Since the earliest days of organized professional sports, few, if any, cities throughout the United States have revered their hometown teams and athletes the way New Yorkers have. While that fact reflects the passion and competitive spirit that has always been such an innate part of those who dwell within the Big Apple, it probably also stems from the legendary roster of athletes that have performed in such storied stadiums and arenas as the Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, Yankee Stadium, Madison Square Garden, Shea Stadium and The Meadowlands.
That legendary list is a Who's Who of some of the greatest athletes to have ever taken to a field, court or rink. The mere mention of their names conjures up the memories and passions of millions – Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Sandy Koufax, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, Jackie Robinson, Frank Gifford, Earl Monroe, Wayne Gretzky, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Lawrence Taylor, Walt Frazier, Joe Namath, Fran Tarkenton, Tom Seaver, Don Mattingly, Willie Mays, Willis Reed, Derek Jeter and Mike Piazza to name just a few.
If you were to sit down with a group of New Yorkers, especially those who were around back in the 1950s and '60s, and pressed them to compile a list of the most legendary and beloved athletes to have left their mark on their city, you can be assured there would be two names that would appear on many of those lists – Elston Howard and Gil Hodges.
These two giants of New York baseball have gone down in history as sentimental fan faves, and while neither has been inducted into the hallowed halls of Cooperstown, they are beloved by fans and card collectors alike, not just for their athletic prowess, but for the way they lived their all-too-short lives.
The Gentle and Dignified Elston Howard
Elston Gene Howard was born on February 23, 1929 in St. Louis, Missouri. As a kid, he attended Vashon High School where he was a standout player in baseball, track, football and basketball. Throughout his high school career, he demonstrated good athletic ability coupled with finesse that, by the time he was in his mid-teens, had garnered the attention of college scouts. In 1948, 19-year-old Elston was no longer simply garnering the attention of college scouts, but pro scouts as well, who came knocking with either a scholarship or a pro contract.
Howard opted to go pro and signed on with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues where he honed his skills as a fielder and a hitter. In July of 1950, the New York Yankees pitched an offer to Howard who took the pitch and suited up with the team's Muskegon, Michigan farm team. The following four years saw Howard split his time between his play in Muskegon and his service with the United States Army. During his last year of play in the Minors, Howard led the International League in triples and was named the League's Most Valuable Player.
While Howard was a solid outfielder, he also had the skills to don a mask and handle the duties from behind the plate. The Yanks began working with Howard to develop his catching skills and, on April 14, 1955, he received the call to step up and play with the big boys in pinstripes at The House That Ruth Built.
Howard's inaugural performance in New York was one that saw the Yankees hit a legendary milestone. Compared to other MLB teams of the time, the Yankees were rather late in adding an African-American player to their roster. That happened when Howard suited up and took to the field on that warm spring day and got a hit the first time he stepped into the batter's box.
While heralded as one of the most promising rookies of that season, the Yankees had a roster brimming with talent that included the most legendary catcher in the Majors – Yogi Berra. With Yogi behind the plate and a strong outfield, Manager Casey Stengel simply had nowhere to put the promising young Howard. Used intermittently as a backup catcher, outfielder and first baseman, Howard proved to be an all-around addition to the team.
The Yanks faced their cross-town rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers, in the 1955 World Series and play in the Fall Classic did little to intimidate Howard. He chalked up his first World Series homer and RBI in Game One, which the Yanks went on to win. While his Series start was impressive, Howard's Series end was less than impressive. In Game Seven, a Howard grounder saw the Series conclude with a Dodger victory.
The following year saw the Yanks and the Dodgers again return to the World Series. Howard saw very limited play in that Series. While he only took to the field in Game Seven, he turned in an impressive showing smacking a solo homer as his team snagged the Championship back from Brooklyn.
The 1957 season, which saw Howard named to his first All-Star Game, culminated with the Yankees taking on the Milwaukee Braves for the World Championship. In Game Four of the Series, Howard crushed a three-run homer to tie the game with two outs in the ninth inning. The Braves rallied to not only win that game but the entire Series.
