In honor of Gil Hodges, the Dodgers are retiring his number against the Mets


In honor of Gil Hodges, the Dodgers are retiring his number against the Mets

LOS ANGELES — The connective tissue stretches across the country and back, connecting Brooklyn, Los Angeles and Queens. Over the years, through all the true bounces and bad hops and yellowed pages, the contents of this baseball triangle remain tightly bound.

Main characters step back and others appear, and then it all repeats itself. But the strongest and most enduring link between the Dodgers and the Mets remains Gil Hodges, the late, newly-elected Hall of Famer whose No. 14 was retired by the Dodgers in a pregame ceremony here Saturday night.

The Mets retired the same count for Hodges in 1973.

“It was indeed — I was going to say the thread, but it wasn’t the thread, it was the iron-steel wire,” Vin Scully, the legendary Dodgers broadcaster, said Thursday during a rare phone interview.

The Mets franchise and Dodger Stadium both began life in April 1962, and the former begins a 10-day western swing with four games this weekend at Chavez Ravine. It’s a high-profile clash between the top two sides in the National League, but clubs will briefly put the competition aside to honor Hodges, a player who meant so much to both sides.

Scully, 94, was a rookie with the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1950 when he first met Hodges. Neither man could have dreamed at the time that just seven years later, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, along with fellow New York Giants Horace Stoneham, would pack up their teams and bring Major League Baseball to California.

With these city-shattering moves, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ only World Series title was frozen in time in 1955. Hearts would break, tears would be shed, but after Ebbets Field hit the wrecking ball, the Mets soon emerged. Decades later, the bricks and corners of Citi Field evoked the spirit of the old stadium at Sullivan Place. The cross-fertilization of the Dodgers and the Mets would become one of baseball’s constants.

When Hall of Famer Chairwoman Jane Forbes Clark and her president Josh Rawitch called the Hodges family home in Brooklyn in December to break the news of Gil’s induction, it was his daughter Irene who answered and put the receiver next to her to her mother. Joan Hodges, 96, isn’t always able to adjust these days, but she perked up instantly when she received the call. “Oh Gil? My Gil?” Irene remembered what her mother had said.

And then the iron steel cable was pulled taut again. From his home in Los Angeles, Scully called with congratulations. He had been told that just before the news broke.

“It gave me a few moments before the big cheer to just have an intimate moment with family,” Scully said. “I was so grateful.”

Appropriately, this call was placed at an old house on Brooklyn’s fabled Bedford Avenue. After the Hodges family survived the shock of Gil’s job being moved to Los Angeles and after playing four seasons with eroding skills in Southern California from the ages of 34 to 37, the Mets brought him back to New York in the expansion draft.

So the Hodges family bought a house not far from where Ebbets Field once stood. This is where the family lived when Gil played for the Mets expansion when he led the Amazin’s to the 1969 World Series title (with former Brooklyn Dodgers Joe Pignatano and Rube Walker on his coaching staff), and is where Joan and Irene reside today.

“It’s really amazing, isn’t it?” said Bobby Valentine, who managed the Mets in the 2000 Subway World Series against the Yankees. “That Joanie never left for all these years, shopped at the same corner shops, walked the same streets, went to the same fair? Spectacular.”

As Irene put it, “It’s like having a part of your youth with you.”

That spirit still pervades in so many ways long after Gil’s death of a heart attack in 1972 at the age of 47. Volumes have been written about these beloved Dodgers teams – everything from Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer to Thomas Oliphant’s Praying for Gil Hodges. The latter’s name was inspired by a story reflecting Hodges’ popularity. When Hodges was struck by a rare burglary, Father Herbert Redmond, a priest at St. Francis Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn, told his congregation: “It’s far too hot to preach. Keep the commandments and say a prayer for Gil Hodges.”

“As a sober broadcaster, I looked up to him as a major league, All-Star, and very talented player,” Scully said. “And then, as I got to know him a little bit better, the real Gil Hodges started to come out. I remember once the Dodgers were playing on a really hot day and we got on a plane after the game and it was Friday and the hostess came down the aisle and served a steak dinner.

