Legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully penned the following essay on Gil Hodges, who is a candidate on the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Golden Days Era Ballot. The 10-name Golden Days Era Committee ballot features candidates whose primary contribution to the game came from 1950-69. A 16-member committee is scheduled to meet on Sunday to discuss each candidate’s credentials for enshrinement, with any one candidate needing 12 votes to be elected to the Hall of Fame.
April 18, 1950. It was Opening Day and my first day working as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers broadcast team. That afternoon, the Dodgers lost to the Phillies 9-1 at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. Playing first base that afternoon for the Dodgers was an imposing figure wearing number 14 -- Gil Hodges.
Over the next 12 seasons, I had the privilege of watching Gil every day as he consistently played a lead role on those Dodgers ballclubs. Whether it was his clutch hitting driving in runs, his defensive prowess at first base, or his quiet, yet effective, leadership on the field and in the clubhouse, 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.”
The son of an Indiana coal miner, Gil played one game for the Dodgers in 1943 at the age of 19 before enlisting in the U.S. Marines and serving our nation in World War II. He participated valiantly in the Pacific campaign, earning a Bronze Star for his actions during the Battle of Okinawa. He returned to the Dodgers in May 1947 and played an important role in one of the game’s most significant accomplishments -- the integration of Jackie Robinson into the Major Leagues.
Jackie dealt with relentless racial discrimination and unprovoked attacks from opposing teams and fans throughout his career. It was so painful to see for so long, and it would make you shudder. Gil was always there to protect Jackie as the unassuming, yet effective, peacekeeper on the field. While Jackie was the target of many on-the-field skirmishes, Gil was able to defuse many more of them. Their relationship was special. I remember a game when the Dodgers were playing the Cardinals in old Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. There was a high foul ball by the first-base stands and Gil went over to make a play, and Jackie came over to back him up. Someone threw a whiskey bottle out of the upper deck in an attempt to hit Jackie. Thankfully, the bottle landed right between the two of them. I remember Gil patting Jackie on the back as if to say, “Hey, you’re not alone. I’m with you.”
Gil’s support for Jackie and the Robinson family was not limited to just the playing field. The Hodges family supported the Robinsons and did whatever was needed to help them during difficult times, including grocery shopping for the Robinson family while the Dodgers were in Florida for Spring Training at a time in the South when, sadly, African Americans were not allowed to shop in many of the nearby markets. Everything Gil did for Jackie and his family was done quietly and without any fanfare or attention drawn to himself. At Gil’s funeral in 1972, a sobbing Jackie told Gil’s son Gil Jr., “Next to my son’s death, this is the worst day of my life.”
I was thrilled to recently learn that Gil, once again, is on the ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame as a nominee on the Golden Days Era committee, which votes on Dec. 5.
While statistics, records, and awards are used as the primary measurements of success for determining those elected, the Hall’s voting criteria also includes consideration for the “integrity, sportsmanship, and character” of each nominee. When one combines Gil’s impressive and consistent play on the field, his innovative managerial approach and 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 voters have long used the “integrity, sportsmanship, and character” clause to exclude nominees for a host of committed transgressions. It seems only logical for voters to use that same clause in the affirmative to consider nominees who embodied those positive virtues.
I am often asked who the best ballplayer was that I watched during my broadcasting career. In looking back over my 67 years behind the microphone, I was truly blessed to watch firsthand so many of the all-time greats performing at their very best on the biggest stages in the game’s history. It is truly impossible for me to single out just one player. However, in terms of the players I watched who performed at a high level on the playing field, but at an even higher level off the field in how they lived and carried out their lives, my response is an easy one -- Gil Hodges.
(Vin Scully appears in a new documentary film on Gil Hodges titled, “Soul of a Champion: The Gil Hodges Story.” The 30-minute film can be streamed for free at www.gilhodgesfilm.com)