Duke of Flatbush, a Brooklyn Icon
By DAVE ANDERSON
The New York Times
February 27, 2011
Duke Snider, holding a cake for his 24th birthday, receiving a kiss at Ebbets Field in 1950. (AP)
“Willie, Mickey and the Duke,” the Terry Cashman song about three center fielders, defined New York baseball in the ’50s.
For old times’ sake, Willie Mays returned recently to the Harlem streets above the old Polo Grounds where he made that over-the-shoulder catch for the Giants in the 1954 World Series, but Mickey Mantle is mentioned mostly as a revered name in Monument Park at the new Yankee Stadium. And now Duke Snider is gone too, dead at 84, but still cherished by anyone who saw him play for the Dodgers in Brooklyn.
They don’t make center fielders like that anymore. With the big ballparks now, most center fielders are gazelles who can chase down balls lined into the gaps and hit for average, if they hit at all. Willie, Mickey and Duke not only were sluggers, they could also run.
Over their careers, Mays and Mantle each earned adulation as arguably the best baseball player ever. Snider never did, but for a time in the ’50s the Duke of Flatbush was better than either of them. He hit 407 home runs, almost all for the Dodgers in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, and a few for the Mets and the Giants at the end. But in the ’50s he hit more home runs than Mays or Mantle or anybody else in the big leagues.
Duke had it all: a sweet swing, a bazooka arm, springs in his legs. He also had the luck of being virtually the only left-handed slugger in a lineup dominated by right-handed hitters like Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo. As a result, Snider usually was swinging against right-handed pitching.
Then again, he didn’t really have it all. As he often acknowledged, he had a “big mouth” that tarnished his image and his popularity. After being booed at a game at Ebbets Field one night, he snapped that Brooklyn fans “don’t deserve a pennant.” That prompted even more boos the next night. He later put his name on a Collier’s article confessing that he played baseball only for the money, that he would rather be in California on his avocado farm not far from Los Angeles.
He did return to California, when the Dodgers moved there after the 1957 season, but after having bombarded Bedford Avenue beyond the 40-foot-high right-field screen at Ebbets Field, he had to cope with the faraway right-field fence at Memorial Coliseum, a stadium built for the track-and-field events at the 1932 Olympics.
When Mays arrived at the Coliseum with the San Francisco Giants in 1958, he chirped how the Dodgers had taken “the bat out of Duke’s hands,” the bat that had hit 40 or more homers a year for five consecutive seasons when 40 home runs was an achievement. By the time the Dodgers moved into their Chavez Ravine palace in 1962, and later with the Mets and the hated Giants, he was never the same hitter who stroked four home runs against the Yankees in the 1952 and 1955 World Series.
As a youngster in Compton, Calif., he got his nickname from his father. The nickname fit a center fielder who was Dodger royalty and arguably a better fielder than Mays or Mantle.
In a 1954 game at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, he made a catch that his teammate and roommate Carl Erskine has always described as “the greatest I ever saw.” With two on, two out and the Dodgers protecting a one-run lead, Willie Jones hit a soaring drive toward the left-center-field stands. Running to his right, Snider climbed the wall like Spider-Man, stretched his left arm and snagged the ball.
“I figured I had about four steps to the wall,” he said that day. “After four steps, I jumped. My right foot dug into the wall. It’s wood. Then my left knee scraped the wall and I turned my body. All I know is that the ball was in the webbing when I came down.”
He would be a $20-million-a-year player now, but he and Robinson were the highest-paid Dodgers at about $40,000 a year. That magazine article about playing for the money would haunt him in 1995 when he pleaded guilty to tax-fraud charges for not reporting thousands of dollars to the Internal Revenue Service for income from baseball memorabilia shows from 1984 to 1993. He reportedly received a total of more than $100,000 from the shows. He did not receive jail time.
“We have choices to make in our lives,” he said at the time, “and I made the wrong choice.”
But for all his wrong choices, he’ll always be the Duke of Flatbush to anyone who rooted for the Dodgers in Brooklyn, the Duke who was so proud of having hit the last home run at Ebbets Field, the Duke who didn’t need his real name (Edwin) to be part of a song title.
Memory of Snider lives on
By MIKE VACCARO
New York Post
February 28, 2011
Duke Snider and Mickey Mantle pose together before game 2 of the 1955 World Series.
MIAMI -- If you were one of the lucky ones who spent your summers with the "Boys of Summer," you remember Duke Snider. You remember the sweet left-handed swing, and balls that soared over the right-field screen at old Ebbets Field and landed on Bedford Avenue. You remember the way he would chase baseballs to the wall of the oddly-crafted outfield fences.
