily could have begged off for health reasons, Zachter said.
“That was typical Hodges, doing for the greater good and not thinking about himself.”
That display of largesse may have played a karmic role in the Mets’ championship the following season.
“The rabbi came [to Shea Stadium] on opening day in 1969 and gave a convocation wishing the Mets good luck,” Zachter said. “I guess the rest is history.”
To hear the entire interview with the author, visit njjewishnews.com/kaplanskorner.