Talking Ball with the Author of Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life

Gil Hodges' teams won three World Series championships -- two as a player and one as a manager.

Gil Hodges’ teams won three World Series championships — two as a player and one as a manager.

One of the best new baseball books of the spring is Mort Zachter’s biography of Gil Hodges, arguably the most comprehensive narrative published about the former Brooklyn Dodgers star first baseman. As Jim Burns of Library Journal said in his review of Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life, “Zachter provides an exhaustive account of Hodges’ life, heavily documented but highly readable. … Fans who remember the Brooklyn Bums and the Miracle Mets will find this a must-read.”

Whether you’re a fan of Hodges’ work with the Dodgers or his eventful four-year tenure as the manager of the New York Mets, you’ll find loads of material to plow through in the Zachter biography. Heavily detailed and highly recommended, the book explores Hodges from numerous angles, including an examination of the factors that led to his early death in the spring of 1972.

In late March, I interviewed Zachter about the book, covering topics that ranged from World War II to the author’s efforts in reaching out to Hodges’ widow, Joan.

Markusen: Gil Hodges missed two full seasons serving in the Marines during World War II. Do you think he would have spent those seasons in Brooklyn, or would he have gone back to the minor leagues during that time?

Cover_HodgesZachter: He probably would have been in the minor leagues. Yes, I think he would have been in the minors. If the war had not occurred and they didn’t have this three-year rule (once three years had passed from the time a military veteran had first been placed on the roster, he could not be sent back to the minor leagues without going through waivers), then he probably would have gone back to the minors. With the three-year rule for players in the military, they could only keep him in the minors for another season after the war. The three-year rule was a device put in to protect players who had played in the majors before the war.

If the Dodgers had an accomplished catcher in 1944 [they did in Mickey Owen], they wouldn’t have kept Hodges sitting on the bench. They would have wanted him developing in the minor leagues. He was too valuable a commodity as a power hitter to just sit on the bench as a third-string catcher and not play. He had an uppercut swing and could turn on any ball on the inside corner. He forsook his batting average to fulfill the role that the Dodgers wanted him for—pulling the ball and driving in runs with power.

Without that situation—the war and the three-year rule—Hodges would have been in the minors, probably for another season. If there hadn’t been a war, he probably would have had an additional two years in the major leagues, and that would have been 1945 and ‘46. Of course, it’s all conjecture.

Markusen: How difficult do you think it was for Hodges to make the switch from being a catcher to being a first baseman?

Zachter: Because he was motivated to be in the major leagues—and he was an incredible athlete, a basketball player—it was challenging, but it was not something he couldn’t do. In a more modern era, in the case of a Mike Piazza (who was asked to move to first base), he was a career catcher, and I’m not sure he was the all-round athlete Hodges was. Hodges was a multi-sport athlete. He played basketball and was also a star in track and field; he did the shot-put. Some say he was the best athlete on the Dodgers, perhaps even better than Jackie Robinson.

Hodges was very quick on his feet. He could anticipate bunts at first base. He was also incredibly adept at the mental aspects of the game. He was baseball smart.

Markusen: One of the few players to be critical of Hodges was teammate Dick Williams, who complained that Hodges and several other Dodger veterans insulated themselves from the rookie players in Brooklyn. How do you reconcile that view with the perception of Hodges as one of the Dodgers’ leaders?

Zachter: I think in Dick Williams’ case, he was on the major league roster because of a rule that was similar to the three-year rule that affected Hodges’ career. Williams had to be on the roster because of a similar rule after the Korean War. The players on the Dodgers knew about that. They knew that a season could come down to one play or one game. I think there was resentment against people like Williams, who were on the roster and shouldn’t have been.

Sandy Koufax, who was a bonus baby, said something similar affected him, as it did Williams. For other players who were young like Don Drysdale and Bob Aspromonte, who were young players who unquestionably deserved to be on the team, Hodges was very kind to them.

