Power and Presence

Sports are all about debate and strong opinions, and this history is no exception
Of the five-man core of the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s, from left, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, and Gil Hodges, only Hodges isn’t in the Hall of Fame. National Baseball Hall of Fame Library

“Gil Hodges”
Tom Clavin and Danny Peary
New American Library, $26.95

    You know the joke. A Brooklynite has a gun with two bullets in it in a room with Hitler, Stalin, and Walter O’Malley, the man who moved the Dodgers west. So what happens? O’Malley gets plugged twice.
    But who knew Robert Moses deserved to be staring down the barrel? It’s one of a number of revelations the casual fan will find in a new biography, “Gil Hodges: The Brooklyn Bums, the Miracle Mets, and the Extraordinary Life of a Baseball Legend,” by Tom Clavin and Danny Peary. Moses, the colossus of urban planning, apparently stood in the way of O’Malley’s dream of a new Brooklyn stadium with a retractable roof and underground parking.
    Sports are all about debate and strong opinions, and this history is no exception. On the one hand you have Robert A. Caro, who grew up a city kid and baseball fan and went on to write the definitive biography of Moses, “The Power Broker,” convinced that he is to blame. On the other is the Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Dave Anderson, who got his start at The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and who believed the two outsized personalities disliked each other intensely and were at cross purposes, but that O’Malley never intended to build the stadium on the site of the old Fort Greene Meat Market. The plan was a ruse, in essence. There was simply too much money to be made in Los Angeles.
    Even if it’s a familiar story, the account of the team’s departure is still gripping, and touches on more than a borough’s broken heart. The Dodgers arrived in L.A. and were immediately adrift. It’s as if the modern condition had descended. Clavin and Peary describe a soullessness, a depletion of team unity — the players didn’t even get together for cards because the driving distances were too great.
    Maybe it was time. Damningly, the Dodgers drew only 6,702 fans to their final game at Ebbets Field in 1957, before the move was officially announced. The Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers? It was a team of the golden era of the 1940s and ’50s, and better not to stick around for the shameful destruction of the trolley car system. Hell, you might as well throw in changing demographics and white flight. And when the heavy machinery came for Ebbets, the wrecking ball was painted to look like a baseball.
    Hodges, interestingly, kept his wife and kids in the family’s Brooklyn home and lived out of a hotel in L.A. during the playing months. Admirable. Loyal. Principled. Many other such adjectives, from the authors and from innumerable testimonials, adhere to the personally conservative son of an Indiana miner in this thoroughgoing, meticulously researched biography. Hodges was strait-laced, undemonstrative, a quiet authoritarian, a church-going Catholic. One sportswriter, Russ White, speaking of Hodges when he was the manager of the Washington Senators, called him “the worst interview . . . dull, reserved. . . .”
    All of which makes for a bit of a challenge for the biographers, and it’s met with the game of baseball — scores, standings, rivalries, blow-by-blow action from decades ago. That’s good for the diehard, hard on others, and ultimately laid out in service to a greater cause, the promotion of Hodges for inclusion in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
    The case is more than solid. Hodges, a flat-out star of his day, won numerous Gold Glove awards at first base, set a National League record for home runs by a right-handed batter (370), led the Dodgers to the franchise’s first World Series championship in 1955, among other series appearances; managed the underdog ’69 Mets to a shocking title in one of the game’s best season-long demonstrations of decision-making, guidance, and intuition, and not only defended but befriended Jackie Robinson in 1947, the year he broke the color barrier, one of many displays of superior character. (In other ways he was a man of his time; he chain-smoked, for instance, which contributed to his death by heart attack or perhaps embolism before he turned 48.)
    And talk about opinion and debate, the induction process is completely arbitrary — votes are cast by baseball writers who at this point never saw Hodges play. Lesser players have gotten in. The biggest obstacle may be his Dodgers teammates from back in the heyday. From Duke Snider to Pee Wee Reese to Roy Campanella to Robinson, the team was loaded. All four of those players are in the Hall of Fame, and the writers may feel that that’s enough, the team’s done.
    If so, if it stays “a Brooklyn thing,” hey, what a heyday it was. Hodges was beloved in his adopted home borough. His weakness at the plate was the curveball, particularly on the outside of the plate, which could lead to horrendous slumps. But never boos. On the contrary, well-wishing cards and letters would fill his mailbox, and a respectful pulling for him would build in intensity to recited prayers across the pews of Brooklyn.
    Gil Hodges, too good to be true? No, just true.

    Tom Clavin lives in Sag Harbor, and Danny Peary lives in Manhattan and Sag Harbor. They are the authors of “Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero.”