A 1958 World Series rematch once again saw the Yanks face the Braves. Howard was a non-factor until Game Five of the Series when he made a double play to help New York narrowly defeat the Braves. In Game Six, he threw Andy Pafko out at home, and in the 10th inning, singled and scored with what was to become the game's winning run. In the deciding game of that Series, Howard's two-out RBI single scored Yogi Berra to give the Yanks the lead they would hold onto for a Championship victory. While Bob Turley took MVP honors for that Series, the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America named Howard the Babe Ruth Award winner as the top player in the '58 Series.
Howard came into his own with the Yankees in 1960. Taking over the first-string catching role from Berra meant that he finally had a position to call his own. Howard's move onto the Yank's regular roster was, however, inauspicious as he turned in a paltry .245 batting average. That year saw the Yankees take on the Pittsburgh Pirates for the World Championship. Howard found the hitting spark that had eluded him throughout that regular season. He turned in a .462 Series average, but was injured by a pitch in Game 6 and forced to watch from the dugout as his teammates clinched yet another Championship.
The following season saw Howard hit for what would be a career best .348 as the Yankees once again made it to the World Series. Taking on the Cincinnati Reds in the 1961 Series, he hit a solo home run in the Yank's Game One victory, and then scored three runs in the 13-5 Game Five win that gave the Bronx Bombers another Championship.
In the 1962 campaign, Howard batted .279 during the regular season and dropped to a dismal .143 in the '62 World Series against the San Francisco Giants. Despite Howard's lackluster play, New York again took the Series in seven games.
Yankee dominance continued in 1963 as Howard hit .287, slugged 28 homers and had 85 RBIs. It was the year he would be named the American League's Most Valuable Player and win his first Gold Glove Award. In the World Series, New York was swept by their former cross-town rivals who had recently relocated to Los Angeles. The Dodgers sent the Yanks packing without the crown in the '63 Series. Howard hit for .333 in that Series and drove in the only Yankee run of Game Two.
The next year saw Howard bat .313 and repeat with the Gold Glove Award. Under the management of Yogi Berra, the Yankees once again earned an invite to the World Series. Taking on the St. Louis Cardinals, Howard hit .292 as the Yanks fell to the birds in seven games.
And thus came the end of Elston Howard's career as a New York Yankee – for a little while.
During the 1967 season, Howard was traded to the Boston Red Sox where he was instrumental in the team's winning of the American League pennant. At the conclusion of the 1968 season, the Red Sox released Howard; but, by the start of the following season, he had been picked by the New York Yankees. Back in the Big Apple, he served as the Yanks first base coach for the following ten years and again was a member of the team that saw World Series wins in 1977 and 1978 and an American League pennant in 1976. In 1980, after serving as coach, he accepted a job with the Yankees front office.
Over his 14-year playing career Howard chalked up 167 career home runs, 1471 hits, 762 RBIs, 619 runs, 218 doubles, 50 triples and 9 stolen bases. His play in ten World Series (54 games) made him one of the most regular World Series participants in MLB history.
On December 14, 1980, Elston Howard died of a heart ailment at the age of 51. When broadcaster Red Barber heard the news of Howard's passing, he said that the Yankees had lost more class than George Steinbrenner could buy in ten years.
When the Yanks kicked off their 1981 season, they did so in Howard's honor. The team wore black armbands on their uniforms throughout the season. Three years later, in July of 1984, the New York Yankees retired Howard's number and unveiled a plaque in his honor at Yankee Stadium's Monument Park. The plaque lauds Howard as: "A man of great gentleness and dignity."
Elston Howard's Collectibles
Elston Howard's only recognized rookie card is the 1955 Bowman # 68. It was a part of the "TV set" that Bowman issued that year. The # 68 card, which presents a smiling Howard framed by a wood grain television set, is extremely difficult to find in high grades. The dark "woodsy" border is unforgiving when it comes to wear. It clearly shows every chip and imperfection.
Single signed baseballs are extremely tough to locate with exceptional examples bringing $2,500 or more. Signed photos can be obtained in the $300-$400 range for the most part. Game-used bats of the perennial All-Star are very popular with high-end examples fetching in excess of $2,000 at auction.
The Great Gil
Gilbert Raymond Hodges was born in Princeton, Indiana on April 4, 1924. His father, Charlie, who worked as a coal miner, moved the family to Petersburg in Indiana's southwest tip when Gil was just seven.
