Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Gil Hodges: A Brooklyn Icon Gone Too Soon

On April 2, 1972, the sports world was stunned by the sudden death of Mets manager Gil Hodges, who suffered a fatal attack after shooting a round of golf with his coaches as spring training was wrapping up in Florida.

Hodges was just a few days short of his 48th birthday. He had suffered from heart problems a good part of his life (and even suffered a mild heart attack late in the 1968 season). He was an icon for New York baseball fans, especially for those who lived in Brooklyn.

Gil Hodges lived about a half-mile from where I lived in Brooklyn. (His wife still lives there.) He made Brooklyn his year-round home after he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, and never left there, even when the team did.

On April 6th, Hodges was laid to rest. His funeral was at Our Lady Help of Christians Church, where he attended Sunday mass. I was 10 years old in 1972, and I have vivid memories of this time. I can remember being at my grandparents house and my father getting a call from my uncle with the terrible news about Gil's death. My dad was a huge Hodges fan from his Dodgers days, and it understandably shook him up. My whole family went to his wake at the church, and I'll never forget passing his coffin. He was wearing his World Series rings, and I was impressed by how enormous the size of his hands were.

On the day of the funeral, my father took me and two of my sisters to the church, as the funeral was going on. There was a huge crowd there to pay their respects. The crowds were held back by barricades and the police. We stood across the street at Avenue M and East 28th Street, and I remember seeing news crews on the roofs of the houses.

All types of dignitaries and former and current baseball players were there. I'll never forget seeing the Mets players arrive, but my lasting memory was seeing a black man with white going up the steps, and someone next to me saying "There's Jackie Robinson." It was him, with close friend Ralph Branca, and it was just six months before his premature death at the age of 53. (At the end of the second video, he is together with former teammate Pee Wee Reese. Amazing stuff.)

Last week, I was checking out some videos on YouTube, and came across two stunning videos of the funeral, taken before and after the service. It includes all kinds of people, from the Mets and Dodgers players, to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, broadcaster Howard Cosell and New York mayor John Lindsay. (Listen to the boos after he exits a police car!)

I honestly don't know who made the film, but it is in very good condition, and it is credited to "ABC News Video Source. It brought back a lot of memories for me. (I looked for my dad in the crowd, but couldn't find him. I'm sure that I was buried somewhere among them.) There's no narration to it, just the sounds of the crowd, and the sound quality is pretty good too.

I can't believe it was 41 years ago this month that we lost Gil Hodges, but he has never been forgotten by his adopted New York City borough. It's still a shame he isn't in the Hall of Fame, but that's a discussion for another time. Anyway, here are the two videos, and both are about 12 minutes in length.

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