An ‘Iron Steel Cable’ Connects the Mets and the Dodgers
LOS ANGELES — The connective tissues stretch all the way across the country and back again, binding Brooklyn, Los Angeles and Queens. Through the years, through all the true bounces and bad hops and yellowed pages, the contents of this baseball triangle remain snugly bound.
Main characters recede and others emerge, and then it repeats all over again. But the strongest and most consistent connection between the Dodgers and the Mets remains Gil Hodges, the late, newly elected Hall of Famer whose No. 14 will be retired by the Dodgers here on Saturday night.
The Mets retired the same number for Hodges in 1973.
“He was, indeed — I was going to say the thread, but he wasn’t the thread, he was the iron steel cable,” Vin Scully, the legendary Dodgers broadcaster, said on Thursday during a rare telephone interview.
The Mets franchise and Dodger Stadium both sprang to life in April 1962, and the former is beginning a 10-day western swing this weekend with four games in Chavez Ravine. It is a star-studded matchup of the top two teams in the National League, but the clubs will briefly set the competition aside to honor Hodges, a player who meant so much to both sides.
Scully, 94, was a rookie Brooklyn Dodgers broadcaster in April 1950 when he first met Hodges. Neither man, at that point, could have dreamed that just seven years later, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, along with his New York Giants counterpart, Horace Stoneham, would pack up their teams and bring Major League Baseball to California.
With those city-shaking moves, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ lone World Series title in 1955 would become frozen in time. Hearts would break, tears would be shed, but after Ebbets Field met the wrecking ball, the Mets soon emerged. Decades later, the bricks and angles of Citi Field would evoke the spirit of the old ballpark at Sullivan Place. The cross-pollination of the Dodgers and the Mets would become one of baseball’s constants.
When Jane Forbes Clark, chair of the Hall of Fame’s board, and Josh Rawitch, its president, phoned the Hodges family home in Brooklyn in December to deliver the news of Gil’s induction, it was his daughter Irene who picked up and placed the phone next to her mother. Joan Hodges, 96, isn’t always able to assimilate these days, but she perked up immediately at the phone call. “Oh, Gil? My Gil?” Irene recalled her mother saying.
And then that iron steel cable was again pulled taut. From his home in Los Angeles, Scully rang with congratulations. He had been told just before the news became public.
“It gave me a couple of moments before the big huzzahs to just spend an intimate moment with the family,” Scully said. “I was so grateful.”
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Fittingly, that call was placed to an old home on Brooklyn’s fabled Bedford Avenue. After the Hodges family lived through the shock of having Gil’s job relocated to Los Angeles, and after he played four seasons, from age 34-37, with eroding skills in Southern California, the Mets brought him back to New York in the expansion draft.
So the Hodges family purchased a home not far from where once Ebbets Field once stood. It is where the family lived when Gil played for the expansion Mets, when he managed the Amazin’s to the 1969 World Series title (with former Brooklyn Dodgers Joe Pignatano and Rube Walker on his coaching staff), and it is where Joan and Irene reside today.
“It really is amazing, isn’t it?” said Bobby Valentine, who managed the Mets in the 2000 Subway World Series against the Yankees. “That Joanie never left, shopped at the same corner stores, walked the same streets, went to the same Mass all those years? Spectacular.”
As Irene put it: “It’s like having part of your youth stay with you.”
That spirit permeates in so many ways long after Gil’s death from a heart attack in 1972 at age 47. Volumes have been written about those 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 capturing Hodges’s popularity. With Hodges caught in the throes of a rare slump, a priest at Brooklyn’s St. Francis Roman Catholic Church, Father Herbert Redmond, told his congregation, “It’s far too hot for a homily. Keep the Commandments and say a prayer for Gil Hodges.”
“As a wet-behind-the-ears broadcaster, I looked up to him as a major leaguer, an All-Star, a very talented player,” Scully said. “And then when I got to know him a little more, the real Gil Hodges started to come out. I remember one time the Dodgers had played on a really hot day and after the game we got on an airplane and it was Friday and the hostess came down the aisle serving a steak dinner.
