The Duke of Flatbush in his prime:I see him at the plate, crushing Robin Roberts’s fastball and sending it soaring high over that crazy right-field wall at Ebbets Field. I see him rounding the bases.’

Duke Snider

September 19, 1926-February 27, 2011

‘I see him rounding the bases. I see him smiling. I feel the joy of his sweet, happy soul.’

It seems impossible that it could have been, but it was. Once upon a time, a city supported three Major League Baseball franchises in three of its five boroughs, and each of those teams boasted a centerfielder of legendary stature. New York City in the 1950s is where this amazing confluence occurred: in the Bronx, Mickey Mantle, the “Commerce Comet,” patrolled the position he had taken over following Joe DiMaggio’s retirement after the 1951 season. In Manhattan, “Say Hey” Willie Mays, arguably the most gifted not only of all the fabled centerfielders but of all baseball players ever, roamed the endless acreage that was the cavernous Polo Grounds’ center field, chasing down deep drives as effortlessly as if they were infield pop-ups. And out in Brooklyn, where the bandbox that was Ebbets Field inculcated a familial relationship between fans and players, who would sometimes chat with each other during games, Duke Snider, who beat both Mantle and Mays to the bigs by three years, having been called up from Montreal in mid-season 1948, arrived in Brooklyn with a reputation as an offensive player who could hit from the portside for power and average both but was something of a project on defense. By the time the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, “the Duke of Flatbush” was as respected with the glove as he was with the bat, and was installed as a Dodgers legend for his heroics at the plate and in the field.

Edwin Donald “Duke” Snider died of natural causes at the Valle Vista Convalescent Hospital in Escondido, CA, on February 27, 2011. He was 84 years old. In his 18-year career, Snider batted .295 with 407 home runs and 1,333 RBI in 2,143 games.

Duke Snider helps Captain Midnight (Richard Webb) hawk Ovaltine, 1955

More so even than Mantle’s, Snider’s death touched a nerve in the town where he had made his fame, as New York sportswriters who had seen Snider play in his Brooklyn prime continued penning tributes to him in the local papers for days after his passing; New Yorkers wrote letters to the editors in volume, sending a final salute and thank you to a man whose exploits had given them treasured memories, still undimmed; and Snider’s neighbors in his Bay Ridge neighborhood went on record reminiscing about what it was like to have the Duke of Flatbush living nearby back in the day.

On February 27, Times columnist Dave Anderson remembered “Duke of Flatbush, a Brooklyn Icon” in a balanced appraisal mostly of Duke but also including Mays and Mantle in the mix.

Anderson: 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.

Duke Snider: In His Own Words, excerpt from the nationally broadcast TV special: ‘I thank God for making me a Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodger.’

On February 28, in “When Players Like Duke Snider Were Also Neighbors”, the Times’s Manny Fernandez went back to the Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, neighborhood where Snider made his home while a Dodger and spoke with residents who remembered the Snider family as neighborhood residents, and recalled Duke fondly as “another sort of celebrity: He was a Dodger.”

“He would always tell us to keep out of trouble,” retired public school teacher Forence Cozzolino, 69, who has lived in a house on 97th Street all her life, told Fernandez. “We just got used to it. A friend of mine used to walk Pee Wee Reese’s daughter to school. They were so unpretentious. They really were. Baseball was different then. They weren’t playing for the multimillions.”

On February 27, in “Passing Down a Love for Snider” in Bats: The New York Times Baseball Blog, 31-year-old Howard Megdal, too young to have seen any of the great center fielders play in person, wrote a touching tribute to Snider centered on his father’s love for the Duke that dad had passed on to his son, who had come to revere the Dodgers’ center fielder over his celebrated brethren in the Bronx and Manhattan. He recalls a fleeting encounter with Mantle in Atlantic City—“courteous, professional and perfunctory—the Yankee way”; and with Mays at a book signing at a baseball card show at which Mays did not look up as he autographed his autobiography for Megdal (and Mays’s assistant assured Megdal’s father that Willie would not sign it “To Howard”).

At the same show where Mays gave Megdal the cold shoulder, though, Duke embraced the young man.

“The experience with Snider, by contrast, could scarcely have been more meaningful,” Megdal writes. “It felt like it would for children who suffered through Greek mythology to meet Zeus, or for those weaned on Goldilocks to finally taste that third bowl of porridge. Snider graciously talked to us for what felt like 15 minutes. He remembered, or at least pretended to remember, my father’s first game, at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City.

“In short, he played the hero well. He towered over me, that great silvery hair giving him the proper bearing of a god. Only later would I learn about the self-doubt that plagued him throughout his playing career--and that didn’t matter. Snider was forever the player my father saw, and the man I met that day. The three autobiographies sat atop a bookshelf in an honored place with Snider’s hardcover The Duke of Flatbush looming over the paperback copies of The Mick and Say Hey.”

(Card shows such as the one Medgal visited with his father figure in the only blemish on Snider’s otherwise impeccable reputation. In 1995 he pleaded guilty to federal tax fraud charges for failing to report income from card shows and memorabilia sales.)

