A brief look back at one of the most memorable opening acts in Cleveland Indians baseball.
Harold “Gomer” Hodge, born sixty eight years ago this month, was the talk of the Cleveland Indians and major league baseball during the first week of the 1971 season.
He grew up on a family farm in the western North Carolina mountains but left at age 19 to become a ballplayer. The switch hitting infielder toiled for eight years in the Indians minor league system, seven at Class A or AA, before he made the big league roster in Spring Training as an upset. Manager Alvin Dark said he chose Gomer’s determination and perseverance, not his modest .258 career average in the minors.
The nickname came from a lengthy southern drawl and physical resemblance to actor Jim Nabors, better known on television as Gomer Pyle.
A Legend is Born
It began quietly, a forgettable play during the season opener in Detroit which the Tigers won, 8-2. Gomer pinch hit for Indians starter Steve Dunning in the fifth inning and beat out a slow roller into the hole at short for an RBI single against Tigers ace Mickey Lolich.
Two days later in the home opener in Cleveland, the Indians trailed the Red Sox and former Indian pitcher Sonny Siebert 2-0 in the eighth. Gomer lined a pinch double to left, scored on a base hit by John Lowenstein and remained in the game at second base. In the bottom of the ninth the Indians rallied when Vada Pinson singled, Ray Fosse was hit by a pitch and The Hawk, Ken Harrelson (of all people), bunted the runners over. The next batter forced Pinson at the plate in a long rundown but Indians remained on second and third with two out for Gomer who singled cleanly to center for a walk off 3-2 Tribe victory.
Against all odds, the magic continued in the final game of the series. Gomer laced a pinch hit RBI double in a five run eighth and the Indians broke open a close game, 7-2. Unheralded and unknown Gomer Hodge was 4 for 4 in his major league career.
After the game reporters crowded around Gomer’s locker to ask how it felt to be batting 1.000. His unwitting, Gomer Pyle-esque reply became one of the most memorable quotes in Indians history:
“1.000? Gol-l-lee, fellas, I’m batting 4.000!”
Gomer instantly became a cult hero in Cleveland and throughout the league. but the streak ended four days later when he struck out against Oriole great Jim Palmer. The balance of the season turned equally rude as Gomer went 13 for 79 the rest of the way and the team sank to 60-102. For the season he collected 16 pinch hits, three off the club record. His final line:
G AB R H RBI 2B 3B HR AVG
80 83 3 17 9 3 0 1 .205
The lone home run came at Fenway Park off Roger Moret, a high pop fly which somehow nestled in the screen above the legendary Green Monster. In his last at bat of the year Gomer again struck out against his nemesis Palmer and the Indians reassigned him to minor league camp after the season. He never made another big league roster.
Gomer served as a player/coach for the Tribe’s AAA affiliate in Portland the next two seasons and for thirty years after that he managed and rode buses in the minors for the Indians and other organizations, twice winning skipper of the year honors. He retired in 2004.
Sadly, Gomer’s health quickly deteriorated due to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and near the end he could no longer speak or read but could understand others. His wife contacted the Indians and asked fans to send cards and letters for his family to read to Gomer and many did. He died May 7, 2007.
I was a 13 year old living elsewhere during Gomer’s heroics and never saw him play. However, I recall staring at the box scores that week, wondering who this great new player was (I did the same for Chambliss years later), where he came from and what his Indians future held. For some reason the memory lingered, perhaps a child’s eager imagination, perhaps because the nickname was so apt. I never knew he was Harold, just Gomer.
Such players seldom last in the real world and Gomer’s time ended with the season. However, for one wondrous, shining week he hit 4.000, the Tribe won and all remained right in a young boy’s sheltered world. A bright, well remembered moment in otherwise long, dismal years.
Gomer Hodge, briefly in the sun in 1971. Thanks for the memories.
Ted Cox of Boston holds the record for most hits to begin a career with six in 1977. The prior record was five, set by Cecil Travis of the 1933 Washington Senators.
Cox later played for the Indians in 1978-9 and at one time was considered the team’s next can’t miss 3B prospect. Unfortunately, he did and his career quietly ended with Toronto in 1981.
Cox’s other legacy in Tribe history is a dark cloud, one of many the team seemed incapable of escaping back in the day. In a trade Cleveland obtained Cox, Rick Wise, Mike Paxton and Bo Diaz from Boston for infielder Fred Kendall and a throw in, Dennis Eckersley.