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Mudville: July 22, 2024 3:16 am PDT

Dodgers and Bears

Fun facts are a big part of the wide world of sports.

And here at The Story, connections are often part of telling the story. It’s what we do. With that in mind, consider this: Before he went off to World War II – before he became an eight-time All-Star first baseman for the Dodgers – Gil Hodges went off to college, little St. Joseph’s College, a Catholic school in Rensselaer, Indiana.

With the hopes of being a teacher, and avoiding the coal mines where his father worked, Hodges enrolled there in 1941 and played basketball and baseball for the Pumas, leaving the school after his sophomore season to sign with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Whether you know it or not, pretty much everyone who loves sports, and loves sports movies has seen the campus of St. Joseph’s College, which is 100 miles north of Indianapolis.

Really, you have.

How can that be?

Well, from 1944-74 the Chicago Bears held training camp there. Papa Bear George Halas roamed those fields. The ABC Tuesday Movie of the Week in 1971 filmed a significant portion of the film right there at St. Joseph’s College.

That’s right, the training camp scenes for Brian’s Song were filmed at St. Joseph’s. The movie debuted 50 years ago on Nov. 30, 1971.

Tears followed.

The story of Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers and their incredible friendship occurred at the same college that Gil Hodges attended for two years before becoming a Marine and heading off to fight in the South Pacific after playing one game for the Dodgers in 1943.

He did not return to the Dodgers until the 1947 season.

James Caan played Piccolo, the Bears running back who died of cancer on June 16, 1970 at the age of 26. Billy Dee Williams played Sayers, and you can still hear the words from the movie when Billy Dee Williams offered his heartbreaking speech about his dying friend.

“I love Brian Piccolo, and I’d like all of you to love him, too. Tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him, too.’’

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

I learned of the St. Joseph connection in a recent conversation with longtime Twins scout Billy Milos. Milos, born in Chicago, moved to Indiana 18 years ago, and he came across the connection while scouting baseball games at St. Joseph’s College, a Division II school.

“In 1996 I believe, St. Joseph’s was second in the country in Division II, they played for a National Championship,’’ Milos told BallNine of the school’s baseball success. “My friend Mike Moyzis rebuilt the program. Then Rick O’Dette, a lefty pitcher on that team, who ended up being a 15th round pick with the Red Sox and after his playing career, he took over the St. Joe’s program. He had it rolling, too. That program, until the day they closed, they turned that into a great program. The school is right off I-65, just north of Lafayette, where Purdue is, just tucked away. I’m sure that’s why the Bears were there. St. Joe’s College, I was there a ton through the years.’’

“There is so much depth to his candidacy – but that has eluded many baseball experts through the years, who look at Hodges through the prism of comparing him to today’s sluggers”

There is talk of the school reopening soon. It closed in 2017. O’Dette wound up coaching at St. Leo University in Florida, where he has built another successful program.

In 1979, three-time World Series winning Giants GM Brian Sabean was an assistant coach at St. Leo.

St. Joseph’s has not changed much through the decades.

“If you showed up at the school, and walked those grounds, you would be amazed at how similar it still looks to the scenery in Brian’s Song,’’ Milos said. “If you watched Brian’s Song, it would be like ‘Holy crow, the brick dormitories are the same, the fields back there are the same.

“I wasn’t born until 1968 but I always knew the name Gil Hodges,’’ Milos said. “Once I moved into Indiana, that’s when I learned more and more about Gil Hodges. When Mike Moyzis took over the St. Joseph program, turned it into one of the best D-IIs in the country and I’m showing up saying, ‘Gil Hodges played here.’’’

Gil Hodges was born in Princeton, Indiana and went to high school in Petersburg, Indiana.

In Northern Pike County spanning the east fork of the White River there is a bridge named after Gil Hodges. Also there is a monument for Gil, highlighting his life’s accomplishments and space was left at the bottom of the monument years ago… to add info about his Hall of Fame induction.

We are all still waiting.

Go to the Facebook page of “Gil Hodges Belongs In the Baseball Hall of Fame’’ and you will find pictures of that monument, going back quite a few years.

The monument honoring Gil Hodges at the Gil Hodges Bridge in Indiana. Notice the bottom of the monument which has been reserved to include Mr. Hodges' Hall of Fame induction information. (Photo: Claire Elizabeth Hall via Facebook)

Perhaps Sunday night that may finally come true when the Golden Days Era Committee of the National Baseball Hall of Fame announces their selections for the Hall in 2022. The vibes are good for Hodges this time around and regular followers of BallNine know I have written much about his accomplishments and how he should have been put in the Hall of Fame decades ago. The writers should have elected him over his 15 years on the ballot where he came oh so close. In 1983, his last year on the ballot, Gil received 63.4 percent of the vote. He needed 75 percent.