You remember when Next Year finally arrived, in 1955, the year the Duke of Flatbush had his greatest season, 42 homers and 136 RBIs and 104 walks, a 1.036 OPS before anyone knew enough to calculate OPS, then four more homers and seven more RBIs in the World Series, when the Bums finally beat the Yankees.
"If I live to be 100 years old," he said in 2002, "I'll always be able to remember what it felt to be young and a ballplayer in Brooklyn, N.Y., and I'll always remember what it meant to be a champion of the world there."
Snider died yesterday at 84 of natural causes, and his passing extinguishes another light from the old Brooklyn landscape, a power that lived for decades after the Dodgers abandoned the borough. He was a high school classmate of late NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle's, a Californian who found a home in Brooklyn before going back again. And he lives, even this morning, in the memories of the lucky ones who were there.
Terry Cashman was there. Cashman, out of Hillside Avenue in Washington Heights, was a cop's son who was partial to the neighborhood Giants of the Polo Grounds, but embraced everything about New York City's role as the capital of baseball in the 1950s.
Cashman played a little minor league ball in the Tigers organization, wound up a big-time music executive, co-wrote the hit "Sunday Will Never Be the Same," for Spanky and Our Gang, became the producer for Jim Croce. And in 1979 or so, a Mets exec named Thornton Geary rang him up.
"I have a photograph you really need to see," said Geary, the Mets' vice president for communication.
It was a beauty, taken at Old-Timer's Day at Shea Stadium a few years earlier, a picture of New York's four greatest center fielders taken from the back, so instead of faces you saw Joe DiMaggio's 5, Mickey Mantle's 7, Willie Mays' 24. And Duke Snider's 4.
"I need that picture," Cashman told his friend.
"Take it," Geary told him. "It's yours."
"No," Cashman said. "I need to own it."
So he did. Cashman was by then just as likely to be found with his nose buried in "The Baseball Encylopedia" as in a stack of sheet music, balancing his two loves. He contacted the photographer, bought the negatives, printed copies for friends, and hung one in his own East Side apartment.
That picture was staring at him the night he came home from work a few years later, looking to scare up a B-side for a baseball song he was producing. It was on his mind as he drifted off to sleep, as the mysteries that allow gifted people to create music out of nothing went to work inside his brain.
In the morning Cashman woke up and grabbed his guitar. Twenty minutes later, "Talkin' Baseball" was finished. That was 1981. Thirty years later, "Willie, Mickey and the Duke" remains one of the catchiest choruses of any song, played still in every stadium where baseball is, a song that is more than a song, but a slice of an America we still yearn for, even those of us not yet born when Casey was winnin', when Hank Aaron was beginnin'.
"It was a part of my heart," Cashman told me not long ago, "but I think it reflected what was in a lot of people's hearts, too."
"Our memories," he said, "don't die. Thank goodness for that."
Duke Snider, Dodger Hall of Famer, dies at 84
Duke Snider, an eight-time All-Star, was a Dodger in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. One of the 'Boys of Summer,' he helped the team to Brooklyn's only World Series title as well as six National League championships.
By Mike Kupper, Special to the Los Angeles Times
February 28, 2011
In Brooklyn's dugout: From left, Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Preacher Roe, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges and Duke Snider.
Duke Snider, one of the Brooklyn Dodgers' "Boys of Summer" and among a celebrated trio of New York center fielders in the 1950s, died Sunday. He was 84.
Snider died at Valle Vista Convalescent Hospital in Escondido, the Dodgers announced. No cause was given.
The Duke of Flatbush, a smooth-fielding outfielder and, thanks to his prowess as a home-run hitter, a fan favorite in Ebbets Field, was a Dodger, both in Brooklyn and his native Los Angeles, for 16 of his 18 years in the major leagues. A Hall of Fame member, the eight-time All-Star helped the Dodgers to six National League championships, and Brooklyn's only World Series title, in his first 11 seasons, providing Dodger power from the left side of the plate.
"He was an extremely gifted talent and his defensive abilities were often overlooked because of playing in a small ballpark, Ebbets Field," Dodgers' broadcaster Vin Scully said Sunday in a statement. "When he had a chance to run and move defensively, he had the grace and the abilities of DiMaggio and Mays and of course, he was a World Series hero that will forever be remembered in the borough of Brooklyn. Although it's ironic to say it, we have lost a giant."
