Gil Hodges, 50 years after his tragic death in West Palm Beach, is finally joining baseball’s elite
FIFTY YEARS AGO, on the eve of the 1972 season, Major League Baseball players went on strike for the first time in modern history.
The strike lasted just two weeks but wiped out the final two games of spring training, including the Easter finale at old West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium between the Atlanta Braves and the visiting New York Mets.
Nearly every Mets player left town a day earlier, when the strike washed out Saturday’s game in Fort Lauderdale against the New York Yankees. With no game on Sunday, Mets manager Gil Hodges and most of his coaching staff decided to head to West Palm Beach, anyway. They wanted to take some final spring swings of their own.
At the time, Hodges was among baseball’s living royalty, the Brooklyn-born “Miracle Worker’’ less than three years removed from guiding the “Amazin' Mets” to a World Series upset over the heavily-favored Baltimore Orioles. The 1969 championship only brightened the glow of his Favorite Son status around the five boroughs, a torch lit in his playing days as an All Star first baseman who led his hometown Dodgers to six World Series.
He loved to swing a golf club, too.
On April 2, he played 27 holes at Palm Beach Lakes Golf Club, a modest course just across Congress Avenue from the ballpark. After the final round, he made his way across the parking lot toward his room at the old Ramada Inn on the Green.
“Hey, Gillie,’’ coach Joe Pignatano yelled. “What time do you want to meet for dinner?”
“7:30,” Hodges replied.
Moments later, he collapsed in front of Room 158, his head slamming against the concrete sidewalk. He’d suffered a massive heart attack.
At 5:45 p.m., he was pronounced dead on arrival at Good Samaritan Medical Center. He was just 47, two days shy of what would have been his 48th birthday.
He left behind a wife, a son, three daughters and millions of admirers.
Fifty years later, the golf course, hotel and ballpark are long gone, replaced by townhomes and a Home Depot. The hospital is still there, and two of Hodges’ children — Palm Beach Gardens neighbors Gil Hodges Jr. and his sister Cindy — said they often drive past it on visits to West Palm Beach.
But the siblings have a lot more on their minds these days than the golden anniversary of their father’s death. The family is getting ready to celebrate the final and ultimate accomplishment of Gil Hodges.
On July 24, Hodges will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, where his plaque will share the same wall as the bronze-sculpted faces of Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Tom Seaver and all the other legendary teammates he played with and managed.
Induction Day is just about all the family has thought about since Dec. 5, when they got word that he'd been elected on the Golden Era ballot, a move many considered long overdue.
Gil Jr. and two sisters have been making plans to attend other events this season in the run-up to Induction Day, from throwing out the first pitch at Citi Field in New York to a ceremony to retire their fathers number 14 at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles.
“It's just a dream come true,’’ he said. “We've waited too long, and now to have it finally happen I don't think it has sunk in totally yet.’’
Gil Hodges’ widow, Joan, is 96 and still lives in the same Brooklyn house she shared with her husband when he played for the Dodgers. But the family’s not sure if she’ll join the festivities in Cooperstown.
"I'm thrilled and thankful and blessed to have my mother alive to enjoy something she has worked very hard for. It's a great thing for her,'' said Cindy, who lives a few blocks from her brother.
"It's wonderful for all of us (Hodges children), too,'' she added, "but he's always been top notch to us.''
Barbara Hodges, the youngest sibling, passed away four years ago, Cindy said.
The three surviving children are working together on the draft of an acceptance speech. Which sibling will pinch-hit for their dad at the podium on the scenic grounds of the Clark Sports Center will be worked out later.
“It may be my sister Irene, only because she's never had the ability to partake in anything because of me, being the only boy, I got to do all the traveling with him when he was managing,'' Gil Jr. said.
“We’ll see. The acceptance speech, as important as it is, (regardless of) whoever gives it, it's the mere fact that it's being given that is really the most important thing.’’
When the Dodgers beat the Yankees in 1955 for the Brooklyn team’s only title during Hodges’ career, it was hometown boy Hodges who drove in the only two runs in the decisive Game 7.
He was arguably the most loved member of the Boys of Summer Dodgers.
“Not getting booed at Ebbets Field was an amazing thing. Those fans knew their baseball, and Gil was the only player I can remember whom the fans never, I mean never, booed,’’ teammate Clem Labine once said.
He won one more World Series in 1959, two years after the Dodgers left Brooklyn, their first Los Angeles championship. Two years later, Hodges went back to the five boroughs when he was chosen in the 1961 expansion draft as one of the original New York Mets.