Hodges was big on appreciating all 25 roster spots and making sure to utilize all those players. That would become one of his managing philosophies. But even as a player, he valued every roster spot. And if he didn’t think you belonged, there might have been some resentment.

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Goodbye for now.

Basically, Williams wasn’t quite Hodges’ kind of guy. Some people like other people, and some people don’t. There was a clash.

Markusen: As a manager, Hodges seemed to have the Washington Senators going in the right direction as a franchise. Is it surprising to you that they were willing to let him go, even though they did acquire some compensation in return?

Zachter: From what I read and researched, that was a situation that came down to the $100,000 that was waved in front of them. The Senators were not a well-financed team, and they needed the money. Hodges had a good relationship with general manager George Selkirk. Selkirk liked him, but he knew Hodges wanted to be back in New York with his family.

Initially, Hodges wanted to fulfill his contract. He was a professional, and he saw the progress being made in Washington. Professionally, he knew what he had in Washington, and he didn’t know what would happen in New York. But the opportunity came. Selkirk said there were a number of teams interested in Hodges. He was regarded as one of the best managers in baseball.

A number of the players, including Dave Baldwin, said that the man who succeeded Hodges, Jim Lemon, was a terrible manager. The players realized they missed Hodges, who was particularly good with the pitchers. He was the perfect manager for a young team like the Senators. If a young player was willing to work hard, Hodges was willing to put in the time to work with him to improve.

There’s a lot to being the manager. Frank Howard perhaps put it best. When you’re managing a lousy team, that’s when you really have to manage. Hodges really worked hard in Washington. He maximized the output of those inferior Senators teams.

Markusen: There’s the famous incident of July 30, 1969, when Hodges walked out to left field and pulled Cleon Jones from the game for not hustling. Jones always has claimed he was playing on a bad ankle. Who do you think was in the right?

Zachter: The word “right” can have different meanings. In a sense, they were both wrong. If Jones was injured, he should have said so and taken himself out of the game. After picking up the ball, even the throw he made to the infield was described as a balloon. He didn’t make the effort that Hodges was all about. That caused Hodges to break one of the cardinal rules of managing: You don’t embarrass or show up your players. When he criticized players, he did so in the privacy of his office. Even with a look, he could reprimand the player.

Both were at fault. Jones didn’t make 100 percent effort. I think Hodges could have handled it without going out onto the field. That was really the exception to the way he usually handled himself. He just couldn’t contain himself.

Markusen: How do you rate Hodges’ managing performance in 1969 overall? Is it fair to call it the greatest single season of managing in modern history?

Zachter: I’d say it has to be one of the great achievements in managing. Hodges was the master of the psychological and the pragmatic. He was a master at knowing just the right moment to give a motivational talk to the players.

People think the Jones incident was the turning point, but they went 7-8 over their next 15 games. Really, the turning point came later. It was Aug. 13. The Mets were ready to take a long flight from Houston, where they had lost three straight. Hodges closed the clubhouse door and really let the players have it. He blasted them. According to Donn Clendenon, it was a “real ass chewing.” The team responded by winning nine of their next 10 [and 12 of 13].

Later in his career, Jon Matlack said Hodges was the best manager he ever saw managing the last three innings. He was terrific at game management.

One of the best interviews I did was with Claude Osteen, who played for Hodges with the Senators. In 1970, Osteen was with the Dodgers. In the 1970 All-Star Game, Hodges could have gone to Hoyt Wilhelm. But he knew what Osteen could do, he had trained him, and trusted him. Hodges called on him and Osteen pitched three shutout innings [to finish off the game].

Markusen: I don’t mean this to sound callous, but do you think Hodges and the Mets should have seen his 1972 heart attack coming, given his history of smoking and his previous heart attack? In retrospect, should they have done something differently, in terms of the way that they handled his health?

