Excerpt: How Gil Hodges helped turn the 1969 Mets into an amazin' team
The following is excerpted form the new book "Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life," published by the University of Nebraska Press. It has been reprinted here with permission. To buy a copy of the book, click here. For more information go to mortzachter.com.
During the 1969 season, after a Cubs victory, Chicago third baseman Ron Santo began a routine of jumping up as high as he could and clicking his heels together. The fans loved it, but it was considered unprofessional under baseball’s unwritten code that you should never show up the opposition with gestures. That July, after the Cubs won the opening game of the three-game series with the Mets at Wrigley Field, Santo did his jump-and-click routine. The next day, before the second game of the series, Santo and Mets manager Gil Hodges brought their team’s line-up cards out to the umpires. Santo, well-aware that he was breaking one of baseball’s unwritten rules, turned to Hodges and said, “… the only reason I click my heals is because the fans will boo me if I don’t.”
Hodges replied, “You remind me of Tug McGraw. When he was young and immature and nervous, he used to jump up and down, too. He doesn’t do it any more.”
By then, Hodges had spent a lot of time watching Tug McGraw. In 1965, when the lefthanded McGraw was only 20, he had shown tremendous potential when he became the first Mets pitcher to defeat Sandy Koufax. But during spring training in 1968, Hodges wouldn’t let McGraw practice his most effective pitch, a screwball, hoping he would work more on his curve. As a result, McGraw pitched terribly and Hodges sent him down to the minors. The next spring, Hodges needed an effective lefty in the bullpen to complement veteran righthander Ron Taylor. Hodges decided McGraw was his man.
Hodges had three criteria for a reliever: strength (“so he can work frequently”), guts (“because when you send for him, you’re in trouble”), and “a guy who’s… got the overpowering fast ball for the strikeout” McGraw was strong and fearless, and he had honed his screwball into a devastating strikeout pitch during his season in the minors. On the next to last day of spring training in '69, Hodges called McGraw into his office and told him he would always be an average starter, but could be outstanding as a reliever. Hodges then gave McGraw a choice: Did he want to be a starter in Jacksonville or a reliever in New York? McGraw gave Hodges the answer he anticipated.
In the second game of the season, against the Expos, McGraw pitched 6 1/3 third innings in relief, allowing just one run. Hodges knew McGraw was ready to take on more responsibility and again called McGraw into his office. As McGraw recalled, “He complimented me on the job I had done [and said]. ‘I need a stopper. I am giving you the job.’ I walked out without much emotion. My confidence had been high. Now it was just a bit higher.” In 1969, McGraw finished with a record of 9-3, a 2.24 ERA and 12 saves.
But if McGraw could bring order to chaos on the field, off it he was, in the baseball jargon of that era, a flake. But he was an entertaining flake. When asked the difference between playing on grass and Astroturf, McGraw said, “I don’t know, I never smoked Astroturf.” Once, a few seasons later on Camera Day, McGraw blackened his face, put on Willie Mays’ uniform (Mays was then playing for the Mets), and went onto the field before a game to sign autographs. “No problem,” Mays said, “McGraw is McGraw.” Hodges dealt with McGraw, as he would any other player, with one set of rules. When McGraw showed up at spring training with a mustache and General Custer hairdo, Hodges had him “shave the former and clip the latter.”
Yet, like Agee, for McGraw, “Gil’s door was always open.” McGraw respected his old-school manager. Along with his mother, father and brother, he included Hodges in a small group of people who meant the most to him. “When Gil was running the club,” McGraw said, “you always felt sane, even if you were kind of insane.”
But Hodges was not immune from his own emotional moments. One took place on July 30, 1969, in the second game of a doubleheader against the Astros at Shea Stadium. Houston won the first game, 16-3. The loss was particularly frustrating. The Mets had trailed by only two runs entering the ninth, but the Astros then scored 11 runs as they became the first team in National League history to hit two grand-slams in the same inning. In the nightcap, Houston jumped out to a 7-0 lead in the third inning. To a chorus of boos, Hodges removed starter Gary Gentry and replaced him with 22-year-old flamethrower Nolan Ryan. The first batter Ryan faced hit a ball to leftfield that Cleon Jones went after in a nonchalant way, and his throw back to the infield was described as a “balloon.”
Hodges called timeout. To more boos, he started to walk toward the pitchers mound. It is doubtful that Hodges intended to take Ryan out of the game; he had pitched to only one batter and the Astros' pitcher was due up next. More likely, Hodges, who believed that it was sometimes necessary for “a blast that wakes a player up,” was intending to blow reveille for Jones. Hodges was superstitious. During the Mets’ 11-game winning streak, he hit infield practice for 12 straight games until the Mets lost. He also never stepped on the foul lines when walking over them. But this time when Hodges walked onto the field he barely missed stepping on the first base-foul line. “When he was like that,” Bud Harrelson said, “you just said, ‘Holy s---.’”
Hodges walked past Ryan. After making eye contact with Hodges, Harrelson made a face that said, “Me?’” Hodges shook his head, no, and rolled his eyes toward leftfield as if saying, “The other guy.”