Snider hit 40 or more homers in five consecutive seasons and during the decade of the '50s led all major leaguers in home runs, 326; runs batted in, 1,031; runs scored, 970; and slugging percentage, .569. He finished his career with a lifetime batting average of .295 and 407 home runs, 389 of them as a Dodger, still the team record. He is the only player to have twice hit four homers in the World Series, matching his 1952 feat in '55, the year the Dodgers won the Series and he was named major league player of the year by the Sporting News.
He hit the last home run in Ebbets Field and had the first hit in Dodger Stadium, a single on opening day in 1962, and was part of the 1959 Los Angeles Dodgers team that beat the Chicago White Sox in the World Series.
"When you saw him play, the guy could hit, he could run, he could throw, he could field," former Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda said Sunday. "He was one of the great, great players of our time."
In a simpler but more demanding era — there were only 16 major league teams when he broke in, eight each in the National and American League — Snider was a star among stars, both on his own team and in the Big Apple. Among his Brooklyn teammates were Hall of Famers Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. Walter Alston, another Hall of Famer, was the manager, and a couple of young pitchers, Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax, were showing promise.
And New Yorkers carried on a running argument as to who was the best center fielder in town, Willie Mays of the Giants, Mickey Mantle of the Yankees or Snider. Songwriter-singer Terry Cashman extolled them in his 1981 recording "Willie, Mickey and the Duke," also known as "Talkin' Baseball."
From 1954 through '57, when Mays, Mantle and Snider all played full seasons in New York, Snider led the two others in both home runs and RBIs.
"They used to run a box in the New York papers, comparing me and Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays," Snider recalled for the New York Times in 1980. "It was a great time for baseball."
Actually, Snider's entire career was a great time for baseball. He came up as a highly touted prospect in 1947. "His swing is perfect," Branch Rickey observed upon signing him as a 17-year-old. "And this young man doesn't run on mere legs. Under him are two steel springs." He left the game as a player for the ages.
Like Mantle, whose father began grooming him for baseball stardom as a child, Snider had a parental push. Born Sept. 9, 1926, the only child of Ward and Florence Snider, young Edwin Donald Snider grew up in Compton with a bat in his hands. In his book, "The Duke of Flatbush," written with Bill Gilbert, Snider recalled his father instructing him to bat left-handed, even though he was a natural right-hander. His father pointed out that many ballparks had short right-field fences, that there was a preponderance of right-handed pitchers in the majors and that left-handed batters were two steps closer to first base.
"We argued about the switch loud, long and often because it was awkward," Snider wrote. "When our backyard arguments reached their loudest, Mom would call out, 'You two children behave out there.' "
Snider also had his father to thank for his nickname. The elder Snider began calling his son Duke as a child, and the kid never objected. " 'The Duke of Flatbush' sounds a lot better than 'The Edwin of Flatbush,' " he often said.
After he graduated from Compton High School, Snider signed with the Dodgers as an amateur free agent. He served in the Navy on a submarine tender in the Pacific from 1944 to 1946.
Snider's debut with the Dodgers, on April 17, 1947, was especially memorable, but not for anything he did. That also happened to be the day that teammate Robinson got his first base hit, two days after he broke baseball's longtime color barrier.
"I was in such complete awe of everything going on, I didn't totally appreciate the significance of the event," Snider told the San Diego Union-Tribune's Bill Center in 2004. "I didn't realize until later … how important it was."
After two seasons of part-time play — and learning the strike zone — Snider became a Dodger regular in 1949, then blossomed in 1950, hitting .321 with 31 homers and 16 stolen bases. That was also the season that he stamped himself as a center fielder to be reckoned with.
In the ninth inning of the second game of a late-season Sunday doubleheader in Philadelphia, the Phillies' Willie "Puddin' Head" Jones approached the plate with the potential tying and winning runs on base, then swatted what seemed to be a home run, a rising line drive.
Snider raced to the base of a wooden fence in Shibe Park, climbed it and, somehow, made the catch.
"I ran over and jumped and my spike caught in the wood," Snider recalled for the Vero Beach Press Journal in 1999. "I went up and caught it backhanded. I turned my right hand into the wall so the force of me going into the wall wouldn't knock the ball out of my glove."
Said teammate Ralph Branca, "The next day I went out [to look at the fence] and his spike marks were, like, 5 1/2 feet high on the wall."
"I would love to just have a picture of the catch," Snider told the Los Angeles Times in 2000, but none exists. Televised baseball games, except for the World Series, were a rarity in those early TV days, and the newspaper photographers had already left to process their film.
The "Whiz Kids" Phillies went on to win the National League pennant that year but, coincidentally or not, from the time Snider became a regular, Brooklyn was the team to beat in the NL. The Dodgers won pennants in 1949, '52, '53 — that was "The Boys of Summer" team memorialized by Roger Kahn in his 1971 book of the same name — '55 and '56.
