Hodge, Gomer

Primary Position: Pinch hitter
Birthplace: Rutherfordton

First, Middle Names: Harold Morris
Nickname: Gomer

Date of Birth:  April 3, 1944    Date and Place of Death: May 13, 2007, Saluda, NC
Burial: West Memorial Baptist Church Cemetery, Rutherfordton

High School: Rutherford-Spindale Central High School, Rutherfordton
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: Both       Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-2, 185
Debut Year: 1971        Fina Year: 1971           Years Played: 1
Team and Year: Cleveland Indians, 1971

Career Summary
G          AB       H          R          RBI       HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
80      83        17        3          9            1          .205     .256     .277      -0.6

For a few weeks in the spring of 1971, a country boy from the hills of North Carolina with an endearing grin and an aw-shucks demeanor captured the hearts of the long-suffering fans of a moribund baseball team. He gave them something they hadn’t had in a decade: Hope. The dreams melted in despair as the loses again piled up and the season turned out like every other but this time, in the wake of the losing, a legend remained.

It all started quietly enough on Opening Day in Detroit, Michigan, when Manager Alvin Dark of the visiting Cleveland Indians sent rookie Harold Hodge in to pinch hit in the fifth inning. The switch hitter from Rutherfordton, North Carolina, had been a surprise, late addition to the team, surviving the final cut of spring training a few days earlier, on his 27th birthday as it turned out. Dark had said he chose the kid because of his determination and perseverance, not his modest .258 batting average compiled during his eight years for Indians’ minor-league teams.

Teammates on one those stops, in Burlington, North Carolina, had given Hodge the nickname Gomer because of his decided Southern drawl and his resemblance to Jim Nabors, the actor who played the popular Gomer Pyle on television.

In his major-league debut on that Opening Day, Hodge beat out a slow roller that barely trickled past the pitching mound to drive in a run against the Tigers’ ace Mickey Lolich. “It must have gone 150 feet,” he said afterward with a sly grin. “I count the bounces.”[I]

For the home opener in Cleveland, Ohio, two days later, Hodge arrived at Municipal Stadium in a borrowed sports coat and shirt and had $5 in his pocket. He had gotten sick on the team flight home. With the Indians trailing the Boston Red Sox 2-0 and with more than 40,000 fans looking on, Hodge stepped to the plate in the eighth inning as a pinch hitter again. He lined a double to left, scored on a base hit, and remained in the game at second base. In the bottom of the ninth with the Indians still down by a run, Hodge came up with two outs and runners on second and third. He singled cleanly to center for a walk-off 3-2 victory.

The magic continued in the final game of the series the next day when Hodge hit a pinch-hit double to drive in a run in a 7-1 Indians’ victory. The unknown and unheralded rookie was four-for-four in his major-league career. When reporters asked after the game how it felt to be batting a 1.000, Hodge in true Gomer-like fashion gushed an answer that would go down in team history, “1.000? Gol-l-lee, fellas, I’m batting 4.000.”[II]

The Indians’ faithful were besotted. The team hadn’t won a pennant since 1954 and had finished atop its division in the American League only once in 10 years. No player since Rocky Colavito in the late 1950s could draw reluctant fans to the drafty, old stadium. That spring they went to chant the kid’s name. The cry arose anytime in a game a pinch hitter seemed needed: “We Want Gomer, We Want Gomer. ” Local newspapers ran his picture on their front pages. In no time, the Gomer’s Gang fan club boasted almost as many members (2,600) as Rutherfordton had residents (3,200). “Fans loved him,” said Russell Schneider, a sportswriter who covered the Indians for Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer in 1971. “Everybody loved being around him.”[III]

The object of this adulation didn’t quite know what to make of it all. “It’s been a shock to me,” Hodge said at the time. “I just wanted to make the team and now the phone at the motel where I’m staying never stops ringing with people calling up to talk. And my mother says she’s getting 75 calls a night back home from people who want to congratulate her.”[IV]

It’s likely that Lena Hodge’s boy was also the talk of the garment factory in Rutherford County where she worked. Her husband, William, was also likely shaking a lot of hands at the textile factory where he worked when he wasn’t toiling on the family farm.

Harold Morris Hodge, born in 1944, was the second of their two sons. Newspapers would later delight in relating how he played “pasture ball” as a young boy. “We used to break limbs from trees and use them like bats,” he told the sportswriters. “Then, when we’d saved enough money, we’d buy a brand-new baseball. We never bought too many, though, because we didn’t have no money. We’d hit the ball like crazy until the cover got tore off. Then, I’d hook some of my Pa’s black tape and cover the ball again.”[V]

Later in elementary school, Hodge and his friends played in a field behind the hospital after school, using bricks and tin cans for bases. He had no aspirations then to become a ballplayer, he told the writers. He only wanted to “learn how to get a mule to gee and haw and to lay corn straight.”[VI]

Baseball became a more serious endeavor when Hodge entered Rutherford-Spindale Central High School in 1960, but he first needed his father’s approval to play. Bill Hodge went to a game during Hodge’s sophomore year and saw his son hit two home runs. “It was the first time he came to watch me play ball,” Hodge remembered. “He didn’t want me to waste my time because chores had to be done on our farm, but after that it got to where my folks did most of the work and I played ball.”[VII]

Hodge pitched and played shortstop for three years during high school, making All-Conference each season and hitting .425 his senior year. He also played semipro ball and for the local American Legion teams during the summers.

