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Mets Hall of Fame case: Gil Hodges

Hodges had an iconic career as a player and a manager, but did his accomplishments in either role merit Hall of Fame induction?

New York Daily News Archive

In Part 11 of our Hall of Fame series, we examine the case for and against Dodgers and Mets legend Gil Hodges. You can read the first 10 parts of the series at the links below.

Mike Piazza

Keith Hernandez

John Olerud

Carlos Delgado

Jeff Kent

Robin Ventura

Carlos Beltran

David Cone

John Franco

Billy Wagner

The Mets drafted Hodges in the 1961 Expansion Draft, and the first baseman played parts of two seasons with the Mets before retiring as a player. After managing the Washington Senators from 1963 to 1967, Hodges returned to the Mets in 1968 to become their manager. As the Mets’ manager, Hodges helped turn around a young franchise that averaged just 54 wins per year in the six seasons before he took the helm.

In 1968, Hodges led the Mets to a respectable (for the franchise at the time) 73-89 finish. The following year, he led the "Miracle Mets" to one of the most improbable World Series victories in major league history. By posting two 83-79 finishes in 1970 and 1971, the Mets averaged 85 wins in Hodges’s four seasons as the team’s manager. Those 85 wins per year represented a remarkable 31-win improvement from the six years prior to Hodges’s stewardship. During his time as skipper, Hodges oversaw the maturation of budding homegrown players like Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry, Tug McGraw, Bud Harrelson, and Cleon Jones.

Sadly, Hodges passed away of a heart attack prior to the 1972 season at the age of 47. Despite the fact that his time with the Mets was cut far too short, Hodges remains a legendary figure in team history, and one of only three members of the franchise to have his number retired.

The case for

Hodges is unique in having had a prestigious career as both a player and a manager. For starters, he was a key piece of the late-forties- and fifties-era Dodgers dynasty that won seven National League pennants and two World Series. In his eighteen-year career, the first baseman hit .273/.359/.487 (121 wRC+), with 370 home runs, 1,274 RBIs, 1,921 hits, 1,105 runs scored, and 42.1 fWAR. During his prime, which lasted from 1951 to 1957, Hodges compiled an excellent .283/.374/.525 batting line (134 wRC+), and averaged 33 homers, 106 RBIs, 95 runs scored, 25 doubles, and 4.6 fWAR per year, along with eight total zone runs (TZ) per year at first base.

While some of his offensive numbers may not seem as impressive by today’s standards, they were exceptional for the time at which he played. For example, when Hodges retired, he ranked 11th on baseball’s all-time home run list, behind ten players now in the Hall of Fame. He ranked behind only two fellow right-handed hitters: Jimmie Foxx and Willie Mays. Hodges also retired with what was then the National League record of 14 career grand slams and, in 1950, he became the sixth player in baseball history to homer four times in one game. To watch some great footage of Hodges hitting and talking baseball, check out the clips below, taken from the 1960 Home Run Derby television series filmed in Los Angeles:

Hodges was rewarded for his outstanding play with eight All-Star Game selections, three top-10 finishes in MVP voting, and three Gold Glove Awards. Indeed, Hodges was known as a great defensive first baseman, and almost certainly would have won more Gold Gloves had the award existed before 1957. Among first basemen, Hodges is tied for 20th all time with 43 TZ, and had two seasons of double-digit TZ at first.

Finally, while Hodges’s postseason career was marred by one rough World Series performance that we’ll discuss later, he was otherwise a productive hitter in the playoffs. In 39 postseason games—all of which were World Series games, given that only one team from each league made the playoffs at the time—Hodges hit .267/.349/.412, with five home runs, 21 RBIs, 15 runs scored, two doubles, and 15 walks. Moreover, in the 26 World Series games he played after his rough 1952 series, the first baseman raked to a .337/.404/.511 batting line, with four homers, 16 RBIs, 12 runs scored, two doubles, and 11 walks.

JAWS, which only measures regular season performance, ranks Hodges as the 36th-best first baseman in baseball history, ahead of two Hall of Famers: Jim Bottomley and High Pockets Kelly. Hodges also ranks higher than many great non-Hall-of-Famers, including Carlos Delgado, Don Mattingly, Mark Grace, Boog Powell, and Steve Garvey.