It was their misfortune, though, that up in the Bronx, the Yankees were in their heyday. The Yankees beat the Dodgers in the Series each of those years, except '55, when Snider hit .320 with four homers and seven RBIs in seven games.
"We didn't think the Yankees were any better than we were in any of the years that we played them," Snider told the New York Post in 2005. "We thought we were as good as they were, but they won."
Snider moved with the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958 and spent five more seasons with them — he hit .308 with 23 homers and 88 RBIs for the '59 World Series title team. But his left knee was bothering him — he eventually needed surgery — and his most productive years were past.
Until Dodger Stadium opened in 1962, the club played at the Coliseum, notorious for its short left-field fence but equally notorious for its vast right field, Snider's home-run target area. In Ebbets Field, it was 297 feet down the right-field line. In the Coliseum, it was 390, extending to 425 in center.
"There was an awful lot of territory out there," Snider said. "It just was not fair."
Snider's powerful throwing arm served him well in the cavernous Coliseum, however, and prompted teammate Don Zimmer to try to cash in on it. He bet teammates $400 that Snider could throw a ball out of the Coliseum, intending to split the winnings with Snider, who almost made it on his second try.
Instead, though, he heard an ominous "pop" in his elbow, had to miss a game because of the strain and was fined $200 by General Manager Buzzie Bavasi. Having come so close, though, he told Zimmer to hold the money, then on the last day of the 1958 season, did indeed throw a ball from the Coliseum into Exposition Park. Snider collected his $200 from Zimmer. And Bavasi, unaware of the successful try and remorseful about the fine, gave Snider his $200 back.
"So I got $400 out of the deal," Snider recalled years later.
Snider finished his Dodger career in 1962, then spent a quiet season with the New York Mets and another equally quiet one with the San Francisco Giants.
After his playing days, he managed for 3 1/2 seasons in the minor leagues, then had a second career as a broadcaster for the Montreal Expos before retiring to his home in Fallbrook, where he had an avocado ranch. He was sentenced to two years' probation, fined $5,000 and was required to pay about $30,000 in back taxes in 1995 after pleading guilty to failure to report income from card and memorabilia shows.
Snider is survived by his wife, Bev — they married in 1947 — sons Kevin and Kurt, daughters Pam Chodola and Dawna Amino, and 10 grandchildren. Services are pending.
Kupper is a former Times staff writer
Times staff writer Dylan Hernandez contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times
He Sure Was Artful as a Dodger
By Jim Murray
Los Angeles Times
August 30, 1988
FROM THE ARCHIVES
(Associated Press / October 6, 1952 )
Brooklyn Dodgers center fielder Duke Snider holds one bat for each of the four home runs he hit in Game 6 of the 1952 World Series against the New York Yankees.
If you had to be a ballplayer, the ballplayer you'd want to be is Duke Snider.
Probably, no more graceful player ever stepped into a batter's box. No one swung at a ball with the purity of form of Duke Snider. What Sam Snead was to golf, he was to baseball. They used to stop what they were doing on the field to watch Duke Snider take batting practice.
The swing was level and graceful and pretty. If you put it to music, it would be Beethoven. If you painted it, it would hang in the Louvre. If Baryshnikov were a baseball player, this is what he would look like.
The Duke was never off balance, out of sync. This is the way you would teach kids to swing. The Duke not only looked good striking out, he looked good popping up.
He was just as good in the outfield. He played center field as if he owned it. Duke ran up walls, dived in the grass and never even seemed to get his uniform dirty. He was so good, he played the position in New York at the same time as Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle and some people weren't sure who was best.
He probably should have been a New York Yankee, because he was the nearest thing to Joe DiMaggio in style and grace. Except that Joe used to play the game with this glacial ease and detachment. Duke was more temperamental. Duke was right where he belonged--Ebbets Field. Duke was a California beach boy--but he had a lot of Brooklyn in him.
Ebbets Field was baseball's Disneyland in those days, a riot of brass bands and brassier customers, noisy, contumelious. They loved Duke Snider there because he was this great, gifted ballplayer who seemed to chafe under the constraints of "normal" behavior the same as they did.
Duke once took to the public prints in a moment of pique to denounce the fans of Brooklyn as undeserving of the Dodgers. There was a time when this would have been true. Nobody deserved the Dodgers of the 1930s, who were a happy-go-lucky bunch of foul-ups whose specialty seemed to be passing each other on the basepaths.
