Mort Zachter examines Hodges’s playing and managing days, but perhaps more important, he unearths his true heroism by emphasizing the impact that Hodges’s humanity had on those around him on a daily basis. Hodges was a witty man with a dry sense of humor, and his dignity and humble sacrifice sometimes masked a temper that made Joe Torre refer to him as the “Quiet Inferno.” The honesty and integrity that made him so popular to so many remained his defining elements. Firsthand interviews of the many soldiers, friends, family, former teammates, players, and managers who knew and respected Hodges bring the totality of his life into full view, providing a rounded appreciation for this great man and ballplayer.
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About the Author
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A Hall of Fame Life
By Mort Zachter
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2015 Mort Zachter
All rights reserved.
Coal Miner's Son
My dad was not a great man in the sense you would consider a man great. He was just a simple coal miner. He wasn't rich and he wasn't book smart. But he knew everything about two things—baseball and coal mines.
Since 1860, when high concentrations of coal deposits were discovered amid the fertile farm land of rural southwestern Indiana, generation after generation of men have spent their lives eking out a dangerous existence hundreds of feet below the earth's surface in what the locals call "the shafts." One of those men was Charles P. Hodges.
Charlie, as his friends called him, was born in Princeton, Indiana, on January 3, 1901. The largest town in Gibson County, Princeton's focal point was the ornate courthouse and clock tower in its town square. When Charlie was still a teenager, both his parents died, leaving him to earn his keep a few miles outside of town in the Francisco Mine.
Hard-working Charlie married Irene Horstmeyer, a young woman of German-Irish descent from nearby Winslow, Indiana. Their first home was in Princeton, where Gil Hodges was born on April 4, 1924. Irene and Charlie's first child, Bob, had been born fourteen months earlier. A daughter, Marjorie, was born five years after Gil. A fourth child, Kenneth, died of whooping cough as an infant, leaving Bud—as Irene would always call Gil—the middle child.
The year Gil was born, Francisco No. 2 began operating. It was just as dangerous as its predecessor. A combination of exposed gases and coal dust ignited by a miner's open carbide lantern could send an explosive force throughout the mine. Everyone entering the mine wore a brass tag with an identification number, a copy of which was kept in the mine office—just in case.
At 6:30 a.m. on December 9, 1926, as the day and evening shifts were changing—and seventy-one tags hung in the mine office—a gas leak in the mine ignited. The explosion was so powerful it sent men and mules hurtling through the air. Charlie was changing into his work clothes for his day shift when the explosion occurred. But for a matter of only a few minutes, his tag was not in the office.
The blast shot flames up the elevator shaft while men were suspended there. With the mine's only lift destroyed, rescue workers had to carry the injured out on their backs using a narrow airshaft staircase. The injured were in so much pain a nurse had to be sent down to inject them with morphine first so they could be carried out. A triage station in the barn-like shower room slowly filled with injured miners. All wore a black mask of coal dust that had literally been burned onto their faces. The stench of burnt flesh was unforgettable. Thirty-seven miners died.
Charlie saw it all. He vowed that neither of his sons would ever work down in the shafts. And despite his struggles to keep his family fed during the Great Depression (a time when lard sandwiches were standard lunchbox fare in southern Indiana), they never did. But in doing so Charlie sacrificed himself for the sake of his family. First, he lost his right eye to a flying chip of steel. That was only the down payment for knowing "everything" about coal mining. Three of Charlie's toes were cut off when a motor grazed his foot; his back broke when a load of slate fell on him; and after decades of breathing in coal dust, he developed emphysema. When he walked in town his cough was so deep you could hear him coming from blocks away. But Charlie never complained, maintaining a positive disposition. If things didn't go well, he would say, "Not to worry, we'll do it next year!" With fondness, his fellow miners referred to the talkative Charlie as "windy."
Charlie dreamed of his sons avoiding the mines by becoming professional baseball players like Paul and Lloyd Waner, two brothers who were the stars of Charlie's favorite team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. Before he lost his eye, Charlie, a tall, slim man, had been quite "a competitor" when he played first base on several local amateur teams. But even if he could no longer compete, Charlie still loved the game, and whenever he wasn't working and his sons weren't attending elementary school at St. Joseph's Parochial School in Princeton, you could find him instructing a group of neighborhood kids. Charlie had Bob, a left-hander, pitch, and Gil, a righty, catch. As children, Bob was not just a better player than Gil, but had great confidence in his abilities. "Bob knew he was good," said childhood friend Wayne Malotte, "and wasn't afraid to say so."
In contrast, Gil Hodges was already imbued with the reserved, self-effacing demeanor that would be his trademark as an adult. With a tendency that started on the playing fields of Princeton and continued throughout his life, if someone else wanted the spotlight, that was fine with him. In this regard Gil's temperament derived more from Irene, the "stabilizing influence" in the Hodges household, than from Charlie.
