Sports

Gil Hodges and the Christmas Visit That Changed Everything

For 72 years, David Schacker has held on to a tattered black-and-white photograph, now buried deep in a closet at his home near downtown Toronto. A few days ago, shortly after Gil Hodges was elected to the Hall of Fame, he decided to take a fresh look. The image has lost some of its luster but the excitement still shines through: a bright-eyed kid, just one month shy of turning 11, beaming as he shakes hands with a local legend.

Hodges came to St. Giles hospital in December 1949 to visit a group of young boys who were recovering from polio. He arrived in a full Santa suit — complete with a beard, a hat and boots — but the disguise didn’t fool anyone. The boys had spent the past few months cooped up inside, huddled around a 12 ½ -inch Stromberg-Carlson television set. When they weren’t going through their daily physiotherapy, they were watching Brooklyn Dodgers games. And Hodges, who was voted into his first All-Star Game that year, played in 156 of them. They knew who he was the minute he walked through that door.

Hodges made his way over to Schacker and stuck out his hand. All these years later, Schacker still remembers how big the massive first baseman’s hand was — yet how gentle Hodges seemed close-up. This was an All-Star, a man who had just driven in 115 runs and knocked out 170 hits, and here he was, sitting on Schacker’s hospital bed in Crown Heights, beaming back at him.

To say it was a surreal experience would be an understatement. The previous few months had been a struggle for Schacker, who was a gifted tennis player and a speedy runner. Instead of smacking balls from the baseline or running through the streets of Bay Ridge, he found himself undergoing hours of daily physical therapy. It was not a 10-year-old’s idea of a good time. But from September 1949 until June 1950, it was his reality.

The Dodgers made those nine months bearable. Schacker had been a die-hard fan since 1946, raised on teams of Pete Reiser, Dixie Walker and Kirby Higbe. He had never owned a TV, so watching his favorite players hit and run and steal in real time was exhilarating. Though Hodges was just at the beginning of his Hall of Fame career, Schacker knew he was something special, and not only for his talent. This was a player who lived in Brooklyn year-round. The Dodgers’ first baseman could be seen walking his dog down the block. He could be seen at the corner store buying cigarettes, or stopping for milk on his way back from the ballpark. In many ways, Hodges felt like one of them: a neighbor, a familiar face, a friend.

“A surprise visit from Gil Hodges was more like a visit from a fellow Brooklynite, although a revered one, than a visit from some remote superstar stepping down from Mount Olympus, like Joe DiMaggio,” Schacker said. “It was a unique time in a unique place with a unique team.”

Beneficence was at the core of Hodges, and it seeped into his game. He knew his role — hitting the ball for distance — and stuck to it. For the first baseman, driving a runner in from third was more important than hitting for average. To this day, he holds the M.L.B. record for the most sacrifice flies in a single season, with 19, in 1954.

It wasn’t enough for him to help his team, though; Hodges also felt a personal responsibility to help his community. In this era of multimillion-dollar contracts, it is hard to imagine an All-Star first baseman going out of his way to drive a postman that he’d recently met to his home in Mill Basin, or donating $500 (a hefty sum on a 1950s salary) to a Jewish day school that had been vandalized. It’s even harder to imagine that these acts were done quietly, and not out of a desire to self-promote. But by all accounts, his intentions were pure.

“He just couldn’t drive past the bus stop and leave someone without giving him a lift,” said his biographer, Mort Zachter. “Most would have driven by, but he stopped.

“There must be countless examples of him doing this kind of thing that we are not aware of, acts of kindness that are lost to time.”

For 72 years, Schacker has held his black-and-white photo close. It has survived a 500-mile move from Brooklyn to Toronto, and all of his stops in between. He keeps it, not only as a keepsake of an unexpected act of kindness, but as a reminder that sometimes, life’s seemingly devastating turns can take us where we’re meant to go.

Even after he was released from St. Giles, Schacker’s diagnosis made his routine uncomfortable. A former left-handed stickball player, he quickly had to learn how to throw and bat right-handed, because the disease had impaired his left arm and hand. He wasn’t able to run races anymore, and was forced to find a new hobby, which brought him to writing. He became the sports editor of his high school newspaper, and ended up attending Cornell University.

It was there that he met a friend, Dick Hampton. One night, in 1962, Schacker and Hampton were playing a board game at the Figaro, a coffeehouse in Greenwich Village, when two women from Vassar College walked in. Hampton happened to know one of them; the other, Maxine, would become Schacker’s wife of 58 years.

“Suppose I’d gone to some other school on an athletic scholarship,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been at Cornell to meet the guy who was with me years later in Greenwich Village, when I met Maxine. One change in your life can change everything that follows.”

Maxine and David moved to Toronto in 1973, where David worked in advertising and Maxine worked as an artist. In 1996, she founded a private college called Max the Mutt College of Animation, Art & Design, while David worked on the publicity and marketing side of the business. It has since expanded, and in 1999, became a government-recognized private career college. Max the Mutts graduates work for companies like Pixar, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Warner Bros. Games, and more. David retired in 2005, but Maxine remains one of its co-directors.

In 2017, David achieved a career highlight of his own, by publishing his first children’s book, “The Life and Times of Sir Reginald Tubb,” about an abandoned bathtub that is taken home by a family of bears. He’s currently working on his next book project.

Schacker often thinks back to his time in Brooklyn. For a while, the only golden ages he knew of were the ones you read in history books, the years of Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio and Hodges. While he was attending games at Ebbets Field, and watching them on a tiny television at St. Giles, it never occurred to him that he could be living in a golden age of his own. But he says he won’t make the same mistake twice.

“Maxine and I are an unbeatable team,” he said. “My life might have gone an entirely different way if not for my diagnosis in 1949. I might have gone to a different college, I might have had different friends, I might have been a standout athlete. But my life might not have been as happy as it has been.”

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