By Hal Bock
Now that our friends in Cooperstown have swept the steroids commissioner into the Hall of Fame and positioned two of his prominent practitioners for future induction, perhaps it might be an appropriate time to consider the credentials of a couple of players whose achievements came without ever cheating the game.
Thurman Munson and Gil Hodges are never mentioned in the Hall of Fame conversation anymore, a terrible oversight when you consider their contributions to the game. Both are long gone and yet they linger in the mind’s eye, a couple of right-handed hitters who played the game the right way.
Munson was a catcher, the most draining job on the field, and despite its demands remained a force in the middle of the New York Yankees lineup. Hodges came up as a catcher but switched to first base where he became a cornerstone for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Boys of Summer.
Both died young, Munson in a plane crash, Hodges of a heart attack. Both are remembered warmly in the city they once lit up. Both had Hall of Fame numbers.
Munson played 11 seasons with the Yankees, compiling a .292 batting average and hitting over .300 five times. He batted .357 in the postseason. He was the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1976 and the centerpiece on three straight Yankee championship teams. He made seven All-Star teams and was captain of the Yankees when he died.
Two years after the plane accident that took his life, Munson appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time. He received just 15.5 percent of the vote and remained on the ballot for 15 years – the limit in those days — but never got close to the required 75 percent needed for election.
Each year, the AHRC New York City Foundation dinner presents Thurman Munson awards to local athletes. This year’s dinner, set for Feb. 7, honors Wilmer Flores of the Mets, Victor Cruz of the Giants and Gary Sanchez of the Yankees for their charity work. Over the years, the affair has raised $15 million to help children and adults with disabilities. It is a measure of the impact Munson made on this town that the dinner still links its award to his name.
Hodges was an eight-time All-Star as the best fielding first baseman of his era. He had a career batting average of .273 with 361 home runs, including four in one game. His home run total is second in Dodgers history only to Hall of Famer Duke Snider’s 389. There are several spots in Brooklyn named after him including a park, a Little League field, a local bridge and a public school. His popularity in the borough was sealed when he drove in both runs in the deciding game of the 1955 World Series, Brooklyn’s only world championship.
Hodges, who won a bronze star for his service in World War II before his major league career, had his number retired by the Mets, who honor him in their Hall of Fame. That is a tribute to the job he did managing a previously sad–sack team to an unlikely world championship in 1969.
Both of these men starred in another time, a time often overlooked by the Sabermetrics-driven community that dominates baseball conversation these days. It is a sad oversight that ought to be corrected but probably never will be.