Documentary tells the story of “a great player, but an even greater man” – Catholic World Report

A review of Soul of a Champion: The Gil Hodges Story.

Documentary tells the story of “a great player, but an even greater man” – Catholic World Report
(Image: Screenshot / http://www.gilhodgesfilm.com)

MPAA Rating: Not rated
USCCB Rating: Not rated
Reel Rating: 3 out of 5 reels

Baseball is, I think, God’s favorite sport. This is no doubt a controversial opinion and admittedly purely subjective, but I stand firmly by it. In its game play, history, and characters, baseball best mirrors the cadence and drama of life, so beautifully that even atheist comedian George Carlin recognized its divine nature. Many of the legendary figures of America’s history were involved in the national pastime, such as Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Branch Ricky.

Despite my affinity for the game, I was largely unfamiliar with Gil Hodges, the beloved Dodgers player and Mets manager. Baseball historian Mark Langill has said that “there are two great mysteries about the Dodgers: first, what happened to Kirk Gibson’s home run ball and second, why isn’t Gil Hodges in the Hall of Fame?” While Gibson’s ball may be lost forever, the documentary Soul of a Champion makes a compelling case that Hodges absolutely should be in the Hall, which may indeed happen quite soon.

The documentary follows a standard plotline, beginning with Hodges’ childhood. He was raised in an upstanding Catholic family with several siblings and two hard working parents. His father was a poor coal miner who was determined his sons have more success in life and even more determined they would go to heaven. Masses, rosaries, and meatless Fridays were staples of the Hodges household. Year later, even when on the road with nothing else to eat, Gil would never eat a steak on Friday. Throughout his life, Gil attended Mass not just on Sundays but often throughout the week, without fanfare.

Jackie Robinson called Hodges “the core of the Dodgers” and his teammate Duke Snider said, “Gil was a great player, but an even greater man.” Considered one of the greatest first basemen of all time, he was frequently in the top ten of the National League in batting average, hits, runs, RBIs, and homers during the 1950s. He earned three Golden Glove awards, was chosen for the All-Star team seven times, and was the seventh man to hit over 300 home runs in his league. Apart from statistics, he was a calming and positive influence on his teammates and fans, demonstrating exceptional sportsmanship. Several Dodgers players and coaches have stated he was the only player never booed at Ebetts Field. It is only fitting that he was the last man to score a run in that ballpark before the team moved to Los Angeles in 1958.

After a successful playing career which included the sole World Series win in 1955 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he became manager for the New York Mets in the late 1960s. The newly formed Mets had a less than stellar reputation, earning the nickname “lovable losers.” Yet they steadily improved throughout the decade and, to the shock of the country, found themselves in the 1969 World Series. In the fifth game, Mets batter Cleon James claimed to have been hit by a pitch. When Hodges showed the umpire a speck of shoe polish on the ball, James was awarded the base which turned the tide of the game. The “Miracle Mets” won the series 4-1 over the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles. Only in his late 40s, he had a promising managerial career ahead of him but died suddenly of a massive heart attack on April 3, 1972 after a round of golf. Thousands attended his funeral. Hodges’ son found Jackie Robinson crying alone in his car outside the church, wracked with grief and fear. Robinson himself died only a few months later, and the Hodges family were present at his funeral as well.

Produced by the Catholic Association of Athletes, Soul of a Champion has two primary goals. First, it makes a compelling case that Hodges should be in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. There will be a vote on his inclusion on December 9th, so the release timing of the program is certainly no accident. Second, it puts Hodges forward as an example of how “to let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in Heaven.” Hodges was a Catholic man of tremendous faith, not known for political activism or pious proclamations, but for quiet dignity, integrity, and doing his job well. I was reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s quote: “the most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.”

I don’t review many films that are online and free, but here is Soul of a Champion for free and legal viewing. It’s a simple story made for a specific reason that will probably be boring for some. Yet, as a Catholic father and baseball fanatic, it was one the my favorite films I’ve watched this year.

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