The fans of Brooklyn forgave the Duke. They liked their ballplayers cantankerous and unpredictable. They left seriousness of purpose to the Yankees. "Bed-f-u-u-d Avenya, Duke!" they screamed when Snider came to bat, and that was his signal to park one over the 40-foot high right-field screen and out onto the street that ran behind it.
The Duke often obliged. Five years in a row, he hit 40 or more homers. When he didn't hit it over that fence, he hit it onto it. He hit .321, .303, .336, .341 and .309 in his good years, drove in more than 100 runs 6 times and led the league three consecutive years in runs scored.
He was so good, people were always wondering why he wasn't better. Branch Rickey, the best judge of baseball talent who ever lived, drooled when he saw the young Snider.
A dedicated gimmickry artist, Rickey put Snider to work with an umpire, pitcher and catcher, under instructions not to swing at the ball but to learn the strike zone. Snider merely ended up arguing with the umpire. Then, he went back to his old free-swinging self.
Said Duke of the ump: "That might be his idea of a strike--but he doesn't have to hit it!"
The Duke once explained his intransigence by saying that he was an only child, so what did you expect? That made perfect sense to Brooklyn. The Duke went back to pouting if he felt like it.
He has told his colorful story in a new book, "The Duke of Flatbush" (Zebra Books), out in the book stalls this week. It is a valentine to the Dodgers of another time, another place, another world we'll never see again.
It is a matter of some astonishment to Duke at how well they still remember him adoringly in that part of the world. "I have a book-signing and there are lines clear around the building," he marvels.
"People come up to you and say, 'I can remember it as if it were yesterday. You were in center field and Whitey Lockman hit this long, high drive and you caught it behind your back.' It's been 30 years and they talk of it as if it were yesterday."
In Brooklyn, they can never forget "the Dook." But, one of the ironies of baseball history is that, when the Dodgers moved back to what was Duke's home area--he grew up in Compton--they didn't do their star slugger any favors. Bedford Avenue was no longer a nice, friendly 340 feet away. "Bedford Avenue" was out in the upper reaches of the Coliseum, half a county away.
"You had to hit it through two ZIP codes," Snider recalls. "It was 440, 420, 460 out there--an awful lot of 4s.
"But, by then, I'd had three knee injuries and surgeries." The once- gorgeous swing looked less like a Rembrandt and more like a comic strip.
"The team changed its character when it came to L.A., all right," the Duke was recalling as he sat at breakfast the other morning. "But, you know they talk of great baseball teams and they talk of the 1927 Yankees and the Gashouse Gang and all, but the team we had in Brooklyn in the '50s was as good a baseball team as ever assembled.
"I mean, we lost some close Series to the Yankees, but who talks about those Yankees? People still talk about the Dodgers. Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo, Pee Wee Reese and Junior Gilliam. And we had Preacher Roe and Don Newcombe and Carl Erskine and Joe Black and Clem Labine on the mound. We were America's team!"
It was baseball royalty. And in center field, they had the archduke.
Duke Snider was No. 3 in New York but should be No. 1 in Dodgers hearts and history
Overshadowed by Yankees' Mickey Mantle and Giants' Willie Mays while playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947-57, Snider, who died Sunday at 84, nonetheless quietly and humbly played his way into the Hall of Fame and was a key figure in Dodgers' transition from East Coast to L.A.
By Bill Plaschke
Los Angeles Times
6:25 PM PST, February 27, 2011
Dodgers captain Duke Snider welcomes fans to the team's new stadium in Chavez Ravine. (Los Angeles Times / April 9, 1962)
In the most memorable line in one of the most memorable of baseball songs, he was third.
Willie, Mickey and the Duke.
On most lists of the greatest Dodgers in franchise history, he is also third.
Jackie, Sandy and the Duke.
After his death by natural causes Sunday at age 84, shouldn't it finally be time for Duke Snider to stand alone?
"He played every day, he did the job he was supposed to do, and did it better than anyone," said former Dodgers teammate Don Newcombe. "That's enough, isn't it?"
It was more than enough, Snider quietly carving a legacy as perhaps the greatest Dodgers position player ever, one of the team's greatest ambassadors, and a star who helped carry the team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles.
The Hall of Fame center fielder's accomplishments might not fit neatly into a song, but they are indelibly etched into a Dodgers culture that he was still actively nurturing as recently as two winters ago.
The team was holding a rookie seminar at Dodger Stadium, and Snider, although ailing and confined to a wheelchair, traveled from San Diego to talk to the kids.
"You have to learn to hate Halloween," he told the wide-eyed youngsters.
One of them had the nerve to ask why.
"Giants colors," he said.
Even though Snider spent his retirement in San Diego County, he was always happy to hang out at Chavez Ravine, his presence an important symbol of those days when the players really did play for the name on the front of their shirt.
