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- United States Marine; American baseball player
Tim Nonte wrote one word on his Facebook page: “Finally.”
Don Mattingly texted a simple message back to a reporter: “It’s about time.”
They were referring to Southwestern Indiana native Gil Hodges making the National Baseball Hall of Fame after being a contender for so long.
Hodges, an eight-time All-Star first baseman with the Dodgers and manager of the “Amazin' Mets” 1969 World Series championship team, was finally voted into the Hall by the Golden Days Era panel Sunday.
“It’s very uplifting for some of us old guys,” said Nonte, 79, who coached high school baseball on a field named for Hodges.
Hodges, who helped spark the Brooklyn Dodgers to the 1955 World Series championship and the Los Angeles Dodgers to the '59 title, had held the dubious distinction of getting more votes than anyone not making it into the Hall. He was just one vote shy of being named to the HOF by the Veterans Committee in 1993.
Hodges was from two communities. He was born in Princeton but moved to Petersburg at age 7 and played for Petersburg High School. However, he also played for Princeton’s American Legion team one summer.
Jamey Carroll said Gil was his father's favorite player.
“Knowing (Gil) was from our area, hearing the stories about him was just another part of having a dream seem believable,” said Carroll, a Castle graduate who played for six MLB teams from 2002 to '13. “It was an honor playing for the Dodgers and having the chance to wear his number (14) to make it all come full circle for myself and my family.”
Hodges was one of four players elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the Golden Days Era ballot on Sunday. Hodges, who died in 1972, will be inducted posthumously in Cooperstown, New York, next July 24 along with pitcher Jim Kaat and outfielders Minnie Miñoso and Tony Oliva.
Buck O’Neil, the former Negro Leagues standout and major league coach and scout who helped found the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, and Bud Fowler, often acknowledged as the first Black professional baseball player, were elected to the Hall on the Early Baseball Era ballot.
Hodges, a three-time Gold Glove Award winning first baseman, received 12 of a possible 16 votes, achieving the 75% threshold required for induction.
“When you mention all-time greats in Dodger history, Gil Hodges is among the finest to ever don Dodger blue,” team president and chief executive Stan Kasten said in a statement. “We are thrilled that he will finally take his place in Cooperstown alongside the game’s greats and look forward to honoring him next year.”
Hodges spent the first 15 years of a 17-year career with the Dodgers, playing in Brooklyn from 1947-57 and in Los Angeles from 1958-61 before ending his career with two seasons with the expansion Mets.
He belted 370 career home runs, the most ever by a right-handed hitting National Leaguer until Willie Mays topped him in 1963. Hodges made seven consecutive All-Star game appearances from 1949-55, driving in 100 or more runs each season.
He died of a heart attack while playing golf in West Palm Beach, Florida, two days shy of his 48th birthday. It was the eve of what would have been his fifth season as Mets manager. His widow, Joan, is 96 and still lives in the same Brooklyn house they shared when Hodges played for the Dodgers.
Hodges was a Southern Indiana legend
Growing up in Loogootee, Nonte collected baseball cards of Hodges and Carl Erskine because both were from Indiana. Erskine, Hodges’ Dodger teammate, was a right-handed pitcher from Anderson.
Nonte steered away from the word “idol” or "hero" but had a wealth of admiration for "Gentleman Gil."
“I don’t view him as a ‘hero,’ just a neat player,” Nonte said. “He played in the World Series."
Nonte, who became Princeton High’s baseball coach in 1982, noted that the field in Lafayette Park in which the Tigers played was renamed Gil Hodges Field in 1970. In an era when some high school kids don’t remember anything past five years ago, Nonte would remind them what an honor it was to play on a field named after such a great player.
“It’s such a beautiful old ballpark,” Nonte said. “They put in an all-turf infield and have redone the park.”
Alongside a Dibond (aluminum composite sheet) of Princeton’s sectional, regional and semistate titles is a separate panel listing Hodges’ achievements at Gil Hodges Field. Nonte left room at the bottom to add that Hodges was named to the Hall. All these years later, he can finally fill it in.
Hodges aided sick youth's recovery
Stan Bishop approached Hodges in a Princeton bowling alley one offseason. He asked him about possibly coming to visit Joe Don Decker, his nephew, a 9-year-old trying to overcome a ruptured appendix. Decker noted in those days there wasn’t nearly as much that could be done to hasten his recovery.
“They had to drain pus out of my abdomen,” said Decker, now 80. “Gil was my idol. I had a scrapbook (of Hodges’ clippings). I saw him walk through the door and said, ‘Oh my, it’s Gil Hodges.’”
Hodges’ massive hand totally enveloped Decker’s when they shook.
“He sat and talked to me and encouraged me,” said Decker, formerly a Princeton dentist who retired and lives in Sarasota, Florida. “He just gave me a better outlook on life.”
After Hodges’ visit, Decker began to recover.
“I had a great time,” he said. “He was my idol.”
Years later, Decker was a minor league second baseman in the Cincinnati Reds’ spring training camp in 1963 at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. Hodges was then playing for the expansion Mets.
Decker walked over to Hodges to get reacquainted.
“He and his wife (Joan) sent me Christmas cards for several years after that meeting,” Decker said.
Princeton and Petersburg upbringing
Born April 4, 1924 in Princeton, Gil was the son of coal miner Charles and Irene. He was a four-sport athlete at Petersburg High. Hodges played the final game of the 1943 season for the Brooklyn Dodgers before being drafted into the military. Discharged in 1946, he returned to Flatbush. Following his playing career, he managed the Washington Senators from 1963 to ’67 and the Mets from ’68 to ’71.
Facing incoming kamikaze pilots in the World War II Pacific Theater and earning a bronze star, Hodges never lost a Marine’s quiet resolve.
He is so beloved in Petersburg, there is a 52-by-16 foot mural of him, painted by artist Randy Hedden, on 100 N. Ninth Street, at the intersection of Indiana 61 and Indiana 57. It depicts Hodges as a Brooklyn Dodger, managing the Mets and batting at Ebbetts Field. It was dedicated in 2009.
Five months after Hodges' death, the Indiana General Assembly dedicated a $1.2 million bridge spanning the East Fork of the White River in northern Pike County, near Petersburg.
On the day it was unveiled, local pastor Larry Vieck read from an inscription on a monument: “Above all, he was dedicated to God, family, country and the game of baseball.”
An empty space was left near the bottom of the monument. It would be filled, Vieck said, when Hodges was inducted into the Hall.
Now's the time.
This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: Gil Hodges, pride of Princeton and Petersburg, voted to Baseball HOF