Sunday, February 27, 2011

Duke Snider, 1926-2011

Yes, that is a color photograph taken at Ebbets Field.
Several do exist.

I was going to use today's post to show my choices for the Top 10 Yankee Center Fielders.

Instead, I have to pause and bring you the sad news of the passing of a great New York center fielder who was not a Yankee.

Edwin Donald Snider was born on September 19, 1926 in Los Angeles, California. This, along with Jackie Robinson having been raised in nearby Pasadena, forms one of the great ironies in the history of baseball: The 2 greatest players the Brooklyn Dodgers ever had were both from Los Angeles. Throw in the fact that the greatest player the Los Angeles Dodgers ever had, Sandy Koufax, was from Brooklyn, but did nothing for the club until after they moved to L.A., and you've got -- as Johnny Carson, who also moved from New York to L.A., would say -- weird, wild stuff.

It's been suggested that Edwin Donald Snider was nicknamed "Duke" because of his very light hair, just as Edward Charles Ford and Donald Richard Ashburn were nicknamed "Whitey" well before their hair went from light blond to absolutely white. Apparently not, as it seems that Snider's father gave him the nickname at age 5.

He always said that growing up in Southern California, with great weather all year 'round (this was before L.A. became the smog capital of America), gave him the chance to play as much baseball as he wanted, leading him to become a great player. There is something to this: California has produced more players than any other State, and not just because it has the largest population of any State. Sun Belt weather is also why schools in California, Arizona, and the former Confederate States tend to dominate college baseball.

Duke Snider was straight outta Compton. No, I'm not kidding: Compton High School, Class of 1943. Baseball, football quarterback, basketball. He is probably the best athlete the school has ever produced -- I looked it up, Venus and Serena Williams may have lived in Compton, but were home-schooled, and did not attend Compton High. And even if they had, as far as I know they've only played one sport, though they've been playing it as well as anybody, male or female, the last 15 years.

After spending 1945 in the U.S. Army at the end of World War II, the Duke moved up, and debuted in the major leagues on April 17, 1947 -- 2 days after Robinson did and, in so doing, changed the world. He didn't play in the 1947 World Series, but by 1949 he was the Dodgers' starting center fielder.

That 1949 season was the 1st full major league season for Duke and catcher Roy Campanella, the 1st major league season for pitcher Don Newcombe, the 2nd with the Dodgers for 3rd baseman Billy Cox and pitcher Preacher Roe, the 2nd full for 1st baseman Gil Hodges, the 3rd for 2nd baseman Robinson, and the 3rd full for right fielder Carl Furillo.

It was the beginning of the group of players that Roger Kahn, later to cover the team for the New York Herald Tribune, would call "The Boys of Summer," and use that line, from a poem by Dylan Thomas, as the title of his 1972 book that looked at those former Dodgers as they moved through middle age. The only real veteran among them was their shortstop and Captain, Harold "Pee Wee" Reese.

Among them, Kahn also included pitcher Carl Erskine, who had yet to become a regular in the starting rotation; left fielder Andy Pafko, who did not get to the Dodgers until 1951; pitcher Clem Labine, who would not have a full season until 1951; pitcher Joe Black, who would not arrive until 1952; and reserve outfielder George "Shotgun" Shuba. He did not, however, include pitcher Ralph Branca, for whom 1949 was his 3rd full season. Probably had something to do with the fact that Kahn based the book on the 2 years he covered the team for the Trib, 1952 and '53, after Branca threw a rather inopportune pitch to close the '51 season, became an afterthought in '52, and was traded in '53.

Twelve men. Of them, only Newcombe, Erskine, Pafko and Shuba -- and Kahn himself -- are still alive as we close February 2011. So is Branca. Hodges died just after the book came out; Robinson, a few months later.

*

In 1949, '50 and '51, 3 straight seasons, the Dodgers went down to the last day of the season with the National League Pennant still in doubt. In '49, they won, edging the St. Louis Cardinals by 1 game. In '50, they lost on the last day to the team they were chasing, the Philadelphia Phillies. In '51, they blew a 13 1/2-game lead over their arch-rivals, the New York Giants, and finished in a tie for the Pennant, and lost the Playoff. (If you're reading this, you don't need me to remind you of how -- especially since I've already alluded to it.) In '52 and '53, they did win the Pennant.

