Every team, especially the teams that have been around awhile, has a pantheon of demi-gods who are spoken about reverently by the fans, some long after they’ve retired or passed away. Tales of their deeds are passed from generation to generation, often embellished with the passing of time
The Yankees have Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and countless others. The Giants have Willie Mays. The Pirates revere Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski, names to be passed down by generations of fans long after anyone who actually saw them play have passed on.
Duke Snider is one of those guys for Dodger fans. He was the offensive leader of the early and mid-1950s Dodgers’ teams that finally brought a World Series home to Brooklyn, not long before they escaped to Los Angeles. He was also a key force on the L.A. version of the team, helping them to their first World Series. It is very difficult to have a discussion about the history of the Dodgers, or baseball as a whole in the mid 1950s, without Snider’s name coming up somewhere.
I never saw Duke. I never met him. But my father and grandfather would always go on and on about guys like Duke, Gil Hodges and Pee Wee Reese. These stories, and many more told by Vin Scully as I would lie in my bed listening to the game, were passed to me; I tell my kids about them, along with the stories of younger heroes like Orel Hershiser, Fernando Valenzuela and Kirk Gibson. Snider’s book, The Duke of Flatbush, told of his career in the plain-spoken, humble manner of a guy who appreciated all he received from the game. Below the rough competitive edges that surely helped make him great, he came off as a man with great grace, dignity and humility.
Probably the biggest memories of him, besides the cherished World Series wins, is his part in the maelstrom of New York baseball in the early and mid 1950s. There were the three baseball teams in New York City, and all three had Hall of Fame caliber center fielders. The Yankees had Mickey Mantle, the Giants had Mays—and the Dodgers had Snider. The Giants and the Dodgers, as it is now on the other coasts, had a vicious rivalry, and the Yankees, much as they are now, were the big behemoth. Except for two years—1954 and 1959—the Yankees were in the World Series every year in the 1950s. Five of those times they were playing the Dodgers, whether in Brooklyn or Los Angeles. The Giants, who were going through a relatively flat period at the time, played in only two. Snider played a central role on the 1955 and 1959 teams that won the series. To put those wins in perspective, the 1955 win was the first in eight attempts for that team. Snider played down the rivalry, at least the one with his fellow center fielders.
“The newspapers compared Willie, Mickey and I, and that was their thing,” he said a few years ago. “As a team, we competed with the Giants, and we faced the Yankees in the World Series. So we had a rivalry as a team, that was it. It was an honor to be compared to them, they were both great players.”
There is no doubting his Hall of Fame statistics. He hit 40+ homers five years in a row, between 1953 and 1957. He had 100+ RBI in six of seven seasons between 1950 and 1956. His career batting average would be over .300 would it not be for a sizable decline in his later years. His career OBP was .380, and was over .400 five times in his career. He was also strong in the postseason. In a losing cause in the 1952 series, he hit four homers and had eight RBI, and hit four more when they finally won in 1957. He had 11 homers, 26 RBI and hit .286 in 36 postseason games in his career. He didn’t quite hit the heights of Mays and Mantle, but aptly deserved the title, “The Duke of Flatbush”.
Those in the Dodgers organization who knew Snider expressed their condolences at his passing.
“I was Duke’s teammate and looked up to him with respect,” said Tommy Lasorda. “Duke was not only a great player, but he was a great person, too. He loved his family and loved the Dodgers. He was the true Dodger and represented the Dodgers to the highest degree of class, dignity and character. He was my teammate and friend and I will really miss him.”
Carl Erskine was Snider’s roommate for 10 years and the two shared a house at spring training in Vero Beach, Fla., with their families.
“Duke played so great when I pitched,” he recalled. “He just made so many plays in the World Series for me, and he seemed to play his best when I pitched.”
Scully remembered his unique skill set. “”He was an extremely gifted talent and his defensive abilities were often overlooked because of playing in a small ballpark, Ebbets Field,” Scully said. ”When he had a chance to run and move defensively, he had the grace and the abilities of [Joe] 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. He’s joining a great Dodger team that has moved on and I extend my sympathies to his entire family, especially to Bev. “(Snider is survived by his wife Beverly)
Even his old nemesis Mays had touching words to say.
“Duke was a fine man, a terrific hitter and a great friend, even though he was a Dodger,” he said. “It was great playing center field in New York in the 1950s, along with Mickey and Duke. I have wonderful memories of that. Duke and I played on some All-Star teams together and even on the same Giants team the last year he played.” (1964).
Like the players mentioned in the first paragraph, Duke was one of those guys, who when his name is mentioned, “Dodger” is the next one that comes up. Yes, he finished his carrier with the Mets and (!) the Giants, but he will always be remembered as a Dodger, the Duke of Flatbush, who once said, “I was born in Los Angeles. Baseballwise, I was born in Brooklyn. We lived with Brooklyn. We died with Brooklyn.”
References & Resources
Ben Walker, Associated Press
Marty Noble, MLB.com
Bailey Stephens, MLB.com