"You cannot underestimate the impact Duke Snider has had on Dodger history, from Brooklyn to Los Angeles," said Dodgers historian Mark Langill. "He is one of the links that will live forever."
Snider probably will forever lead the franchise in home runs (389), RBIs (1,271) and extra-base hits (814), yet one of his greatest achievements was simply being in the lineup for the opening of Dodger Stadium in 1962.
Driving to the ballpark that day, the tailpipe on his car fell off. He pulled over, picked it up, and promptly burned his hand. Worried that manager Walter Alston would bench him, he played that day with a batting glove covering the burned hand.
Snider is also known for hitting four homers in the World Series twice, including leading Brooklyn to its 1955 championship, yet he would openly scoff at those who would laud his simple ability to put a bat on a baseball.
One of the more popular photos lining the walls of Dodger Stadium is a shot of Snider swinging, but every time he walked past the photo, Duke would flinch.
"He would look at it, shake his head, and say, 'That was a foul ball,' " Langill recalled.
Growing up in Compton, Edwin Donald Snider was nicknamed "Duke" by his father because he strutted around as a child, but he acted like anything but royalty.
When playing for Brooklyn from 1947 to 1957, he was considered only the third-best center fielder in New York behind Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, yet he never complained. Coming to Los Angeles with the Dodgers in 1958, his left-handed hitting stroke was handicapped by the distant right-field fence at the Coliseum, 440 feet from home plate, but he was never bitter.
He should have been most valuable player in 1955 but lost in a close race with teammate Roy Campanella after a voter inadvertently left Snider's name off the ballot. Even when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, it was a struggle, with voters electing him in his 11th year of eligibility.
"Yet hanging around him, he always was the nicest, most unassuming of stars," Langill said. "He was always truly just happy to be a Dodger."
When the Dodgers retired his number in Los Angeles in 1980, the guest of honor was more impressed with the honored guests.
"Whenever we talked about that ceremony, all he could talk about was how Kareem Abdul-Jabbar asked for his autograph," Langill said. "He was always amazed that people considered him something special."
In 1995, Snider pleaded guilty to federal tax charges for not claiming money from autograph shows, and was sentenced to two years' probation and fined $5,000, but he kept coming to Dodger Stadium and never stopped supporting the franchise to which he felt eternally indebted.
Snider's Hall of Fame speech in 1980, which was barely nine minutes long, was more revealingly powerful than any Snider swing.
He talked about how his wife, Beverly, loved Ted Williams. He introduced his family. He mentioned his high school coaches. He lauded his parents.
He told stories about his teammates. He thanked the folks who drove down from Montreal, where Snider was a broadcaster. He pretty much talked about everyone but himself.
"It's a little tough even getting up here," Snider said at the end of the speech. "I'd like to thank God for including me in his master plan . . . being a Brooklyn Dodger and Los Angeles Dodger."
The baseball bond between the two cities is stretched even thinner today, one more link broken, one more landmark gone. The Dodgers will sorely miss the quietest Duke, the littlest prince, sometimes buried in history, but always second to none.
Snider's regal path to Brooklyn started in Los Angeles
By Bob Keisser
Long Beach Press-Telegram
February 28, 2011
He played at the Los Angeles Coliseum with the Dodgers in 1958, though he didn't play as much as squint at the right-field fence, which seemed closer to the Harbor Freeway than home plate.
He was there when Dodger Stadium opened in 1962, but just for that year before he took a victory lap in New York with the Mets and then, clothed in irony, a final year in a San Francisco Giants uniform.
He spent most of his career in Brooklyn, where he earned the "Duke of Flatbush" nickname, where he was one of the "Boys of Summer," where he won the 1955 World Series, Brooklyn's one and only, and where he became part of the New York center-field trilogy of "Willie, Mickey and the Duke."
The passing of Duke Snider on Sunday morning at 84 is one of those moments when everyone associated with the national pastime feels some ache, be it a tear or a twinge. Baseball has lost a Hall of Famer and a two-coast icon who hit .295 with 407 home runs in his career, but his passing also means all seven everyday starters for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1949 to 1957 have died: Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Billy Cox, Carl Furillo and now Duke.
It all started here.
Duke Snider was born in Boyle Heights, was a resident of Lynwood and then Compton, and a regular on all the ball fields from the South Bay to Long Beach to South Los Angeles.
He went to Compton's Washington Elementary, Enterprise Junior High and eponymous high school, where he was a three-sport star who pitched a no-hitter, quarterbacked a win over Poly with a late, long touchdown pass, and led the Coast League in scoring in basketball.