A solid, reliable number three hitter in the Dodgers’ lineup, Snider his 40 or more home runs in five consecutive seasons (1953-57), and between 1953-1956 averaged 42 home runs, 124 RBI, 123 runs, and a .320 batting average. He led the National league in runs scored, home runs, and RBIs in separate seasons, and appeared in six post-seasons with the Dodgers (1949, 1952-53, 1955-56, 1959), facing the New York Yankees in the first five and the Chicago White Sox in the last. The Dodgers won the World Series in 1955 and in 1959.

He left Brooklyn in style, blasting the last home run in Ebbets Field history.

Duke Snider on What’s My Line, with host John Charles Daly

The Los Angeles Dodgers had no baseball field proper to play in, so instead called the Los Angeles Coliseum home while Chavez Ravine was being built. With a 440-foot right field fence, the Coliseum was a pitcher’s park, as Snider found out in his first season in L.A. when he hit only 15 home runs, although he was hobbled with a bad knee most of the season. Rebounding in ’59, he batted .308 with 25 home runs and 88 RBI while platooning in center field with Don Demeter during the Dodgers’ first World Series triumph in their new city. It was steadily downhill for Snider afterwards, as he was relegated to part-time status, then, in 1963, sold to the woebegone New York Mets, where he played for one season before requesting a trade to a contending team. With the Mets, in 354 at bats, he hit .243 with 14 home runs and 43 RBI; traded to the San Francisco Giants in ’64, he ended his career making only 167 plate appearances, hitting four home runs and driving in 17, with a .210 batting average. He retired as an eight-time All Star, six-time Top 10 Most Valuable Player candidate, and in the top 100 of all Major League players in slugging percentage (.540), total bases (3,865), home runs (407—41st all-time), RBI (1,333—77th all-time), extra base hits (850). He remains the Dodgers’ career leader in home runs (389), RBI (1,271), strikeouts (1,123) and extra-base hits (814). He is the only player ever to hit four or more home runs in two different World Series (1952, 1955) and one of two major league players with more than 1,000 RBI in the 1950s, the other being his teammate Gil Hodges.


The legendary years when New York could claim the three best center fielders in the game were memorialized in 1981, when Terry Cashman, a native New Yorker, baseball fan of the first order and a musician/songwriter/producer/music business executive (as a songwriter he had written the top 10 1967 hit “Sunday Will Never Be The Same” for Spanky and Our Gang; as a producer he had worked with Jim Croce, among others), paid tribute to them in his song “Talkin’ Baseball,” a simple, catchy ditty paying homage to “Willie, Mickey and the Duke” that has become one of the official unofficial songs of the game, with several teams tailoring the song to honor their hometown heroes. Cashman was inspired by a photo taken on Old-Timer’s Day at Shea Stadium showing not three but four of the greatest centerfielders—including DiMaggio—from the back, a view from which they were instantly identifiable by their uniform numbers. Unable to get the photo out of his mind, Cashman picked up his guitar and in twenty minutes had the finished version of “Talkin’ Baseball” ready for production. Baseball embraced it immediately.

“It was a part of my heart,” Cashman said of the song in a conversation with the New York Post’s Mike Vaccaro, “but I think it reflected what was in a lot of people’s hearts too. Our memories don’t die. Thank goodness for that.”

duke2Another of Snider’s teammates, pitcher Ralph Branca, weighed in with a New York Times piece himself, on March 5, “Forever a Boy of Summer, in Brooklyn and Beyond”. In it, Branca recalled how second-year man Snider was outraged when some Dodgers veterans circulated a petition arguing against Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier by becoming a Dodger. Branca recalls Snider’s reaction: “Are they crazy? Besides being a great guy, he’s the best thing that’s ever happened to this team.” Snider, it turns out, had seen Robinson in Los Angeles excelling at football, baseball, basketball and track.

“On a team of extraordinary individuals, Duke stood out,” Branca wrote. “He had intelligence, integrity and wit. He played hard, and superbly, day in and day out. His long career is a model of athletic excellence.

“In 1980 at his Hall of Fame induction, I was there with many of his teammates to cheer him on. We weren’t surprised when he talked about how great we were and failed to mention his own remarkable accomplishments.”

In the end, Branca spoke for all those writers who had lined up to praise Duke, and all the Brooklyn Dodgers fans who had written letters to the editor to reflect on what Snider had meant not merely to their team, but in their lives, so closely intertwined were the Bums and everyday life in those years. Many of “The Boys of Summer,” as Roger Kahn memorably and indelibly dubbed them in his poignant best selling book of 1972, are gone, and Duke’s death hit a lot of people where they live. Branca understands:

I still see Duke as a young man. I see him out there in center field, racing past the ads for Van Heusen shirts and Gem razors, while executing a brilliant running catch. I see him at the plate, crushing Robin Roberts’s fastball and sending it soaring high over that crazy right-field wall at Ebbets Field. I see him rounding the bases. I see him smiling. I feel the joy of his sweet, happy soul.

Highlights of the 1955 World Series. Dodgers win first championship in franchise history, in seven games. Duke Snider stars.

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