From a very young age, Gil harbored a great interest in sports. That passion was instilled in him by his father who hoped that a career in athletics would give his son the chance for a better life than what he had. In 1941, at the conclusion of his high school career, Gil was offered a contract from the Detroit Tigers. Gil turned down the offer opting to attend Indiana's St. Joseph's College on a scholarship. At St Joe's, he majored in physical education with the hopes of carving out a future as a college coach.
While playing collegiate ball, pro scouts again noticed Hodges and in 1942 Stan Freezle, a part-time scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers, tapped him. Hodges signed a contract with the Dodgers but only played in one game. During that time, the country was in the midst of World War II. Hodges, who had served as a member of the Marines ROTC program in college, left baseball and joined the military where he served in the battles of Tinian and Okinawa. His military service saw him honored with numerous accolades including a bronze star before he was discharged in 1946 as a sergeant.
Back in Brooklyn after the war, Hodges once again took up with the Dodgers who asked him to cover first base and, by 1949, he was widely considered to be one of the outstanding first basemen in Major League Baseball.
A fan favorite, Hodges was perhaps the only player Dodger fans were ever patient with. New Yorkers who poured into Ebbets Field were not known for suffering the inadequacies of their team's players with much graciousness, and yet, Hodges was never booed even when he went through one of the most legendary dry spells in MLB history. In 1952, Hodges went without a single hit in the last nine games of the regular season.
Then, in the World Series, when the Dodgers met up with their cross-town rivals, the New York Yankees, Gil chalked up the embarrassing stat of not getting even one hit in 21 times at bat. That dry spell continued into the 1953 season and Brooklynites responded by sending Hodges their best wishes, letters of encouragement, and even good luck trinkets. An oft-repeated story even recounts that on one exceptionally hot summer Sunday, a priest by the name of Father Herbert Redmond of St. Francis Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn told his congregation that: "It's far too hot for a sermon. (So just) keep the Commandments and say a prayer for Gil Hodges."
Perhaps those prayers helped because Gil finished up the '53 season by hitting .302 and seeing his team get to the World Series. Pitted against the Yanks, Gil scored a Series batting average of .364 although the Dodgers again fell to the mighty Bombers from the Bronx. The following season saw Gil turn in the best performance of his career as he hit for .304.
In 1955, Gil chalked up a regular season average of .289 hitting 27 horsehides out of the park and recording 102 RBIs. The Dodgers made their way back to the World Series where they again faced the Yanks. While Gil had a slow start in the Series, that changed in Game Four when he hit a two-run homer in the fourth inning followed up by his scoring of the first run in Game Five. In the Seventh and deciding game of that Series, Hodges drove in a run in the fourth inning and then sacrificed for another run in the sixth. Hodges also made the final out of the Series on a Elston Howard grounder giving the Dodgers the World Championship.
The 1956 season saw Hodges hit 32 homers as the Dodgers once again grabbed the pennant to meet the Yankees in the World Series. In Game One, Hodges belted out a three-run homer but in the grand scheme of things it meant nothing as the boys from Brooklyn ultimately went on to lose the Series.
The following year's campaign was a good outing for Gil. He set the National League record for career grand slams by hitting number 14 – a record that would stand until 1974 when it was broken by Hank Aaron. He finished with a .299 batting average and led the League with 1317 putouts. He hit 27 home runs that year including a late-September slammer that drove in the last Dodger run ever scored at Ebbets Field. Gil was given an invite to the All-Star Team that year, and came in seventh in MVP balloting.
As the 1958 season began, the Dodgers had relocated in sunny Southern California. Hodges hit just 22 homers and had 64 RBIs that year and the Dodgers came nowhere near seeing postseason play. The following year saw the Dodgers pull it back together and win the National League Championship. Gil hit 25 homers and 80 RBIs that year finishing out the regular season with .276. He went on to hit for an impressive .391 in the '59 World Series against the Chicago White Sox and hit a solo homer in Game Four giving Los Angeles the win. The '59 Series would go on to see the Los Angeles Dodgers finish off the White Sox in six games.
The 1960 campaign saw Hodges break Ralph Kiner's National League record for right-handed hitters of 351 career home runs and the following year, in what would be Hodges' last season with the Dodgers, he for a short time became the team's career RBI leader with 1254.