“Being Friday, and way back, maybe in the early ’50s, I can hear him and he said, ‘No thank you.’ And the stewardess said, ‘Mr. Hodges, you’ve just played a long game in terrible heat, et cetera, et cetera, 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 up. But it was just the way he did it. He didn’t get on a soap box, he didn’t do anything and he left her with a smile. ‘No, I’m too close to the boss.’”
Jay Horwitz, a Mets official for more than 40 years, said he was struck when he learned how much Hodges helped Jackie Robinson.
“Pee Wee Reese gets a lot of credit, but I was told that with Gil playing the same side of the infield that Jackie did, he prevented a lot of fights and was the enforcer,” Horwitz said.
Indeed, Scully recalls an incident in St. Louis in which Hodges and Robinson converged on a foul pop fly behind first base and, “out of the stands, from the upper deck, came a whiskey bottle.”
The bottle landed between the men, and Scully noticed Hodges offer a little pat on the back to Robinson, “as if to say, we’re in this together, friend.”
“If you weren’t concentrating on the moment, you’d have missed it,” Scully said. “I just thought it’s so typical of Gil. Whatever he does, if you don’t have your eyes on him, he’ll have done it and it’s gone. That’s really the way he played and the way he lived.”
In the moment, according to Irene Hodges, her father quipped to Robinson: “You’d better watch out, Jackie. They’re aiming at me.”
The idyllic days faded. Robinson was dealt to the Giants after the 1956 season and retired. The Dodgers moved and an era ended.
“My mom, an Italian from Brooklyn, had never been that far away from her parents,” Irene Hodges said. “We lived in L.A. that first year, I don’t think she unpacked. She really couldn’t do it.”
The Metropolitans were an expansion team awarded to New York City in 1962 with a too-long nickname and team colors that blended memories of both the Dodgers and the Giants. The new club’s president, George Weiss, strategically worked to stock the expansion roster with familiar names. In addition to Hodges, he grabbed 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 did go back to the Dodgers,” Howie Rose, the Mets’ radio broadcaster, said. “I think the Dodgers and Giants, in many ways, were training wheels for New York fans.”
It was quite a weight for the Mets to be asked to replace those storied old teams.
“And dad being drafted by the Mets in the expansion draft, hitting the first home run in their history, it sort of bridged that gap,” Gil Hodges Jr. said.
By 1980, Fred Wilpon would purchase the team, adding another layer of connective tissue: Wilpon attended Brooklyn’s Lafayette High School with Dodgers Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax and was a rabid fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was under his watch that Citi Field opened in 2009 with so many Dodgers-related touches — most notably, the enormous Jackie Robinson Rotunda — that some Mets fans complained there were more nods to Brooklyn than there were to the Mets.
The connections would only continue, with Mike Piazza’s Hall of Fame career spanning the franchises and Justin Turner, a crucial member of the current Dodgers team, having started his career in orange and blue.
Now, Steven A. Cohen, who tried to buy the Dodgers in 2012, calls the Mets’ shots. In his first public remarks after purchasing the Mets, he cited the Dodgers as the model for what he hoped the Mets would become. He has backed that up by pushing the Mets’ payroll near the top of the sport.
“They’re going to separate themselves from the pack,” said Valentine, who, in keeping with the theme of connective tissue, was once married to a daughter of Ralph Branca, who pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers. “A lot like the Dodgers tried to do when they left town, and the Yankees have always done.”
Two of Hodges’s adult children — Gil Jr., 72, and Irene, 71 — plan to be in Dodger Stadium on Saturday night, as well as two of Irene’s granddaughters and a cousin. And as the videos roll and the lights flash, the iron steel cable running through the decades and the miles will remain as strong as ever.
“Without a doubt, the ’69 World Series was amazing,” Irene Hodges says of her favorite memory. “Everybody was just ecstatic. All of Brooklyn was crazy. It was a wonderful time. My dad, I believe, was a little apprehensive about managing in New York. He knew how good the fans were here, how much they loved him, and he just wanted to do right by them. He wanted to have a successful team. And he did.”