Gil Hodges and “to die on your feet, not your knees”

In 1963, I was going to New York to see The Three Stooges at the end of a long road trip. Like most Jews, I was turned off by the swarming crowd (more like a carnival) and crowded pages of the show-biz brochure. Entering Yankee Stadium, I walked past four rows of seats with “Leave it to the Boss,” across from them were folks watching Yankee-White Sox. One went to the A’s; the others were being yelled at by the Major Leaguers.

What struck me about The Three Stooges was, as usual with a Stooges show, some farce and more farce interspersed with the usual tomfoolery that we all love. But the highlight of the night was an amazing individual display: Moe going over the heads of the three straight-faced brothers while demonstrating the proper use of a baseball bat. Moe’s version of the American Game, of course, was farce with a difference: The three Stooges were on one side and the Babe Ruth of America was on the other. Old as the baby was, Babe looked like he was barely two weeks old. One wonders if the old man knew what he was doing as he pulled off the baseball feat – all right, it wasn’t a feat it was just a guaranteed slam – and then brought his tee to the plate. (The spectators guffawed like he was hitting a monster homer.) So Moe swatted a ceremonial home run (a dubbed-up home run, apparently) and handily, Babe did his act too and the entire crowd stood up in their seats (except the one guy clinging to the fences. It was his fault because he had his mitt and yet didn’t see Moe was out on the base. Babe hit the ball into the stands: ten rounds and eight balls. It was a display of sublime baseball skill and execution.

But then I felt better about myself and left Yankee Stadium as quickly as I arrived.

At the end of the season, I attended a Dodger game at Ebbets Field against the New York Mets. The pitcher was Charlie Ollie Garner. Garner’s brilliant record included 284 consecutive game complete games. I sat next to the great Little Joe DiMaggio (I think he was a Dodger fan back then) and told Joe that he was the best prospect of any Dodger pitcher who had ever started a season. Joe looked at me and said, “Don’t talk to me about pitching; I’ll never hit.” With that, Joe took off his helmet and said, “Run to first!” as he raced to first base. Joe got hit in the head by a pitch by Garner. The dumb umpire called Joe out on what he thought was a pickoff – but he was wrong! Joe chased the ball all the way to first and got doubled off. Afterward Joe, who threw a three-hitter, told the umpire, “Son, I didn’t make a play on the ball.”

Sometime in the 19th century, a law was passed that allowed any person with a baseball bat to hit any ball he hit into first base. The greatest fast-pitch pitcher of all time played a small hometown called Binghamton. He won 273 consecutive games before losing it in 1917. After a 27-year championship drought, the Dodgers took his retired uniform, cleaned it, and put it in their uniform with a great message; “To die on your feet, not your knees.”

So there it is, my news of Gil Hodges’s passing. A Dodgers manager and a great all-around baseball guy, he was legendary. I want to send all the other great players a big hug. Rest in peace Gil Hodges. I was an outfield slot machine back in the day when baseball players got out of the box doors the same way they did when they bought their ticket: Throw. Hit a baseball (yes, it was a baseball, I could tell).

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