After the team began play in 1962, he hit the first home run in franchise history. Slowed by injuries, he played in just 11 games in 1963 before being traded to the Washington Senators in late May for outfielder Jimmy Piersall.
It was an unusual swap because Hodges was sent to Washington not to play on the field but to replace their manager, Mickey Vernon, who’d been fired. Hodges managed the Senators through 1967 then returned to New York in 1968 to manage the Mets.
With both teams, he often let his son tag along to the ballpark.
"Being the only boy in the family, we had a different relationship than he had with the three girls,’’ said Gil Jr., who was born in 1950. “In the summer I got to travel with him, got to sit on the bench, put on a uniform and take batting practice. It was almost like being part of the club.’’
Hodges always found time for his daughters, too, even during spring training, Cindy said.
"My parents used to go fishing off the Blue Heron bridge at night. We used to go with them,'' she recalled.
In the years Hodges managed the Mets, Gil Jr. wasn’t that much younger than many of the players, a connection that made him a prime target of clubhouse pranks. When the Mets beat the Braves in the ‘69 National League playoffs, a few players celebrated by tossing the manager’s son into the showers with his clothes on.
“The great thing about ballplayers, they spared no one. They're all pranksters themselves,’’ he said with a laugh.
Gil Jr. played some ball, too, for a while. In 1971, the Mets drafted him in the June amateur draft. Like his father, he was a first baseman.
His professional career ended after 60 games in 1972 with the Pompano Beach Mets of the Florida State League. It was a season that started with tragedy.
On Easter Day 1972, Gil Jr. and his wife attended afternoon Mass at a church in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he was in minor league spring training camp. After the service, they turned on the car radio and heard the tail end of a news bulletin — “Once again, Gilbert Hodges has died.’’
During the commercial break, Gil Jr. and his wife sat in disbelief, reasoning that there must have been another Gilbert Hodges who died.
At the time, there was another prominent Gilbert Hodges — the ABC network broadcaster who covered the White House administrations of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower before working as a staff announcer for WABC-TV Eyewitness News.
“My wife said, ‘That has to be the newscaster.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know. I saw my father yesterday.’ But it's a little eerie to hear that,’’ he recalled.
A few seconds later, after the commercial break, they heard the entire news bulletin: Gilbert Hodges, the Mets manager and former Dodgers star, was dead from a heart attack in West Palm Beach.
Hodges had survived a heart attack on Sept 24, 1968, but news of his death shocked everyone.
“Gil never looked better,’’ Mets General Manager Bob Sheffing told reporters that Sunday night. “He had recovered so well from that heart attack in Atlanta that most people had forgotten about it.’’
Hours earlier, Hodges played 18 holes in a foursome with Pignatano and coaches Eddie Yost and Rube Walker. After a short break, they decided to play nine more.
It was just after 5 p.m. when the foursome broke up. Hodges steered his golf cart to the pro shop and pulled off his spiked golf shoes.
“He said he was really tired, and I was a little surprised when he said that,’’ Bobby Erickson, the club’s golf pro that day, recalled in an interview last week.
“I said, ‘How many holes did you play?’ He said they played 27 holes. ‘Did you take carts?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I took a cart. I’m just beat.’’’
Hodges was carrying a dozen autographed baseballs, which he delivered to the golf club’s general manager, Jack Sanford. A retired ballplayer who won 1957 National League Rookie of the Year honors, Sanford was friendly with the steady stream of players who stayed at the Ramada Inn during spring training and hit the links at Palm Beach Lakes Golf Club after ballgames.
"Gil, Piggy, Rube and me shot the bull with Jack Sanford for a while,'' Yost told reporters at the golf club that Sunday night. "Gil had a beer with us. I think he also ate a piece of cake.''
After Hodges dropped off the autographed balls, he passed Erickson again in the pro shop.
"He came out and said, ‘Well, I’ll see you tomorrow, Bob.' I said, ‘Alright, Gil, we'll see you tomorrow’ and he proceeded to leave,'' Erickson recalled.
"I've always told people I was the last person to talk to him alive.’’’
After exiting the pro shop, Hodges walked down a path behind the driving range and across the Ramada Inn parking lot. He was headed to his room to wash up for dinner.
“Gil was walking, then tumbled backwards,’’ Yost told reporters.
