FIFTY YEARS AGO, on the eve of the 1972 season, Major League Baseball players went on strike for the first time in modern history.
The strike lasted just two weeks but wiped out the final two games of spring training, including the Easter finale at old West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium between the Atlanta Braves and the visiting New York Mets.
Nearly every Mets player left town a day earlier, when the strike washed out Saturday’s game in Fort Lauderdale against the New York Yankees. With no game on Sunday, Mets manager Gil Hodges and most of his coaching staff decided to head to West Palm Beach, anyway. They wanted to take some final spring swings of their own.
At the time, Hodges was among baseball’s living royalty, the Brooklyn-born “Miracle Worker’’ less than three years removed from guiding the “Amazin’ Mets” to a World Series upset over the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles. The 1969 championship only brightened the glow of his Favorite Son status around the five boroughs, a torch lit in his playing days as an All-Star first baseman who led his hometown Dodgers to six World Series.
He loved to swing a golf club, too.
On April 2, he played 27 holes at Palm Beach Lakes Golf Club, a modest course just across Congress Avenue from the ballpark. After the final round, he made his way across the parking lot toward his room at the old Ramada Inn on the Green.
“Hey, Gillie,’’ coach Joe Pignatano yelled. “What time do you want to meet for dinner?”
“7:30,” Hodges replied.
Moments later, he collapsed in front of Room 158, his head slamming against the concrete sidewalk. He’d suffered a massive heart attack.
At 5:45 p.m., he was pronounced dead on arrival at Good Samaritan Medical Center. He was just 47, two days shy of what would have been his 48th birthday.
He left behind a wife, a son, three daughters and millions of admirers.
Two of Hodges’ children, Gil Jr. and Cindy, are neighbors in Palm Beach Gardens. As the 50th anniversary of their father’s death approaches, they have a far more inspiring moment awaiting them: Their father’s long-awaited enshrinement into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
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