He played summers with semipro teams out of Compton and Montebello. His Dodgers tryout in 1943 was held at Rec Park in Long Beach, the old dusty field that now is Blair Field. If you dig through newspaper archives deep enough, you'll find a few stories on Duke Snider's high school exploits were written by a schoolmate and close friend from Compton who grew up to be NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.
"We played all over, most often at Compton Crestview Park, which became Gonzalez Park," Snider said in an interview when the Dodgers honored the 50th anniversary of the 1955 team. "I played on the same semipro team out of Montebello as Gene Mauch, and in youth leagues in Compton and Long Beach. Even during the offseason, I'd play Sunday doubleheaders all over the area."
His years in Brooklyn were epic. He hit 316 home runs in his career there - nine years full-time, parts of two others - including 40 or more five straight years (53-57), an achievement neither Willie Mays nor Mickey Mantle ever matched.
He scored 100-plus runs six times and had 198 or more hits three times. He is the first National League player to hit four home runs in a World Series. He did it twice - 1952 and 1955 - the only player to do that. His 11 career World Series home runs is still the NL record and fourth all-time behind guys named Mantle, Ruth and Gehrig. He ranked eighth all-time in home runs when he retired.
Los Angeles never got to see the Duke Snider who played in Brooklyn. He was just 31 when the team moved to L.A. and the Coliseum. People joked about the short Chinese Wall in left field, but the real joke was on Snider.
He didn't see the park layout until Opening Day - 425 feet to dead center field, expanding to 440 feet in right center and then 395 in straightaway right, before a quick ducktail to the foul pole that seemed to smirk at him when he played right field. Willie Mays saw it and said "Duke, they buried you."
Snider hit just 15 home runs in 1958, and not one of them to right field at the Coliseum, an epic statistical anomaly.
If the Dodgers had never moved, or the right-field dimensions weren't so absurd, Snider probably would have 500 career home runs rather than the 407 he ended with. But he never blamed the stadium.
"The Coliseum did take some away. I hit a lot of 400-foot outs," Snider said. "But I can't look at it that way. I lost a lot more to my knee injuries. If I had stayed healthy and been able to play every day until I was 37 instead of sporadically as I did, I might have reached those numbers. In 1958, I was probably 70 percent of the player I was in 1957.
"Injuries are part of the game. Mickey Mantle would have had more if not for a bad knee, and Sandy Koufax's career was cut short by arthritis. I think my numbers are pretty good given what I dealt with those last years."
The fences were moved in a bit in 1959, and Snider hit .308, had .400 on-base percentage, hit 23 home runs and drove in 88 runs to help the Dodgers win their second World Series and first in Los Angeles.
The "Duke of Compton" helped plant the seeds of success that made the Dodgers as beloved here as they were in Brooklyn.
"He was an extremely gifted talent and his defensive abilities were often overlooked because of playing in a small ballpark, Ebbets Field. When he had a chance to run and move defensively, he had the grace and the abilities of DiMaggio and Mays," Vin Scully said through the Dodgers. "He was a World Series hero that will forever be remembered in the borough of Brooklyn. Although it's ironic to say it, we have lost a giant."
Photo: Getty Images
At his peak, the Duke was right there with Willie and Mickey
Cliff Corcoran > INSIDE BASEBALL
February 27, 2011
Duke Snider, the Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Famer who passed away on Sunday, will forever be remembered as part of New York's great center field triumvirate of the 1950s along with the Giants' Willie Mays and the Yankees' Mickey Mantle.
Being one third of Willie, Mickey and the Duke, as well as one of Brooklyn's iconic "Boys of Summer" has given Snider a place very near the heart of the game, a legacy his 407 career home runs and 2,116 career hits otherwise might not have. At the same time, being widely and correctly regarded as the least of that center field trio has caused some to forget just how great a player Snider was at his best.