As a manager, Hodges’s claim to fame was helping to turn a hapless Mets franchise into a World Series champion in 1969, and a winning team in the years after. In 1969, Hodges’s Mets were a third-place team 10 games out of first place as late as August 13. They then made one of the most improbable pennant runs in baseball history, going 38-11 the rest of the way to win the division and finish the year with a record of 100-62. Prior to that season, no Mets team had ever won more than 73 games.

The Mets swept the Braves in the NLCS, and faced the heavily favored 109-win Orioles in the World Series. In a stunning upset, the Mets beat the Orioles in just five games to win the championship. That season was the start of an eight-year run in which the Mets finished better than .500 seven times and won two National League pennants.

In addition to being a successful manager with the Mets, Hodges was an innovator. For example, in 1969, Hodges implemented a five-man rotation of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry, Don Cardwell, and Jim McAndrew late in the year to preserve the arms of his young starters. When the Mets won the World Series, it started a trend toward five-man (as opposed to four-man) rotations, which eventually became the norm in Major League Baseball.

In a similar effort to monitor the health of his young guns, Hodges put his pitchers on pitch counts. Granted, they weren’t the kind of hard pitch counts you see in today’s game, and they were well above the standard limit of 100-120 pitches that is now common. Seaver’s pitch limit, for instance, was 135 pitches, while Koosman’s was 145, and Nolan Ryan’s was 150. While pitch limits have become stricter since Hodges’s time as manager, his innovation has evolved into a staple of the modern-day game.

A third innovation that Hodges helped to spearhead was the platoon. Although Casey Stengel and Earl Weaver have become known as "the most successful platoon managers," as Bill James described them, Hodges was an early proponent of the strategy as well. In fact, his platoons at first base, second base, third base, and right field during the 1969 World Series are credited for having helped the Mets counter the Orioles’ vaunted starting rotation. This excerpt from the Associated Press, published just before the ’69 Series, gives you a sense of how unconventional platoons were at the time Hodges was implementing them:

"While nothing may succeed like success, Manager Gil Hodges of the Mets has his own method of achieving it. It’s called platooning. So, with Baltimore opening the series Saturday and Sunday with left-handers Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally, Hodges has decided to counter with his right-handed lineup of Ron Swoboda, Donn Clendenon, Ed Charles and maybe Al Weis."

Finally, it’s hard to discuss Hodges’s career without mentioning the issue of character. There’s been much discussion in recent years about the Hall of Fame’s "character clause," particularly in the context of PED users’ presence on the ballot. If Hall voters are using the character clause against certain candidates, they should also use it to reward candidates like Hodges, who had a sterling reputation around the game.

When Hodges passed away, there was an incredible outpouring of grief from those who had played and managed both for and against him. This AP article, published just after his death, captures the respect and admiration that Hodges’s contemporaries felt for him. Everyone interviewed in that piece, from Leo Durocher to Casey Stengel, Walter Alston, Johnny Podres, Duke Snider, and Jackie Robinson, described Hodges in glowing terms. Alston and Podres both said that they’d never known "a finer man."

Hodges’s character was especially evident in his embrace of Jackie Robinson when his Dodgers teammate broke baseball’s color barrier. As the Wall Street Journal’s Bill McGurn writes, "When Jackie Robinson was called up in 1947, Hodges not only refused to sign a petition by white Dodgers saying that they would not take the field with a black teammate; he also later barnstormed through the South on a team that Robinson managed." Tom Seaver, who often describes the positive impact that Hodges had on his career, made a similar point, noting "how important [Hodges] was with the integration of blacks into the game of baseball, because Gil was so much behind Jackie Robinson. And that’s a big social issue, and one of the best things to ever happen to Major League Baseball."

While any one aspect of Hodges’s career may seem debatable in terms of Hall-worthiness, the full package is quite impressive. Hodges was a middle-of-the-order hitter and a great defensive first baseman on some of baseball’s most iconic teams, a winning and innovative manager in New York, and a first class individual on and off the field. As a whole, Hodges’s career seems to match those of many Hall of Famers measured by their overall impact on the game.

The case against

Although Hodges had an impressive career as both a player and a manager, he doesn’t seem to clear the bar of the average Hall of Famer in either role. For example, Hodges’s 39.6 JAWS is far lower than the average Hall of Fame first baseman’s score of 54.2. Hodges ranks lower than 17 of the 19 first basemen in the Hall, including Orlando Cepeda, Tony Perez, and Harmon Killebrew, who are all below the average first baseman but ahead of Hodges. Hodges also ranks lower than non-Hall-of-Famers like Fred McGriff, Will Clark, John Olerud, and Keith Hernandez.