“On Friday and a long time ago, maybe in the early ’50s, I can hear him and he said, ‘No thanks.’ And the stewardess said, “Mr. Hodges, you just played a long game in the terrible heat, and so on, and so on, you should eat the steak.’ And he said, ‘No, it’s Friday and I’m way too close to the boss.’ We were 30,000 feet high. But it was just the way he did it. He didn’t climb onto a soapbox, he did nothing and left with a smile. ‘No, I’m too close to the boss.’”

Jay Horwitz, a Mets official for more than 40 years, said he was impressed to learn how much Hodges helped Jackie Robinson.

“Pee Wee Reese gets a lot of credit, but I’m told that Gil, playing on the same side of infield as Jackie, prevented a lot of fights and was the enforcer,” Horwitz said.

In fact, Scully recalls an incident in St. Louis where Hodges and Robinson got together behind first base in a nasty pop fly and “a bottle of whiskey came out of the stands, off the top deck.”

The bottle landed between the men, and Scully noticed Hodges offering Robinson a little pat on the back, “like to say we’re in this together, pal.”

“If you hadn’t focused on the moment, you would have missed it,” Scully said. “I just thought that was so typical of Gil. Whatever he does, if you don’t keep an eye on him, he did it and it’s gone. That’s how he really played and lived.”

At that moment, according to Irene Hodges, her father joked to Robinson: “You better watch out, Jackie. They’re aiming at me.”

The idyllic days faded. Robinson was traded to the Giants after the 1956 season and retired. The Dodgers moved and an era came to an end.

“My mother, an Italian from Brooklyn, has never been so far from her parents,” said Irene Hodges. “We lived in LA for that first year, I don’t think she opened up. She really couldn’t.”

The Metropolitans were an expansion team loaned to New York City in 1962 with a nickname that was too long and team colors that mixed memories of the Dodgers and the Giants. The new club’s president, George Weiss, worked strategically to fill the expansion roster with household names. In addition to Hodges, he snapped up former Brooklyn players Roger Craig and Don Zimmer. And he soon added Duke Snider, Charlie Neal and Clem Labine.

“It paid off because the Mets were very popular from day one, and it went back to the Dodgers,” said Howie Rose, the Mets radio station. “I think in a lot of ways the Dodgers and Giants were training wheels for New York fans.”

It was quite a weight for the Mets to be asked to replace those famous old teams.

“And Dad was drafted by the Mets in the extension draft and hit the first home run in their history, it kind of bridged that gap,” Gil Hodges Jr. said.

By 1980, Fred Wilpon bought the team and added another layer of connective tissue: Wilpon attended Brooklyn’s Lafayette High School with Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers Hall of Fame and was a rabid Brooklyn Dodgers fan. Under his watch, Citi Field opened in 2009 with so many Dodgers-related touches — most notably the huge Jackie Robinson rotunda — that some Mets fans complained that there were more references to Brooklyn than to the Mets.

The ties would only continue as Mike Piazza’s Hall of Famer career has spanned the franchises and Justin Turner, a crucial member of the current Dodgers team, started his career in Orange and Blue.

Now Steven A. Cohen, who tried to buy the Dodgers in 2012, is in charge of the Mets. In his first public statements after buying the Mets, he cited the Dodgers as a role model for what he hoped the Mets would do. He has backed that up by taking the Mets payroll to the top of the sport.

“You’re going to separate from the pack,” said Valentine, who, fittingly on the subject of connective tissue, was once married to a daughter of Ralph Branca, who fielded for the Brooklyn Dodgers. “Like the Dodgers tried to do when they left town, and the Yankees always have.”

Two of Hodge’s adult children – Gil Jr., 72, and Irene, 71 – were at Dodger Stadium Saturday night, as were his grandson Gil III, two of Irene’s granddaughters and a cousin. And as the videos roll and the lights flash, the iron-clad steel cable that’s run through the decades and the miles remains as strong as ever.

“Without a doubt, World Series ’69 was fantastic,” says Irene Hodges of her favorite memory. “Everyone was just thrilled. All of Brooklyn was crazy. It was a wonderful time. I think my father was a little apprehensive about doing business in New York. He knew how good the fans were here, how much they loved him, and he just wanted to please them. He wanted to have a successful team. And he did.”

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