Gil Hodges for the Hall of Fame?

This year is the 50th anniversary of the New York Mets improbable run to World Series victory. William McGurn of the Wall Street Journal uses the occasion to argue that Gil Hodges, who managed the Mets to glory, should be in the Hall of Fame. He calls Hodges’s absence from the HOF “baseball’s greatest continuing injustice.”

That’s quite an overstatement. Hodges’s managerial career is not Hall of Fame caliber. Yes, his 1969 Mets defied the odds and he managed them brilliantly. However, his overall record as a manager is 658-791. Outside of 1969, when he won 100 games, Hodges’ teams never won even 90. In fact, his best mark was 83-79, achieved in 1970 and 1971.

Now, Hodges’s record is misleading, burdened by years of losing baseball with the hopeless Washington Senators. I witnessed those years and know that Hodges did not manage poorly. To the contrary, he did a good job of squeezing 70 plus wins a year out of them. The Senators improved every year under Hodges, going from 62 wins in 1964 to 76 wins in 1967, his last season in D.C.

New York’s improvement under Hodges was more dramatic — 71 wins in 1968 and 100 in 1969. Amazing.

As noted, however, they then slid down to 83 wins the next two seasons. These were his last two. Hodges died of a heart attack in 1972 during Spring Training.

Hodges, in sum, was an excellent manager, but not a Hall of Fame manager. As a manager, he resembles Roger Maris as a player — one magical season and an otherwise very good career. Maris is not in the Hall of Fame, and should not be.

Place Hodges’s managerial record alongside that of Lou Piniella, who is not in the HOF. It pales by comparison. And like Hodges, Piniella pulled off a monumental upset when he led Cincinnati to the championship over the powerhouse Oakland As in 1990. Unfortunately for Lou, this occurred in the Midwest, not in New York City.

There’s more, however, to Hodges’s claim for Hall of Fame status than I have thus far considered. Before he was an excellent manager, Hodges was an excellent player. Indeed, during the first half of the 1950s, he played at around a HOF level.

Overall, his playing career places him a little below that level. Consider this ranking of all-time first basemen by Baseball Reference. Hodges places 37th. Only one Hall of Fame first baseman ranks lower — Jim Bottomley who shouldn’t be in the Hall. Most of the first basemen immediately above Hodges — Dolph Camilli, Norm Cash, Fred McGriff — are not in.

The most interesting comparison is with Frank Chance (of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance fame) who comes in just above Hodges in 36th place. He’s in the Hall of Fame.

Like Hodges, Chance also managed. Chance was more successful at it. His career record is 946-648. His teams won more than 100 games four times in 11 years and more than 90 on three additional occasions. His 1906 Cubs went 116-36.

Obviously, this was a very different era than the one Hodges managed during. The gulf between the two as managers isn’t nearly as great as the numbers suggest. But Chance has the better claim to be in the HOF as a manager.

The real question for me is whether someone who excelled as both a manager and player, but not enough to make the Hall as either one, should be admitted based on a combination of his performance as both. Hodges was a little below HOF level as a player. Should his considerable achievements as a manager put him over the top?

One can make a good case that it should. Therefore, I would have no problem with Hodges being in the Hall of Fame. However, McGurn is well wide of the mark when he calls Hodges’s exclusion “baseball’s greatest continuing injustice.”

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