Hodges simply did not have as many productive years as did most other players in the Hall. The first baseman had 11 seasons from 1949 to 1959 in which he was at least a solid player. Although he played in parts of seven other seasons, he was never even a 1.0-fWAR player in any of those years. Hodges also never led his league in any major offensive category, and retired well short of reaching the traditional milestones—500 home runs and 3,000 hits—that Hall of Fame voters typically like to see. In fact, Hodges fell short of reaching even 400 homers and 2,000 hits, benchmarks that nearly every modern-era Hall of Fame first baseman met.

Finally, while Hodges’s postseason production was respectable overall, his reputation is no doubt hurt by his infamous 0-for-21 performance in the 1952 World Series, which the Dodgers lost in seven games to the Yankees. He wasn’t particularly good in his six World Series games prior to 1952 either, hitting just .222/.263/.389 in 20 plate appearances.

As a manager, Hodges’s record does not match that of any skipper in the Hall. Granted, he was not blessed with a whole lot of talent in either Washington or New York, but his .467 career winning percentage (660-753 record) would be the lowest of any Hall of Fame manager. Moreover, were he inducted as a manager, Hodges would be just one of just three—out of a total of 23 managers in the Hall—with a sub-.500 record. Indeed, in the nine years in which Hodges managed, his teams finished below .500 in the first six of them (five with the Senators and one with the Mets). Moreover, Hodges’s 660 managerial wins would also be far lower than the average Hall of Fame manager’s win total, which is well over 1,000.

The fact that Hodges appears to fall short as both a player and a manager is problematic, given that Hall voters are supposed to consider each candidate in only one category. However, even were a voter to consider the totality of Hodges’s storied career in the major leagues, one can understand why his managerial record might not put him over the line in some voters’ minds. After all, when Hodges passed away, he only had three winning seasons as a manager.

There’s no question that, had he had a longer run of managerial success with the Mets, Hodges would have a much stronger Hall of Fame case. When you combine a playing career that probably falls short of the Hall of Fame standard at first base and a managerial career that falls dramatically short of the average Hall of Fame manager’s, one can see why many Hall voters have had a difficult time getting to "yes" on Hodges.

Prospects for Induction

Hodges appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot for all 15 years in which he was eligible. While he never got the 75.0% support needed for induction, he consistently got the backing of most voters. In fact, Hodges received at least 50.0% support in 11 of his 15 years on the ballot. Jack Morris is the only other player in history to get knocked off the ballot after reaching 50.0% of the vote, although Lee Smith and Tim Raines are in serious jeopardy of joining that list. Hodges received the most support in 1983, his last year of eligibility, when he appeared on 63.4% of ballots cast.

Hodges first appeared on the Veterans Committee ballot in 1987. Since then, the Committee—as well as its recent offshoot, the Golden Era Committee—has considered Hodges’s candidacy numerous times. The closest he ever got to induction was in 1993, when he received 11 of the 15 votes cast (73.3%), just one vote short of the 75.0% threshold. Somewhat incredibly, Hodges had the support of 12 of the 16 members of the Committee, but committee chairman Ted Williams disallowed Roy Campanella’s vote because he was in the hospital (three months prior to his death) and could not attend the vote in person. Had Williams allowed all 16 votes to be counted, Hodges would have been inducted with exactly 75.0% support of the Veterans Committee.

The Golden Era Committee considered its first round of candidates in 2012, and Hodges received the votes of nine of its 16 members, good for a 56.3% showing. However, his support dropped dramatically in 2015, when he received "three or fewer votes," according to the Hall of Fame’s press release.

Hodges is eligible for the Committee’s consideration every third year after 2015. Although he got little support that year, it’s not hard to envision his support rising in the years to come. In addition to the nearly 60.0% support he received from the Golden Era Committee in 2012, he cleared the 60.0% mark on the Veterans Committee ballot several times in recent years, including 2007, 2005, and 2003. Given that, like its predecessor, the Golden Era Committee consists of only 16 members, all it would take is a change of heart by a handful of people to get Hodges the honor that’s eluded him since his first year of eligibility in 1969.