It made no difference to Hodges that Jones was leading the National League in hitting with a .346 average, no difference that he had been the starting leftfielder in the All-Star game earlier that month and no difference that the New York Catholic Youth Organization had recently voted him the “Most Popular Met.” Jones had broken rule one of Hodges’ rules. As Hodges wrote, “It’s not whether… a teammate caught the ball, it’s ‘Did he give it a try?’ That’s very important, because from Little League to the major leagues, that try is the one thing that each player owes to his teammates.”
Hodges and Jones stood alone in leftfield. The record differs as to what was said. Jones’ version began with his manager asking a question:
"What do you mean what’s wrong?"
"I don’t like the way you went after that last ball."
"Gil, we talked about this in Montreal. You know I have a bad ankle and as long as I wasn’t going to hurt the team I would continue to play. Look down.”
Hodges was standing in a puddle.
“It is bad out here. I didn’t know it was that bad. You probably need to come out of the game.
"Are you hurt?"
"Come with me."
No matter what was said, Hodges turned and started back to the dugout with Jones sloshing along a few steps behind him. Hodges had acted totally out of character. The man who usually reprimanded his players in private had pulled a player out of a game in the middle of an inning in direct violation of one of baseball’s unwritten rules—never show a player up publicly. But to Hodges, that rule was valid only if a player gave it “that try.” The incident became baseball folklore.
Up in the press box, Matt Winick, the Mets’ assistant director of public relations, waited for the phone to ring. During a game his job was to notify the press on the severity of injuries. But Winick couldn’t call the Mets’ dugout to find out about Jones. Hodges had a firm rule: no one was allowed to call the Mets’ dugout during a game. Hodges wanted to make sure he made all in-game decisions without any interference. Due to Hodges’ rule, Winick usually received a call from the Mets’ trainer regarding injuries. But this time it was Hodges’ voice at the other end: “He has a bad leg.” Winick repeated that to the reporters who began shouting questions. Which leg? What’s wrong? Will he miss any games? Hodges offered nothing more and as Winick later said, “I certainly wasn’t going to say another word.”
“You look into the mirror after something doesn’t work out,” Hodges once said, “and you ask yourself. ‘Would I do the same thing again?’ If you can say yes, that’s fine. But when you start getting noback from the mirror, then you’re in trouble.”
The next day, behind the closed door of his office, Hodges asked Jones one loud and pointed question, "Look in that mirror and tell me if Cleon Jones is giving me 100 percent." Hodges benched Jones for two games and then gradually worked him back in the lineup. Not one to hold a grudge, Hodges put the incident behind him. Later in the season, with Jones in contention for the batting title, Hodges moved him from third to first in the batting order. “It may help him,” Hodges said, “pick up the points he needs to catch up. All of us want him to win it."
Jones had a harder time recovering. "It’s over with,” he said a few years later while Hodges was still his manager, "and I don’t like to talk about it. Maybe he was making a point. Anyway I know I’ll never forget it."
Legend has it that the Mets suddenly improved after the Jones incident. But they actually played losing baseball, going 7-8, in the subsequent two-week period ending on Aug. 13 when New York lost its their third straight game to the Astros in Houston, 8-2. At that point, the Mets had fallen 9 1/2 games behind the Cubs. In the Daily News, “Basement Bertha,” Bill Gallo’s iconic cartoon character that symbolized the frustrations of all Mets’ fans said, “Hey, Gillie—Don’t tell me that kid on Apollo ’69 is comin’ back to earth!”
That night, Hodges shut the door to the visitor’s clubhouse in the Astrodome. Timed so his players would have something to think about on the long flight back to New York, Hodges gave the Mets, "a real ass-chewing," first baseman Donn Clendenon later wrote. The “thunder” lasted 20 minutes. "He didn’t holler much, [but]… when he did it shook the whole team up. Gil told us some of the guys wouldn’t be back next year if we didn’t shape up.It was the real turning point for the season.”
The Mets then returned to New York for a 10-game home stand beginning Aug. 15 against the Padres. Ace Tom Seaver, who had recently been bothered by muscle strain in his pitching arm, was scheduled to start that day, but minutes before the game was going to begin after a 30-minute rain delay, Hodges replaced Seaver with Gentry. Hodges was concerned that if Seaver started the game and it was again delayed, it would add to the stress on his arm. In addition, if the game began and was then called due to rain, Seaver would have been utilized in a no-decision and would be unavailable for the rest of the series. The game was stopped in the bottom of the first inning and was called-off about an hour later. A doubleheader was then scheduled for the next day and a well-rested Seaver started the first game. Seaver shut out San Diego and the Mets swept four games from the Padres.
Epilogue: That sweep kickstarted a 38-11 finish that carried the Mets past the Cubs and to their first NL East title. They then swept the Atlanta Braves in the inaugural National League Championship Series and upset the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in five games to win the World Series. Hodges managed the Mets until dying unexpectedly of a heart attack during spring training in 1972. He was 47 years old.