Gil Hodges and the Christmas tour that changed everything

For 72 years, David Schacker has kept a tattered black-and-white photograph, now buried in the back of a closet in his home near downtow...


For 72 years, David Schacker has kept a tattered black-and-white photograph, now buried in the back of a closet in 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 sparkle, but the excitement still shines through: a bright-eyed kid, just one month old to turn 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 recovering from polio. He arrived in a full Santa costume – complete with a beard, hat, and boots – but the disguise didn’t fool anyone. The boys had spent the last few months locked inside, huddled around a 12½-inch Stromberg-Carlson television. When they weren’t doing their daily physiotherapy, they watched Brooklyn Dodgers games. And Hodges, who was voted 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 walked over to Schacker and held out his hand. All these years later, Schacker still remembers the size of the first baseman’s massive hand – but how soft Hodges looked up close. It was an All-Star, a man who had just driven 115 races and knocked out 170 hits, and here he was, sitting on Schacker’s hospital bed in Crown Heights, smiling at him.

To say it was a surreal experience would be an understatement. The previous months had been difficult for Schacker, who was a gifted tennis player and fast runner. Instead of hitting balls from the baseline or running through the streets of Bay Ridge, he found himself undergoing hours of daily physiotherapy. It wasn’t a 10 year old’s idea of ​​having a good time. But from September 1949 to June 1950, that was his reality.

The Dodgers made those nine months bearable. Schacker had been a die-hard fan since 1946, raised on teams like Pete Reiser, Dixie Walker, and Kirby Higbe. He had never owned a television, so watching his favorite players run and fly in real time was exhilarating. Although Hodges was only at the start of his Hall of Fame career, Schacker knew he was something special, and not just for his talent. He was a player who lived in Brooklyn all year. The Dodgers first baseman could be seen walking his dog around the block. He could be seen at the corner store buying cigarettes or stopping to drink milk on the way back from the stadium. 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 Brooklyn compatriot, albeit revered, than a visit from a distant superstar leaving Mount Olympus, like Joe DiMaggio,” Schacker said. “It was a unique moment in a unique place with a unique team.

Beneficence was at the heart of Hodges, and it crept into his game. He knew his role – hitting the ball from a distance – and stuck to it. For the first baseman, bringing in a runner from third was more important than hitting for the average. To date, he holds the MLB record for most sacrificial flies in a single season, at 19, in 1954.

It wasn’t enough for him to help his team, however; Hodges also felt personally responsible for helping his community. In this era of multi-million dollar contracts, it’s hard to imagine an All-Star first baseman going out of his way to drive a postman he recently met at his home in Mill Basin, or donate $ 500 (a large sum over a 1950s salary) to a Jewish school that had been vandalized. It is even more difficult to imagine that these acts were done discreetly, and not out of a desire to promote themselves. But by all accounts his intentions were pure.

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

“There must be countless examples of him doing these kinds of things that we’re not aware of, acts of kindness that are lost over time.”

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

Even after his release from St. Giles, Schacker’s diagnosis made his routine uncomfortable. A former left-handed stickball player, he quickly had to learn right-handed throwing and hitting as the disease had affected his arm and left hand. He was no longer able to run and was forced to find a new hobby, which led him to write. 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 Figaro, a cafe in Greenwich Village, when two women from Vassar College entered. Hampton knew one of them; the other, Maxine, would become Schacker’s wife for 58 years.

“Suppose I went to another school on a sports scholarship,” he says. “I wouldn’t have been to Cornell to meet the guy who was with me years later in Greenwich Village when I met Maxine. A change in your life can change all of the following.

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 advertising and marketing side of the company. It has since grown 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, etc. David retired in 2005, but Maxine remains one of his co-directors.

In 2017, David achieved a career high point when he published his first children’s book, “The Life and Times of Sir Reginald Tubb”, on an abandoned tub that is brought home by a family of bears. He is 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 were the ones you read in the history books, the years of Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio and Hodges. As he attended games at Ebbets Field and watched them on a small television in St. Giles, it never occurred to him that he could live his own heyday. But he says he won’t make the same mistake twice.

“Maxine and I are an unbeatable team,” he said. “My life might have taken a whole new direction without my diagnosis in 1949. I might have been to another university, I might have had different friends, I might have been an athlete. Peerless. But my life may not have been as happy as it was.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Gil Hodges and the Christmas tour that changed everything
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