During the peak of their rivalry, the gap between Snider and his crosstown counterparts was slight. Mantle and Mays were rookies in 1951, and because Mays lost all but 34 games of the 1952 and 1953 seasons to military duty and the Dodgers and Giants moved to California after the 1957 season, the era of Willie, Mickey and the Duke really only spanned the 1954 to 1957 seasons. Here are how those three Hall of Famer's performed during those four seasons (using their seasonal averages in counting stats):
Mickey: .330/.453/.625 (192 OPS+), 38 HR, 106 RBI, 126 R, 10 SB, 2 MVPs, 1 championship
Willie: .323/.397/.627 (167 OPS+), 41 HR, 104 RBI, 114 R, 28 SB, 1 MVP, 1 championship
Duke: .305/.403/.616 (160 OPS+), 41 HR, 115 RBI, 112 R, 5 SB, 0 MVP, 1 championship
Snider doesn't miss by much in the rate stats and is right there with Mays and Mantle in his counting numbers. He wasn't as fast as the other two (who was?) and had a hard time in the MVP voting thanks to a blown vote in 1956 (when he led the league in on-base percentage, slugging, OPS, OPS+, home runs, walks, and intentional walks but inexplicably finished 10th, behind four teammates), the presence of Mays and Hank Aaron, and the fact that he was teammates with a catcher in Roy Campanella who put up comparable numbers. Still, he finished second in the voting in 1955, fourth in 1954, and third in 1953. In 1955 he was named the Sporting News Player of the Year, an award then given to just one player in all of baseball. Mays won the award in 1954. Mantle won in 1956.
Snider's 1953 season, omitted above, was significantly better than his 1957 season. If we instead isolate the four years from '53 to '56 for Snider we get this line: .320/.415/.626 (165 OPS+), 42 HR, 123 RBI, 122 R, which puts him right there with Mays. Still, Mays has the edge in the park-adjusted OPS+. That points to the fact that Brooklyn's Ebbets Field was a great park in which to hit during those seasons, but Snider didn't just get fat on home cooking. Here are his road splits during that four year peak:
Bearing in mind that most hitters hit better at home, there's nothing there to support the criticism of Snider as a park-created phenomenon.
Snider was a great player, pure and simple. He didn't have the speed of Mays or Mantle, but he did everything else extremely well. He hit for average (.295 career, over .300 seven times, over .320 three times), had great power (he hit 40 home runs five years in a row from 1953 to 1957 -- only Babe Ruth, Alex Rodriguez, and Sammy Sosa have surpassed that streak -- and he slugged .600 three times and also led the league at .598 in 1956), got on base (.380 on-base percentage career with three full seasons over .400, another with a league-leading .399 OBP, and two shortened seasons over .400), and despite his modest speed, he was regarded as an outstanding center fielder. Snider never won a Gold Glove, but that was largely because the Gold Glove award wasn't introduced until 1957, his last great season, and for the first four years of its existence, the voters only selected one player from each outfield position, leaving Snider in Mays' shadow again.
Snider's position was every bit as significant as how well he played it. In 2010, the only positions to offer less offense than center field were shortstop, catcher, and second base. As SI.com's Joe Posnanski recently realized, the only center fielders to be voted into the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America since Snider in 1980 (Mays was elected in 1979) were Kirby Puckett and Andre Dawson, the latter of whom actually played more games in right field, and neither of whom could match Snider's all-around offensive game at his peak. In fact, the list of major league center fielders who hit like Snider at his peak is short: Mays, Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Ken Griffey Jr., Hack Wilson, and perhaps Jim Edmonds. You can throw in Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker from the dead-ball era if you wish. Still, that's at most nine men, including Snider, in the 140-year history of the major leagues.
Snider's ultimate shortcoming was his early decline, brought about by a combination of a bad knee and unfavorable West Coast ballparks. Snider was just 31 when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. In his final season in Brooklyn, he hit .274/.368/.587 with 42 home runs and 92 RBIs, below his usual standard, but still worthy of a few down-ballot MVP votes. In 1958, the Dodgers jerry-rigged Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for baseball, erecting a fence that was 390 feet from home in right field (picture Fenway Park's right field, but moreso). Snider hit .331/.407/.573 on the road that year, but just .294/.335/.441 at home and saw his overall home run total drop to just 15. The Dodgers brought the fences in nearly 60 feet in 1959, and Snider rebounded with a .308/.400/.535 performance, helping the Dodgers to a second world championship, but by then his knee had forced him to split his time between center and right fields and reduced his overall playing time.
Snider never had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title after the Dodgers left Brooklyn and would never reach 20 home runs again after 1959. Though for reasons less significant than Jackie Robinson's retirement or Campanella's car accident, Duke Snider left his best baseball in Brooklyn. That kept him from keeping pace with Mays and Mantle in the 1960s, but also stoked his legend as the Duke of Flatbush, the Silver Fox that helped lead Brooklyn to five pennants and their only ever world championship, who twice hit four home runs in a single World Series, twice hit two homers in a single World Series game, just missed a home run down the line in Don Larson's perfect game, a game in which he also made a tremendous catch in center field, and hit .324/.391/.686 in the 1952, '53, '55, and '56 World Series combined. Duke Snider was no third wheel in that famous Gotham triumvirate. At his best, which he was during those years, the Duke deserved to be included alongside Willie and Mickey, as he always will be.