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Talkin' baseball? Don't forget the Duke
An era ended on Sunday when Hall of Famer Duke Snider died at 84.
Snider was an outfielder often overshadowed but impossible to overlook. He came to the big leagues in 1947, debuting with the Brooklyn Dodgers as a mid-game replacement on April 17, two days and one game after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier.
And he enjoyed the prime of his career in New York in the 1950s, sandwiched between the elegant Willie Mays and the flamboyant Mickey Mantle.
It took him 10 times on the ballot to be elected to the Hall of Fame, an honor bestowed on Mays and Mantle in their first years of eligibility, but Snider’s legitimacy never was questioned because of a career in which he not only played a sparkling center field but also hit 407 home runs and compiled a .295 average.
“As a kid, what I remember is he was one of those players you looked up to because he was such a very good player and was so graceful,’’ fellow Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan said. “And when I had a chance to meet him, you realize he is the same understated elegance off the field that marked his career on the field. He was a special part of our game.’’
He was one of the Boys of Summer and the last living player who was on the field for the final out in the Dodgers’ World Series Game 7 in 1955 — The Year That Was Next Year, as it was known because the Dodgers finally won the World Series.
He was a part of giving life to baseball on the West Coast, moving with the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles for the 1958 season, spending five years in his hometown before winding up his career with one-year stops with the Mets, the team that brought the NL back to New York, and then the Giants, the team that moved West with the Dodgers.
Snider was immortalized in the Terry Cashman song “Talkin’ Baseball” that honored the three center fielders of New York’s golden age of baseball and was released in 1981, the year after Snider completed the triumvirate’s induction into Cooperstown.
As Cashman penned, “If Cooperstown is calling, it’s no fluke. They’ll be with Willie, Mickey and the Duke.’’
“He was a key player during a special era in baseball, joining Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle to form New York City's unparalleled triumvirate of center fielders: Willie, Mickey and The Duke,” Commissioner Bud Selig said. “Then the Los Angeles native went home and helped usher in a new part of baseball history with great class.’’
The funny thing is, not only was he often overlooked because of Mays and Mantle, but he often was overshadowed in the public by Dodgers teammates Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo, Newcombe and Johnny Podres. However it was Snider who joined teammates Campanella, Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in the Hall of Fame.
“He was an extremely gifted talent and his defensive abilities were often overlooked because of playing in a small ballpark, Ebbets Field,’’ said Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully, who was behind the mike for the Dodgers throughout Snider’s career. “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.’’
Given the nickname Duke by his father at the age of 5, but never able to explain the derivation of the nickname, Snider was a three-sport star at Compton (Calif.) High. He signed with the Dodgers at 17 and became a key part to their long-term success, but there was a part of Snider that never could embrace his public stature.
After slumping late in a 1951 season in which the Dodgers saw their shot at an NL pennant slip away to the Giants, Snider acknowledged suggesting to owner Walter O’Malley that the team trade him.
“I told him I couldn’t take the pressure,’’ Snider was quoted as explaining in a 1955 issue of Sport Magazine.
However, he learned to deal with pressure and to ignore slights and other things perceived as unjust, like his finishing second to Campanella in the 1955 NL MVP voting. The teammates received eight first-place votes apiece, but on one ballot, Campanella received both a first-place and fifth-place vote, and Snider wasn’t listed. The assumption was the voter, who was hospitalized, meant to vote Snider either first or fifth, but the Baseball Writers Association of America never could get a clarification of the voter’s intention.
Had Snider even received that fifth-place vote he would have finished a point ahead of Campanella for the MVP.
“That wasn’t Duke’s way,’’ said the late Buzzie Bavasi, the Dodgers’ general manager during Snider’s days. “Duke wasn’t afraid to speak up for himself, but not at the expense of a teammate.’’
Bavasi knew this well. After the 1950 season he told Snider he had the type of year that should prompt the team to pay him twice as much in 1951. Shortly after that, to his surprise, Bavasi became the Dodgers’ GM. When he sent out the 1951 contracts, Snider sent his back unsigned.
“He had a note attached that explained, ‘This doesn’t look like double last year’s salary,’” Bavasi said. “I had to laugh to myself. I sent him a new contract, and the salary was doubled. And I wrote a note that told him, `You have a great memory, you rat. Don’t forget what you did to earn this.’’’
Snider didn’t. He gave the Dodgers, and baseball, everything they could have hoped for during his Hall of Fame career.
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