At the conclusion of the Dodgers 1961 season, Gil began to question whether or not he could continue to play. He was suffering chronic knee pain and wasn't sure if he could make the cut much longer. If in fact he was planning on hanging up the cleats at that time, things changed when the New York Mets called saying they would be interested in him in the upcoming expansion draft. Gil said he would also be very interested and when he was in fact chosen in the expansion draft he became one of the original 1962 Mets.
Gil would suit up as a Met and win the distinction of having been the man to hit the team's very first home run. By the end of that season, Gil's knee was causing more problems. He had only played in 54 games and, after only playing in 11 games during the Mets 1963 campaign, he was traded to the Washington Senators with the promise he would replace Mickey Vernon as the team's manager.
Embracing his new position as a manager, Hodges formally retired as a player on May 5. He then took the helm of the Senators through the 1967 season, and while the hapless team showed some improvement under his tenure, they never had a winning year. Perhaps the most memorable action Hodges had as the Senators manager didn't come on the field but rather on a bridge. During the 1965 season, pitcher Ryne Duren, who was battling alcoholism, made his way to a bridge intending to take his own life. Gil was called to the scene where he successfully talked Duren out of his plan.
At the conclusion of the 1967 season, the Mets came a'callin' yet again
Back to da Big Apple
In 1968, the Mets made an offer for Gil to return to Shea as the team's general manager. If the Senators had been hapless, the Mets were downright hopeless. Under Gil's guidance they posted a 73-89 record in '68, and while that was nothing to brag about, it was the best performance the team had turned in over their seven-year existence.
The following year, 1969, would indelibly put Gil Hodges into the baseball history books. The ragtag also-rans of New York sports, who finished the regular season well under .500, became the Miracle Mets, not only making it to the World Series, but also defeating the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles. After dropping Game One, the Mets came back to sweep the birds in four straight victories and Gil was named The Sporting News Manager of the Year.
The following season the Miracle Mets finished in third place – an unimpressive feat they repeated in 1971. As the Mets were gearing up for their 1972 season, Gil was in West Palm Beach, Florida at training camp. On April 2, 1972, two day before what would have been his 48th birthday, he suffered what would prove to be a fatal heart attack.
Ten year after Hodges untimely death, the New York Mets inducted him into their Hall of Fame and retired his uniform number. Over the years other tributes were made – in 1978, the Brooklyn's Marine Parkway Bridge was rededicated as the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Bridge. Also named in his memory are a Brooklyn park and Little League field, the baseball stadium at the high school he attended in Princeton, Indiana, and a bridge in northern Pike County, Indiana.
Today, 35 years after his passing, a controversial debate still rages among Hodges' fans who believe he should have be inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. Many of the baseball writers who passed on giving him the Cooperstown nod have lauded him as one of the most solid players of his era, and have heaped even further praise upon him for his managerial success. Still, the fact that he never led the National League in home runs or RBIs, and was never named an MVP, have been their reasons for not extending the HOF invitation.
Despite the fact that his bust does not appear in Cooperstown bronze, Gil Hodges still holds a special place in the hearts of New York fans who remember him as the slugging first baseman and the skipper who assisted in performing the '69 miracle.
The 1949 Bowman # 100 is the only recognized Gil Hodges rookie card. It is a highly desired card in a very popular set, which also includes the rookie cards of Roy Campanella and Duke Snider along with the highly desirable # 224 Satchel Paige card.
The 1949 Bowman cards are notorious for their centering problems. The centering concerns arise from the fact that the cards were produced in a slightly smaller size with relatively thin borders. Another inherent problem with the 1949 Bowman set is reverse staining due to wax or gum. Finally, along with the other problems that plague the set, the # 100 Hodges card is often found with a less than vibrant red background color.
When it comes to autographs, single signed baseballs will usually fetch a number comparable to Elston Howard's, somewhere in the $2,000-plus range for high-end examples. Gil's game-used bats usually sell in the $3,000-plus range with very high-end examples selling in excess of $5,000 from time to time.
One thing is for sure, these two legendary baseball players provide proof that being a part of the Hall of Fame isn't required to be super popular amongst collectors. The hobby has embraced both legends without a Hall pass.
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