The Indians signed him in September 1962 for $400 a month, or the equivalent of about $3,700 in 2022, along with a $1,000 ($9,700) signing bonus. He played in seven different cities as a minor leaguer over the next eight years, from Salinas, California, to Waterbury, Connecticut, along with a winter or two in Mexico, never hitting .300 or more than 10 home runs a season. His best year was in 1970 for the Indians’ Class AA club in Savannah, Georgia, where Hodge hit .291 with nine homers and 66 runs batted in.

After his four-at-bat burst, Hodge settled to his level, as all baseball players must. He struck out his fifth time up, but the Cleveland crowd gave him a standing ovation anyway. He then went hitless for a month. His 4.000 average plummeted to .222. “The pressure I’m feeling now is different from when I was 4-for 4 because of the fan club,” he said then. “I’ve gotten so many fans and gotten so many nice letters and they’ve said, ‘We don’t care if you get a hit, we know you’re a great guy,’ and I think about all those little kids.”[VIII]

He was a more than a bit relieved then on May 21 when he dumped a pinch-hit single over second base in the ninth to drive in the game-winner to beat the New York Yankees 8-7 at home, his second walk off in the young season. Gomer seemed to be all that was keeping the Indians from their accustomed quarters in the basement of the American League. You should ask for a raise, one the writers told him. “Oh never,” he responded. “In Mexico ball, they gave me a raise and the next night Horacio Pina hits me on the back of the head with a fastball. I ain’t dumb enough to ask for another one.”[IX]

About intelligence, Hodge resented how he was often portrayed by Northern sportswriters – the harping on his rural roots, his quotes that often exaggerated his accent and hinted that the speaker’s grasp of English was tentative at best. Even as storied a journal as Sports Illustrated wasn’t immune from this common failing among certain writers. After his drive was caught short of the wall 400 feet from home plate, Hodge had this to say in the magazine, “Dad gum it. If that ball had goed over the sign, I’d of called it a career.”[X]

Reading such stuff day after day obviously gets old. “I don’t like these reporters who make me sound dumb,” Hodge said. “The guy who plays Gomer on television acts dumb, but he makes his money doing that. I play baseball.”[XI] His manager knew better. “Don’t let that ‘dumbness’ fool you,” Dark said. “He knows what he’s doing all the time. He’s all business out there. He worked hard all spring.”[XII]

Despite his determination, Hodge got only 12 more hits after his game winner against the Yankees, though his 16 pinch hits for the season were three off the club record. His lone home run was a high fly ball that somehow ended nestled in the net atop the Green Monster at Fenway Park in Boston. In his last at bat, he struck out against the Baltimore Orioles’ Jim Palmer. His final average dropped to .205, and the Indians again lost more than 100 games. Hodge was reassigned to the minors after the season. He never made it back on a big-league roster.

He was a player-coach for the Tribe’s Class AAA franchise in Portland, Oregon, for two seasons and then managed in minors for 30 years, twice winning skipper of the year honors. He retired to Rutherford County in 2004. “He was just a hometown, earthy kind of guy, and I think that’s what made him so endearing,” his wife, Linda, noted.[XIII]

Diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Hodge deteriorated quickly. Near the end, when he could no longer speak or read, Linda contacted the Indians and asked fans to send cards and letters that could be read to him. Hundreds did.

Hodge died in 2007. “Gomer would be the first to tell you that he wasn’t blessed with an abundance of talent,” Schneider concluded. “He was a solid, hard-working country boy who played the game for the sheer love of it.”[XIV]

[I] Curry, George. “Gomer Is Tops in the Tepee.” Sports Illustrated, July 26, 1971.
[II] McIlroy, Will. “The Legend of Gomer Hodge.” It’s Pronounced ‘Lajaway,’ SweetSpot Network, April 6, 2012. http://itspronouncedlajaway.com/2012/04/06/the-legend-of-gomer-hodge/.
[III] Manoloff, Dennis. “Former Indian Harold ‘Gomer’ Hodge Dies.” Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), May 15, 2007.
[IV] Novak, Ralph. “Can Ex-Alamance Baseballer Rescue Cleveland Indians?” Daily Times-News (Burlington, NC), April 24, 1971.
[V] Spudich, Pete. United Press International. “Gomer Hodge Delights Cleveland Backers.” Times Recorder (Zanesville, OH), July 7, 1971.
[VI] Curry.
[VII] Spudich.
[VIII] Nold, Bob. “Gomer’s Gang Misses Hero’s Big Moment.” Akron (OH) Beacon Journal, May 22, 1971.
[IX] Curry.
[X] Ibid.
[XI] Novak.
[XII] Nold, Bob. “Indian Hero A Serious Country Bumpkin.” Akron {OH) Beacon Journal, April 13, 1971.
[XIII] Associated Press. “Gomer Hodge, ballplayer, coach for Pawtucket.” Boston Globe, May 15, 2017.
[XIV] Manoloff.