That is the magic percentage, same for the Golden Days Era Committee.

To me, it’s a no brainer but for some reason Hodges never could get the needed votes on veterans’ committees, even the year 1993, when he came one vote short and they did not allow committee member and former Hodges’ Boys of Summer teammate Roy Campanella’s vote. Campy could not attend the meeting because he was hospitalized so his vote for Hodges was disallowed by Ted Williams.

That one I will never understand.

It’s been a travesty.

A gentle reminder from a recent BallNine column of mine.

  • Hodges’ 370 home runs place him 12th among the 24 first baseman already in the HOF.
  • From 1948 to 1959 Hodges led all major league first baseman in home runs, runs batted in, total bases, extra-base hits and OPS.
  • Hodges received the most total HOF votes from baseball writers than any player not admitted to the Hall (3,010).
  • Hodges was considered the best defensive first baseman of his time and his 310 home runs and 1,001 RBIs in the 1950s were the second-most in the major leagues behind teammate Duke Snider, a Hall of Famer.

Then there is the fact Hodges was awarded the Bronze Star in WW II. That should stand for something.

In 1969, you might have heard, Gil Hodges guided the Miracle Mets to the World Series over the heavily favored Orioles. So there is that too, success as player and as a manager.

There is so much depth to his candidacy – but that has eluded many baseball experts through the years, who look at Hodges through the prism of comparing him to today’s sluggers.

Golden Era candidates Dick Allen and Minnie Minoso also seem to be gaining steam, Jim Kaat, Maury Wills and Tony Oliva, too, but you never know how these committees go, it depends who has the strongest voice backing the former players, but one of baseball’s iconic voices Vin Scully came out in strong support of Gil this past week, saying much of the same things he told me back in March of 2020.

It should be Gil’s time. It’s past time. His family has been through this HOF gauntlet many, many times and told me on Saturday they have their hopes up once again but are not getting too excited.

I truly believe the Hall of Fame needs Hodges now more than ever, someone of his character and achievements. His love of America is no small thing, either, as is fighting for his country. He did miss three years of baseball time in the war.

Not to mention that baseball is heading into some dark times with this lockout and millionaires fighting billionaires while the rest of the country is dealing with inflation and so much more. These are perilous times for the game, especially with the short-sighted Rob Manfred at the helm as commissioner.

The Hall of Fame is a most special place, and over the last few years a number of players have been pushed through the doors by the assorted veterans committees, players like Harold Baines – but I never get upset over that kind of stuff. I figure there are Harold Baines fans out there that get a kick out of seeing him in the Hall. Same goes for the likes of Bill Mazeroski and a number of others. I also believe more first basemen and more third basemen need to be represented in the Hall of Fame. To me, Don Mattingly is a fascinating candidate as well. Thurman Munson, too.

This is a museum. It is not Baseball Heaven.

(Photo: Robert Tretter via Faecbook)

It should be more of a potpourri for fans. Many of Gil Hodges fans are no longer with us, which makes his case even sadder. Gil passed away in 1972 at the age of 47. His character and strength live on though and so many fans who want to see him in the Hall of Fame speaks volumes for what he accomplished in his life and what he still represents.

Just one more statistical note: From 1949-57, Hodges posted, he averaged 152 games per season with 32 home runs, 108 RBI and a .284 average. That’s damn good, people.

He always remained the regular guy from Southern Illinois who never made himself the center of attention. He did his job like the day he drove in the only two runs in 1955 in Game 7 of the World Series to back Johnny Podres’ magnificent complete-game victory over the Yankees. It marked the Brooklyn Dodgers only World Series victory. That season, at the age of 31, Hodges hit 27 home runs and drove in 102 runs. He slugged .500. He was the first National League first baseman to hit at least 23 home runs and drive in 100 runs for seven consecutive seasons. Eventually Albert Pujols joined him in that category.

Milos the scout has total respect for the strong personalities and leadership of players who come out of Gil’s part of the country, players like Hodges and Mattingly.

“The one thing I loved about Southern Indiana, especially that region, obviously Don Mattingly coming out of Evansville,’’ Milos said, “they love baseball. Just like Southern Illinois. When you talk to the families and the kids of that region, they want to go play. If you treated them fairly, they were going to take their shot at big league baseball. It was great. They are just true baseball people. If you liked a high school kid, you could sign him. Treat them right and be honest with them.’’

Not many signability issues, there.

Hodges was one of those players, signing with the Dodgers, leaving St. Joseph’s behind.  His life turned out to be much too short but what a life he had in front of him at that moment he left St. Joseph’s College.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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