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Will this Catholic make it into the Baseball Hall of Fame?

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Great baseball players are idolized for their accomplishments on the field — their strength, speed and swing, their home runs, strikeouts and steals. But Kevin O’Malley, Major League Baseball coordinator for Catholic Athletes for Christ, looked beyond the stats to celebrate the sportsmanship and integrity of a man Jackie Robinson called the “heart and soul” of the Dodgers — his Catholic teammate Gil Hodges. To tell that story, Catholic Athletes for Christ, along with the production company Spirit Juice, created the new, free documentary, “The Soul of a Champion: The Gil Hodges Story.”

In his day-to-day work as MLB coordinator, O’Malley, a parishioner of St. Veronica Church in Chantilly, helps get Catholic baseball players, coaches and other personnel to Mass each week by bringing it to them.

“A lot of folks don't understand that Major League Baseball — the schedule each weekend is extremely grueling,” he said. “Playing late Saturday evening games, they don't get home until midnight. For a 1:30 (p.m.) start (on Sunday), many of them are back into the clubhouse by 8:30, 9 a.m. We bring Masses right into the stadiums. They can just walk 10, 20 feet to the press conference room and be able to fulfil their Catholic responsibility by attending Mass.” Bishop Michael F. Burbidge serves on the CAC’s episcopal board, and he and other Arlington priests occasionally celebrate Mass for the Washington Nationals.

O’Malley became interested in Hodges while working on a project with Vin Scully, a Catholic and the Dodgers’ legendary former broadcaster. “I started doing research on Hodges, read his biography,” said O’Malley. “And then a lightbulb, really the Holy Spirit coming into my mind, said, this is an amazing story, how has nobody produced a film about this guy?”

Hodges was born in Indiana, the son of a coal miner. He enlisted in the U.S. Marines and served in the Pacific during World War II. He joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and contributed to several National League pennant victories as well as a World Series title in 1955. He moved with the team to Los Angeles, where the Dodgers won another championship in 1959.

After Hodges retired from playing in 1963, he served as manager for the Washington Senators, and then for the New York Mets. In 1969, he guided the “Miracle'' Mets to a World Series upset victory over the Baltimore Orioles. Hodges was a devout Catholic, a devoted husband and father of four. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 1972 at age 47.

Part of the film touches on Hodges’ friendship with his teammate Jackie Robinson, the first African American MLB player. “When Robinson first came into baseball, there were a lot of opposing teams that took cheap shots at Robinson, sliding hard into second base where Jackie played or throwing the ball at him when he was at bat,” said O’Malley. “It was Hodges who was this hulk of a man, a large man who quietly was the enforcer and took care of business on the field.”

But Hodges and Robinson had a strong friendship off the field, too. In the documentary, Gil Hodges Jr. said that at his father's funeral, Robinson told him through tears, “Next to my son’s passing, this is the worst day of my life.”

The documentary shines a light on Hodges’ faith. “He never missed Mass, road trips were no excuse,” said Gil. Scully recalled when Hodges was offered a steak on Friday while flying with the team after a double header. When the stewardess offered him the meal, he replied, “No, I’m too close to the boss.”

As O’Malley worked on the documentary, what stood out most to him about Hodges was his humility. “(He had) the ability to be effective, to be an incredible ballplayer — an eight-time All Star, a three-time world champion — to do it quietly, to live out his faith in a humble way without any fanfare,” he said.

For all Hodges’ accomplishments, he’s yet to be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. “Soul of a Champion” makes a heavy-handed pitch for his inclusion when the vote comes up Dec. 5. “When you combine his playing career, his managerial accomplishments and what he meant to that team on and off the field, whether it's social justice, whether it’s just being a quiet but effective leader for those Dodgers teams, it's a no-brainer he should be in,” said O’Malley.

The Hodges’ family, including his 96-year-old wife, Joan, who still lives in the Brooklyn home where they raised their children, are hoping for a home run. “It would be just a great gift for her for a man who truly deserves to be in,” said O’Malley. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021