Columnist Tom Hoffarth, of The Los Angeles Daily News, is the city’s go-to guy for all things sports media – the absolute best – and a personal friend. No one has supported my baseball-related efforts, like the “Statue for Sandy” Koufax e-petition and the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America (IBWAA – new website coming next month) like Tom.
And this isn’t a shoot-the-messenger post, of course. But someone’s attacking the Dodgers for no good reason and I’m riled up. Especially considering that for the eight years leading up to May 1, 2012, there have been so many legitimate reasons for gripes aimed at ownership, I thought I’d stand up for the Blue here, when there isn’t one.
In this afternoon’s blog, Hoffarth discusses Tom Clavin and Danny Peary’s new book, “Gil Hodges: The Brooklyn Bums, The Miracle Mets and the Extraordinary Life of a Baseball Legend,” highlighting the authors’ contention that the great Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman deserves enshrining in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
That’s all fine and dandy, and absolutely a debate worth having. No one questions the politics and general strangeness of the Veterans Committee, and its various incarnations, more than I. We can discuss the voting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of American (BBWAA) another time, and we will. But suffice it to say, I didn’t create the IBWAA in 2009 for nothing, pal.
But back to Gil. Since I’m a Dodger fan, I try to be objective when it comes to our guys, and not say simply “yes, yes, yes” each time. Steve Garvey, for example, I believe to be a Hall of Famer – very much so – and Bill Buckner, my absolute favorite player ever, a near miss. I’m on the fence with Hodges. I’d be fine with him at Cooperstown, but I understand the argument, if we can call it that, against.
Buzzie Bavasi told me on more than one occasion, and in no uncertain terms, that Hodges was every bit the Cooperstown-worthy Dodger, comparing him favorably to Tony Perez, and emphasizing that he lost three seasons at the beginning of his career to World War II. As if he was being penalized for being of service to his country. Basasi really ought to be in Cooperstown too, by the way.
For a concise argument in favor of Gil, also comparing him to Perez, we turn to Tom Verducci, on SI.com a few years ago: “How good was Hodges? Think of him as a better version of Hall of Famer Tony Perez — better plate discipline, better power and a better glove. He outslugged Perez (.487, .463), reached base more often (.359, .341), made more All-Star teams (eight, seven), won more Gold Gloves (three, zero) and had just as many 100-RBI seasons (seven). At the time of his retirement Hodges was the all-time NL leader in home runs among right-handed hitters. He was the premier defensive first baseman of his era and — as part of his overall contribution to the game, which must be considered — he was a highly respected manager who crafted one of the most unlikely world championships in history (the 1969 Mets) and he was the idol of many baseball fans for his integrity and character.”
But look, the Hodges-is-or-isn’t-a-Hall-of-Famer discussion is one thing, blaming the Dodgers even remotely is something else indeed. Doing so in a book, where you can’t go in and click delete, is just plain lame.
Here’s the section in question from Hoffarth’s article. The first two paragraphs are Tom’s; the rest, in quote marks, are Clavin and Peary’s:
One of the arguments made by the authors on page 374 centers on an on-going debate about why the franchise waits to retire numbers until after someone is voted into the Hall.
Meaning, Hodges’ [#14] is not among those honored along the roof of the left and right-field pavilion:
“If the writers and veterans have an excuse for their faulty voting over the years in regard to Hodges, it is that the Los Angeles Dodgers have never retired his number. The Mets did so, but not the organization he belonged to for 20 years. The Dodgers’ backward policy, even during the years of Walter O’Malley and then his son Peter O’Malley ran the team, was to retire uniform numbers only after a player had been voted into Cooperstown.
“Essentially, they continue to outsource the Hodges vote to younger sportswriters who never saw him play. The Dodgers did break their policy and retired Jim Gilliam’s number. Their choosing Gilliam, who was popular for years as a player and coach in Los Angeles, and not Hodges deserves an explanation that has never been given.
“Meanwhile, Hall of Fame voters have been able to say: If the Dodgers don’t even consider Hodges for their Hall of Fame, there’s no reason I should consider him for ours.”
First of all, the Dodgers don’t have a Hall of Fame. C’mon guys, you ought to know that. And the team isn’t responsible for the voting of writers or former baseball players in a committee slash smoke-filled room. What a ridiculous idea.
More importantly, the club’s policy about retiring numbers isn’t “backward.” Just because the player you want isn’t honored the way you want doesn’t make the policy backward, or controversial in the least.
Sandy Koufax was enshrined in Cooperstown in 1972. The same year the Dodgers, led by Walter O’Malley, thought it would be a good idea to retire Sandy’s number (can you blame them?) and did so in a ceremony at Dodger Stadium that same summer.
Since Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella had already been elected to the Hall, in 1962 and 1969 respectively, and since both men were working with the club at the time, it was decided to make the retiring-number event into a threesome. Uniform numbers 32, 39 and 42 were retired together. And a tradition was born. Kind of.
Walter Alston’s number 24 was next, in 1977, which was actually six years before his election into the Hall of Fame. But Alston was an obvious future Hall of Famer, he had just hung em up the previous September, it was clear the number would never be used again, and the club went ahead with the thoroughly-deserved honor, retiring Smokey’s uniform ahead of enshrinement.
As for Jim Gilliam, the authors’ claim that the Dodgers “choosing Gilliam, who was popular for years as a player and coach in Los Angeles, and not Hodges deserves an explanation that has never been given” is truly unfortunate.
Gilliam, while still coaching for the team, died suddenly at 49, October 8, 1977, right smack dab in the middle of the National League Championship Series between the Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies. Can you imagine the shock to the club, losing its third base coach – and with Gilliam’s arrival in Brooklyn in 1953, playing until 1966 and coaching through to the day he died – its longest serving team member?
It was as a special honor in memoriam to Gilliam that the Dodgers retired his number a year later, on October 10, 1978, before the playing of the first game of a little thing called the World Series. So Gilliam wasn’t an actual member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. That was absolutely the right thing for the Dodgers to do, and a beautiful thing, exactly what you’d expect from the O’Malleys.
Later, as Duke Snider, Don Drysdale, Pee Wee Reese, Don Sutton and Tommy Lasorda were honored in upstate New York, they were so honored in Los Angeles by the franchise for which they performed. Perhaps about a year from now Mike Piazza will be next, and number 31 will be worn no more. I’m quite sure Brandon League will understand.
If the Dodgers retired the numbers of all their greats, today’s players wouldn’t have a thing to wear. And we don’t want that.
I’d like to see Maury Wills in the Hall one day, and if so, we’ll have number 30 retired promptly. Fernando Valenzuela’s 34 isn’t retired, Neither is Steve Garvey’s number 6. And you don’t hear Don Newcombe – who lost years to both the service and the Negro Leagues – complaining about the number 36.
A couple of uninformed writers shouldn’t be whining about # 14 either. In fact, they owe the Dodgers an apology.