Author interview: Mort Zachter on Gil Hodges

When Gil Hodges signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he began his Major League career as a catcher. But after the Dodgers acquired Roy Campanella from the Negro Leagues and directed Hodges to first base, his career took off -- and the Dodgers' fortunes were forever changed. With an infield of Hodges, Jackie Robinson (second base), Pee Wee Reese (shortstop), and Billy Cox (third base), Brooklyn began a glorious run that resulted in six National League pennants and one World Series title (1955) in the decade from 1947-1957.

gil-hodges-cover.jpgThe Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, of course, and although Hodges wasn't as effective a hitter as he was at Ebbets Field, his presence helped sell Major League Baseball on the West Coast even as he helped the Dodgers win their first World Series title in L.A. (1959). Hodges retired in 1963, only to begin a second career as manager, first with the Washington Senators and then with the New York Mets (which had replaced the Dodgers and the Giants as New York City's National League franchise). Hodges was one of the most successful players ever to make this transition, and his calming presence in the dugout was a major reason why the "Miracle Mets" cruised to their first World Series title in 1969. Sadly, Hodges died in 1972, of a heart attack, at age 47.

Despite his many achievements and impressive stats, the Baseball Hall of Fame has snubbed Hodges, most recently in December of 2014, while welcoming his Boys of Summer brethren: Robinson, Reese, Campanella and Duke Snider are all enshrined in Cooperstown. Now, author Mort Zachter has written a new biography, entitled Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life (Univ. of Nebraska Press), that examines Hodges' life (including his traumatic experiences during World War II) and his playing and managerial careers. I emailed Zachter questions about Hodges' experiences with the Dodgers (and the Mets) and whether he deserves to be in the HOF. (Full disclosure: Zachter and I share the same publisher.)

LA Observed: Your first book, Dough, was a memoir about how your uncles accumulated a fortune that allowed you to leave your accounting job and pursue a writing career. Do you have any regrets about becoming a full-time writer?

Mort Zachter: No regrets. When I'm writing, I'm in heaven. I never felt that way when I was a CPA.

LAO: What compelled you to follow Dough with a biography of Gil Hodges?

MZ: When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Hodges was my childhood hero. He was also one of the most popular baseball players of his era. But because he was quiet and self-effacing, died young at 47, and didn't curse at umpires or gamble on baseball, he's been forgotten. I hope to shine a light on a mensch who is unknown to most people under forty.

LAO: Hodges started as a catcher, but moved to first base when Roy Campanella joined the Dodgers. How was Hodges able to make that transition so smoothly, becoming one the best defensive first basemen of his era?

MZ: Hodges was a great, and graceful, athlete. He played on the basketball, football, baseball, and track teams in college. Before that, in high school, he was a shortstop, so he brought a middle infielder's mind-set to first base.

LAO: Why did Hodges, a right-handed power hitter, struggle when the Dodgers moved to L.A. and played in the Coliseum with that short porch in left?

MZ: That season, Hodges especially tried to pull everything to left, even outside pitches, and it ruined his swing. It didn't help that he missed his family, who were still living back in Brooklyn, or that his father, whom he was very close to, had recently died.

LAO: Hodges brought the Mets their first World Series title, but you point out that, under his watch, Amos Otis and Nolan Ryan were traded away. Did Hodges not see the potential of both Otis and Ryan - or did he think that trading them improved the Mets?

MZ: After the Mets won the 1969 World Series, Hodges wasn't trading his centerfielder, Tommie Agee, a Gold Glove winner. This left no logical starting spot for Amos Otis, and they traded him for their greatest need, a third baseman. Hodges saw Ryan's potential. But two years after the Otis trade, the Mets, loaded with starting pitching, were in desperate need of a third baseman since Joe Foy (the player acquired for Otis) had not worked out, and Jim Fregosi, the player they traded for Ryan, had been one of the best infielders in baseball. Also, Ryan, who grew up in a small town in Texas, was not comfortable living in New York, and had requested a trade.

LAO: Was Hodges a better manager or a better player? How does he rank among all-time Dodger first basemen?

MZ: From what his players told me, I think Hodges was an even better manager than he was a player. And that says a lot. At the end of his last full season as a player (1962), his 370 home runs were tenth on the all-time list. At the time, only one other right-handed hitter in baseball history (Jimmy Foxx) had hit more. Hodges won three Gold Gloves, and would have won more had the award been established before his last three seasons as an everyday player. Hodges had more home runs and RBI's than any other first baseman in Dodgers history.

LAO: Does Hodges belong in the Hall of Fame? If so, what is the most compelling argument for inclusion? And, why do you think he hasn't been voted in for all these years?

MZ: Absolutely, he belongs in the Hall of Fame. The rules state that the veterans committee should consider a candidate based upon their "overall contribution" to the game. That means objectively considering both a candidate's playing and managerial careers. Hodges hit more home runs in his playing career than anyone else who also managed a World Series winning team. Every single player who had at least 300 home runs (the equivalent of 500 today) at the end of the 1962 season is in the HOF -- except Hodges. During his 15 years on the baseball writers' ballot [for the HOF], Hodges received more votes than anyone else not subsequently elected. But by the time he was up for consideration by the veterans committee, most of his peers on the Brooklyn Dodgers were gone, and he had no one with cachet lobbying for him.

LAO: What is your next writing project and/or book project?

MZ: I'm going to write a travel blog. It's time to get up from my desk and see the world.

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