This year's Indians were going to be different. No question about that. But how different? Or to put it less delicately, how much worse different?
Lots, it seemed, as the team got off to the kind of start that only happens to clubs that are so flat financially they cannot afford it. The Indians plunged directly to the bottom of the American League East. At one point they lost seven in a row. The team's celebrity, Hawk Harrelson, hit .199 and quit to try pro golf. What Cleveland has needed was a laugh, or even just a giggle. Which is how a pinch-hitting 27-year-old rookie became famous. His name is Harold Hodge, but with his deep Carolina accent folks were bound to call him Gomer. He even looks like Jim Nabors, the Gomer Pyle of television.
Practically the only reason the Indians did not lose all their early games was Gomer Hodge. He had four hits in his first four pinch-hitting appearances, a feat that led him to claim he was batting "4,000." His first hit traveled only 15 feet but he said, "It must have gone 150 feet. Ah count the bounces." When the team returned to Cleveland for its home opener, Hodge wore a borrowed sportcoat and shirt and had $5 in his pocket. His hit won the game.
"I just throwed my bat at it and ran like blazes," Hodge said later. He did not stop until he was on second (first would have been sufficient). "I had to go somewhere," said Hodge. "Ya havta keep movin' in this game, ya know."
July 25, 1971
Soon each time he strolled to the plate the strains of Smokey Mountain Breakdown, his favorite record, would float over Cleveland Stadium. In an interview he said, "Some fellas don't believe in God, but me and The Guy Upstairs know each other and He takes care of me."
And Hodge took care of the Indians. In a game against Boston the crowd chanted, "We want Gomer! We want Gomer!" In the eighth inning they got Gomer. To a standing ovation, he stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and responded with a 400-foot drive to the center-field wall. Cleveland won 7-2. He told the press, "Dad gum...if that ball had goed over that sign, I'd of called it a career. Everythin's so unreal. They scared me when I went up to the plate. Standin' up and hollerin' 'Go, Gomer!' Nothin' ever happened to me like this before."
Nothing like Gomer Hodge Day ever happened to him before either. Afraid that Hodge might prove no more than a chimera, and prompted by the old-fashioned habit of cashing in while the product is hot, the Cleveland management gave Hodge his Day just seven weeks into his big-league career. More than 10,000 people came, including members of his fan club, Gomer's Gang, which sits appropriately in Hodge's Lodge.
All this was a far cry from Rutherfordton, N.C. (pop. 3,245) where Harold Hodge was born. As a kid Hodge played cow pasture baseball and aspired to "learn how to get a mule to gee and haw and to lay corn straight." But his farming career was cut short—or perhaps merely delayed—when Cleveland signed him out of high school. He played in seven different cities as a minor-leaguer, ranging from Salinas, Calif. to Waterbury, Conn., never batting .300 or hitting more than 10 home runs. But Cleveland saw promise in him, and this spring he made the majors. "I like it," he says. "The only bad thing is they think I'm stupid. Some of 'em expect me to run to first base and trip or something. I don't like that."
Hodge also is apprehensive about pinch-hitting for his friends. "It puts pressure on man buddies," he says. "I guess they thank they gotta hit ever' time because the crowd be yelling fer me. Subbing fer mah buddies sorta gits me. But I like to win."
On the fifth-place Indians, Gomer gets little enough of that, especially since his own game-winning heroics have been absent lately. His average has fallen from "4,000" to .235, but he is no less a folk hero to the Cleveland fans. Would he try to translate his popularity into a raise, he was asked recently. "Oh never," he said. "In Mexico ball they gave me a raise and the next night Horacio Pina hit me on the back of the head with a fastball. I ain't dumb enough to ask for another one."