Zachter: They did make certain concessions to his health after his first heart attack in 1968. If they finished a series with a night game, they didn’t travel that night; they waited until the next day so Hodges could be rested. Also, they didn’t have him throw batting practice.

I interviewed his doctor from 1968; he just died this past winter. He told me that back then there wasn’t much they could do. In more modern times, heart surgery or a stent would have been an option. No one in management was going to tell him to take it easy; he was his own man. No one would have told him what to do. I don’t know what more they could have done.

Markusen: I’m fascinated by Hodges’ relationship with Tom Seaver. They only had a few full-length conversations, but Seaver always has stated that Hodges was the best manager he ever had.

Zachter: To a large extent, Hodges managed with his players being fearful of him, in a way. He was physically intimidating, a tall, strong guy, and when he got upset, he got very upset. Part of the way he managed was by not being so friendly with the players. I’m sure that was intentional. He had been trained in the Marines; he wanted to keep a distance, because he knew at some point he would have to cut a player or trade his player.

In Seaver’s case, they only spoke about a half-dozen times about baseball. Here’s another example. Ralph Kiner, who started broadcasting for the Mets in 1962, knew Hodges as a player. And he was still broadcasting in 1968 when Hodges came back to New York. Kiner never went to dinner with Hodges. Gil even kept his distance from the announcers.

He had a closed circle of people, his coaches, including Joe Pignatano and Rube Walker. As Dave Baldwin said, if you heard something from Walker, it was like hearing it from Hodges himself. On the one hand, Hodges was a very nice guy, great with kids and fans, polite with reporters. But he was very reserved, otherwise. He wasn’t a big talker. Truly the quiet man.

Markusen: Final question for Mort Zachter. Hodges’ widow, Joan, chose not to speak with you for this book project. Do you have any idea why she would not grant you an interview?

Zachter: My sense is that when I first got the contract in 2006 and I first approached her, I had never had a book published. She probably felt I was not a writer worthy of writing about Gil. That’s my suspicion. Just two or three years later, she agreed to work with two veteran guys, Danny Peary and Tom Clavin.

Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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7 years ago

Great Q & A on a great person. Please answer this: Hodges died on April 2, 1972. Matlack started his major league career in 1971 as a bit player with the Mets. He started about 7 games and came up in July. He played for Hodges for three months and was a very green rookie. From this limited experience, he is in a position to say that Hodges’ was the best manager of the last three innings he ever saw?

7 years ago

….who were the other managers matlack pitched for in his career? there may be an answer in that…

Charlie Hangley
7 years ago

Yogi Berra
Roy McMillan
Joe Frazier
Joe Torre
Billy Hunter
Pat Corrales
Don Zimmer
Darrell Johnson
Doug Rader

Joe Pilla
7 years ago

Thanks, Bruce, for this interesting interview. As someone who numbers 1968 as one of his favorite Mets seasons (not that I’d even think of trading ’69 for few if any others, of course), Gil Hodges remains, for his quiet strength and keen professionalism, one of my (unabashed) baseball heroes. His early death due to stress and tobacco affected me greatly, as my maternal grandfather, both a heavy smoker and a quietly strong man, also died young (indeed shortly before my birth). His absence from the Baseball Hall of Fame is a continuing sadness. I’ve read fine books on and by Gil, as well as numerous terrific accounts of Hodges’ time with the Dodgers and Mets, but I’ll eagerly seek out Mr. Zachter’s book.

Bruce Markusen
7 years ago

Thanks, Joe. And a good list, Charlie. Other than Joe Torre, Hodges was clearly a better manager than all of the others on the list. So I could see where Matlack offered the opinion that he did, even if it was based on a small sample.

Mort Zachter
6 years ago

In addition to the regular season, Matlack spent time watching Hodges manage during spring training in 1971 and 1972. Matlack’s take on Hodges unique ability to anticipate how a game would break in the final three innings was also told to me by Claude Osteen and Dave Baldwin.

Thanks to Bruce for the interview and to all those who commented.