Three years younger than Charlie, Irene ruled the roost with an immovable fairness. When Marjorie was in high school, her boyfriend gave her an expensive gift for Christmas. But she didn't have the money to reciprocate in a comparable way, and Irene told her to return it. Gil was then living away from home playing for the Dodgers and sent his sister the money she needed to reciprocate. But in order to keep this a secret from Irene, Gil mailed the cash home to Marjorie using a fictitious name and return address. The story may be quaint, but it shows Irene's rigid moral compass (perhaps fixed in place upon the death of her infant son), and that even as a young man Gil Hodges was not beyond using subterfuge to produce a result he felt was justified. In his letters home, he referred to Charlie as Dad, but Irene was always Mother.
Yet Irene had a soft side. The Hodges family dog was a stray, "a scrawny, filthy, mutt" that Irene had found, took home, fed and bathed, and named Amber. As was typical of a housewife's duties in that era, Irene did all the house cleaning, laundry, and cooking. When he was a child, Gil's favorite food was Irene's navy bean soup. Like many working-class people struggling to survive in the 1930s, Irene brought her politics home, hanging a framed photo of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the hallway. More significantly, the Hodgeses were devout Catholics, and every Sunday morning the entire family attended church.
In 1932 Charlie went to work in another mine and moved his family from Princeton to Petersburg (population 3,500, or about half that of Princeton), twenty miles northeast in Pike County. Petersburg's hub was its wide Main Street lined with shops like Adams Pharmacy and Howard's Café. Charlie soon changed jobs again and started working at the Ditney Hill Mine, which was closer to Princeton than Petersburg. But rather than uproot his family again, Charlie made the longer commute.
After school, to make spending money, Gil worked as a delivery boy for the Petersburg Home Grocery, earning ten cents an hour. Legend has it that only after furiously pedaling the delivery bicycle and completing all his deliveries did he head over to Higgins Field to play baseball. Yet, up until Gil began to play competitively in high school, he was also described—in comparison to Bob—as "laid-back" when it came to baseball. But when he reached his high school years, he once challenged the kids playing on Higgins Field to throw a baseball to him as hard as they could, promising to catch anything they threw, bare-handed. Wayne Malotte participated and was surprised that Gil caught them all. In retrospect, that wasn't the surprise (Gil's hands were already huge), but rather that Gil was forward enough to want the challenge, indicating, perhaps, that he was ready to play baseball in a more organized setting.
But Petersburg High School didn't have a baseball team. Instead, each spring, the Southern Indiana Invitational Track and Field Meet was held at Petersburg High on a track made of coal cinders that was considered the best in the region. The town took great pride when Gil, who could broad jump over twenty feet, took first place in several local meets and, after breaking the Petersburg High shot put record, qualified for the state finals in Indianapolis. Gil also played halfback on the school's six-man football team. In his senior year, Petersburg lost only one game, to Mt. Vernon, the county champions, by the slimmest of margins, 20–18.
Gil starred in track and played football, but the sport he loved was basketball. In the 1930s, high school basketball in Indiana was already serious business, and Gil had the physical skills to excel, especially at rebounding and ball handling. The summer after his sophomore year, he sprouted to a height of six feet, weighed a solid 175 pounds, and had hands large enough to palm a basketball or hold seven pool balls in one hand. In the low-scoring games of that era, basketball smarts were highly valued; and no matter what game—basketball, baseball, even ping-pong—from early on, Gil possessed an ability to make a quick study of his opponents and figure out how to beat them. In one sectional game in 1940 against a team from the nearby town of Ireland, Petersburg scored twice late in the game on steals by Gil and came from behind to win, 20–19. Bob King, a fellow Petersburg student who attended that game, later recalled, "It was his knowledge of the game that made him great. He was a thinker who could exploit an opponent's weakness. It wasn't quickness, it was just smarts, and it put us into the finals against Huntingburg."
Petersburg lost to Huntingburg. But the next season, in their senior year, Gil and Bob (who was in the same grade as Gil because he had missed a year of elementary school due to illness) led Petersburg to a 13-6 regular season record and first place in the county tournament. Morris Klipsch, a junior on that team, said, "He was always congenial and likeable and he seldom showed any anger." But in an early indication that nice guy Gil Hodges was no pushover, Klipsch added, "If opponents did get under his skin, he could sure move bodies around under the basket."
The basketball team from the nearby town of Washington won the Indiana state high school championship in 1941 and 1942. During the 1941 season, they routed Petersburg, 37–19. Two black players, Chuck Harmon and his brother William, were the stars of the Washington team. Chuck was such a gifted basketball player that as a freshman he led the 1943 University of Toledo team to the semifinals of the National Invitational Tournament, then the premier college basketball tournament. But Harmon was also an outstanding baseball player; years later he could still recall playing sandlot baseball games against Gil Hodges's Petersburg team. In southern Indiana there were few blacks, and inter-town baseball games were generally lily-white affairs, so competing against Harmon provided Hodges with a firsthand lesson in the unfairness of Major League Baseball's then existing whites-only policy.