Yet they didn't win the World Series. In '41, '47, '49, '52 and '53, they lost every time. To the same team, the New York Yankees. The Dodgers had also lost the World Series in 1916 (to the Boston Red Sox) and in 1920 (to the Cleveland Indians). They were 0-for-7 in Series play -- 0-for-5 against the Yankees. Throw in their close loss to the Cards in '42, their Playoff loss to the Cards in '46, their agonizing losses in '50 and '51, and their 2nd-place finish as the hated Giants won the Series in '54, and you can see why Dodger fans were frustrated.

It was no fault of Duke Snider, though. He played a fine center field, and boy, could he hit. In 1950, he batted .321, hit 31 doubles, 10 triples, 31 homers and had 107 RBIs, and led the NL in hits and total bases. He was 24, and just gettin' warmed up.

He would bat .300 7 times, for a .295 career average. His career OPS+ was a sizzling 140. In '53 he led the NL in slugging percentage, on-base percentage and runs. He led in total bases and runs again in '54. He led in runs and RBIs in '55. He led in homers, on-base and slugging in '56. He made 7 All-Star Games. He never won an MVP, but considering that his teammate Robinson won 1 and his teammate Campanella won 3, that's no shame.

Finally, in 1955, the Dodgers slew all the dragons. They won the Pennant by 13 games, and the Duke batted .309, hit 42 homers and had a career-high 136 RBIs. In the World Series against the Yankees, he tied the record with 4 homers (a record he first tied in '52, sharing it with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and later broken by Reggie Jackson) and had 7 RBIs. The Dodgers beat the Yankees in Game 7 at the old Yankee Stadium, October 4, 1955.

It was as cathartic a win as any baseball team ever had, perhaps even more so than the 1969 Mets, certainly more so than the 1977 or 1996 Yankees -- and, unlike the 2004 Red Sox, "Dem Bums" didn't need no steroids.

On September 22, 1957, Snider hit 2 homers off Phillies pitcher Robin Roberts. These turned out to be the last 2 homers ever hit at Ebbets Field. The team moved to Los Angeles. Duke was happy to be going to his hometown, but, like many of the Dodgers, he was sad to leave Brooklyn. He helped the Dodgers win the World Series again in 1959.

After the 1962 season, he went back to New York, traded to the Mets. Duke Snider, playing home games in the Polo Grounds? Not as strange as where he ended up, in the 1964 season: Playing for the Giants, albeit in San Francisco. At the time of his retirement, his 407 home runs were 10th all-time.

He managed in the minor leagues, became a broadcaster for the San Diego Padres (near his Fallbrook, California home) and the Montreal Expos (he was still popular there from his days with the Dodgers' farm team, the Montreal Royals), and raised fruit on land he owned in Fallbrook. In 1980, in his 11th year on the ballot (much too late), he was elected to the Hall of Fame. The Dodgers then retired his Number 4.
The Duke, late in life, at Dodger Stadium

In 1999, Snider was ranked 84th on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players," and was a nominee for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.

Shortly after his 1980 election to the Hall, Terry Cashman recorded and released one of the iconic baseball songs. Officially titled "Talkin' Baseball," it is best remembered for its chorus, saluting the 3 great New York center fielders of the 1950s: "Willie, Mickey and the Duke."

Actually, while Willie Mays was better in 1951 and '54, and Mickey Mantle had the better seasons by far in '56 and '57, and then Willie and the Duke left for California to leave Mickey all alone, in 1952 and '53, Duke Snider was the best center fielder in New York. Okay, Mays was in the Army for the Korean War for most of '52 and all of '53, but there were no excuses in '55: While Willie and Mickey both had great stats, the Duke was the best that year.

Mickey died in 1995, at the age of 63. The Duke died today, February 27, 2011, of what's currently being called simply "nautral causes," at the age of 84. Now, Willie, age 79 and possibly not in the best of health, is the only one of the 3 left.

But as long as people are talkin' baseball, they'll be talkin' about Duke Snider, a true all-time great.

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