Pignatano later recalled how Hodges’ head hit the concrete sidewalk: “I put my hand under Gil’s head, but before you knew it, the blood stopped. I knew he was dead. He died in my arms.”
Erickson said not even 10 minutes had passed since he said good-bye to Hodges when an ambulance, all lights and sirens, sped up to the golf course.
The paramedics apparently knew they were responding to an emergency involving Hodges, Erickson said.
“They asked me where he was. I said he walked toward the Ramada Inn,’’ he said.
Although the death certificate would say he died on arrival at Good Samaritan Medical Center, doctors still tried to save him.
Outside the emergency room, Mets pitcher Jerry Koosman, the only player who stayed in West Palm Beach that day, was among the stunned mourners keeping vigil. Among the others: Braves Chairman Bill Bartholomay, Montreal Expos President John McHale and General Manager Jim Fanning, and Donald Grant, the Mets’ board chairman who rushed from his home in Hobe Sound to sign the release of Hodges’ remains.
“Only reason we were playing golf was that the players’ strike put us out of business,’’ Pignatano told reporters that night. “Otherwise we’d have been over in the West Palm Beach ballpark playing the Atlanta Braves.”
The next day, attendants with Quattlebaum Funeral Home placed Hodges’ casket in a chartered plane for the Dodgers legend’s final return to Brooklyn.
On April 4, on what would have been Hodges’ 48th birthday, an estimated 10,000 mourners packed Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Brooklyn for the funeral service.
When the service ended, Howard Cosell grabbed Gil Jr. and escorted him outside to a car. Sitting in the back seat was Jackie Robinson, his father’s Dodgers teammate, in tears.
Hodges had developed close friendships with his Dodgers teammates from 1943 to 1961, but none compared to his bond with Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947.
When Robinson and his wife Rachel first came to Brooklyn, Gil and Joan Hodges went out of their way to make them feel at home. Joan made sure the other Dodgers wives befriended Rachel, Gil Jr. said.
“He loved my father; Jackie said it in the car,’’ he recalled. “He gave me a hug and a kiss and he said next to his son's passing, this was the worst day of his life.’’
He was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn, less than two miles from where Ebbets Field stood before it was demolished in 1960.
On Opening Day, the flag at Shea Stadium flew at half-staff. There was a moment of silence. The Mets, led by manager Yogi Berra, wore black armbands on their left arms the entire season in Hodges’ memory.
A year later, the Mets retired his number 14. That October, they reached the World Series for the second time.
Gil Hodges Jr. enjoyed a successful career as a Merrill Lynch broker and moved from Brooklyn to Palm Beach Gardens seven years ago after surviving a heart attack.
For a while, he worked part-time at Frenchman's Creek Country Club. Now, he tends bar a few nights a week at Palm Beach Yacht Club.
Just about every time he meets someone new, he's asked the same question: Are you related to that Gil Hodges?
He never gets tired of answering.
“It happens a lot more now that he’s gotten into the Hall,’’ he said with a laugh. “It’s been absolutely great. I’ve always embraced the fact of who he was and what he did.’’
He said he has visited his father’s grave in Brooklyn “only a couple of times.” Living so close to West Palm Beach, he said he rarely ever thinks about it as the place his father died.
“He has passed almost 50 years and people still talk to me about him like they had dinner with him last month,’’ he said.
“The memories that I have are not of him passing away. I recall our good times together.’’
Cindy, who lives a few blocks from her older brother, said she first started going back and forth between Brooklyn and Palm Beach Gardens about 30 years ago to be close to cousins on her mother's side who lived in North Palm Beach.
When she decided to make Palm Beach Gardens her full-time home, her mother reminded her to never forget her roots: "My mom always told me, 'No matter what, always remember: When you leave Brooklyn, you're only camping out.'''
For 17 years, Cindy worked as a caretaker at a home on Palm Beach. Her daily commute from Palm Beach Gardens took her down Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard, past the site of the old ballpark and golf course and past the hospital where her father died.
No matter how many times she took it, the route always reminded her of her father's final hours.
"Yeah, I always think about that,'' said Cindy, who said she was 15 when "daddy passed."
While she's thrilled her father is finally being honored for his achievements in baseball, she said his biggest accomplishments came off the field, at home.
"He had great standards and believed in his faith, a devout Catholic with strict rules, and thats how he lived life. When you're young, you don't want to hear any of that stuff, but it does come in handy, to have those values he instilled in us as children,'' she said.
"He was my dad, so he's always been in my hall of fame.''
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.