The Hodges brothers played baseball on Sundays for a sandlot team, the Petersburg Independents, but only after attending morning mass at Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Petersburg, the only Catholic Church in the county. They were also the two best players on Petersburg's Conrad Post 179 team in the American Legion circuit. Gil played shortstop, Bob pitched.
On July 21, 1939, when Gil was only fifteen, the Petersburg American Legion team came within a single victory of reaching the regionals of a statewide tournament. But Evansville, the largest city in southwest Indiana, trounced them, 12–0. Bob, who had started the game at first base, came in to pitch in the third inning after the starter gave up six runs. Bob gave up six more runs in the fourth, but settled down and shut out Evansville for the rest of the game. Bob's inconsistent pitching against Evansville was typical for him. Jim Kelley, who batted against Bob in American Legion games, recalled, "Bob could throw as hard as anyone I ever saw at that age." But as is not uncommon for a young, hard-throwing left-handed pitcher, control was an issue. "I was scared to get into the batter's box against him," Kelley added. "Bob could throw it through a brick wall, but he could also stick it in your ear."
During his high school years, already a tremendous power hitter, Gil developed the habit of "stepping in the bucket." When a right-handed hitter puts his foot "in the bucket," he's moving his left foot (the foot closest to the pitcher) toward the third base line as he swings and moving away from, rather than into, the pitch. Lonnie Spade, Gil's coach with the Independents, came up with a solution. During practice, Spade placed a foot-high wooden board that ran the length of the batter's box immediately behind Hodges's heels as he stood at the plate. When Gil moved his left foot back toward the third base line, his foot hit the board. It worked; but resisting the urge to bail out would be a challenge for Gil throughout his career, especially against right-handers with an effective curve ball.
In high school Gil was more athlete than scholar: his grades were average. Bob was the only one of the two Hodges brothers to earn any academic mention at graduation, receiving a certificate stating that in four years of high school he was "neither absent nor tardy." A fellow member of Gil's 1941 graduating class, Mildred Hisgen, couldn't recall Gil volunteering to answer a single question in class.
As a young boy, one of Gil's first interactions with the young ladies of Petersburg took place on Higgins Field. Wayne Malotte's sister, Mary, asked him if she could play baseball with the boys. In an era far removed from ours, Gil shook his head no.
"This," Gil said, "is a boy's game."
Over time, Gil became more interested in the ladies. As star athletes, Bob and Gil attracted a good deal of attention. But in Gil's case, when it came to the ladies, he had better success as a matchmaker.
When he was a teenager, Gil's closest friend in Petersburg was his fellow classmate Bob King. During their high school years, King told Hodges that he wanted to date a young lady named June. Unfortunately, June had little interest in King. After school, while making deliveries for the Home Grocery (by then Hodges was driving its delivery truck), Hodges began to pay daily visits to June at Buchanan's Drug Store, where she worked. Ostensibly, the visits were for June to cook a muriatic acid concoction and apply it to warts that Hodges had on his index finger and thumb. Every visit, the routine was the same. June applied the muriatic acid with a toothpick, and Hodges would tell her what a nice fellow King was and how she should "go with him." June finally got the point and went on a date with King.
Although Gil didn't have a steady relationship in high school, he did have his eye on one particular young lady. When they were teenagers, Gil took Barbara Vance on a date to Jimmy's Café outside of town down by the White River. He didn't have a car, so they walked. Barbara didn't mind. "We walked a lot back in those days," she told me well over a half century later. Jimmy's didn't serve alcohol, but there was a jukebox, and they danced the night away to the tunes of Glenn Miller and the Dorsey Brothers.
Excerpted from Gil Hodges by Mort Zachter. Copyright © 2015 Mort Zachter. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations
Prologue: His Reputation Preceded Him
HOME—Princeton and Petersburg (1924–43)
1. Coal Miner’s Son
2. The Twig, the Branch, and the Lip
AWAY—The Pacific (1944–45); Newport News (1946)
4. Newport News
5. Hanging On
6. Breaking Through
7. Four in One, One for Four
8. Great Expectations
9. A Bitter Uniqueness
10. Say a Prayer
11. The Day Next Year Arrived
12. Where in America Would You See That?
13. The Last Season
AWAY—Los Angeles (1958–61)
14. The Worst Place Ever
15. World Champions
AWAY—Washington DC (1963–67)
17. In the Cellar
18. Off the Floor
19. On the Doorstep of Respectability
20. The Mets Get Serious
23. Struggles in the Spotlight
24. Easter Sunday
Epilogue: A Life
Afterword: Hodges and the Hall