Tuesday, 8 March 2011


My obituary of one of the greatest of the Boys of Summer, Duke Snider, is in today's Guardian, you can link to it here. Because it was a busy couple of pages, it was trimmed in some small but significant ways, so you can read the original text below--although 'Talkin' Baseball' wasn't a hit song in Britain, it does deserve some notice. Next time it will be my lede.

I didn't write in the obit about the famous catch he made climbing the wall in Philadelphia's Shibe Park (that's not it, but something similar from Ebbets Field below left), nor about the way his father made him, a natural right-hander, bat left (I would have had to explain the advantage for a British audience: but Mickey Mantle's father did much the same thing to him and he became a switch-hitter). I was also thinking about some things the Duke and pitcher Don Drysdale had in common, both being from Los Angeles and returning home when the Dodgers left Brooklyn, they had a highly competitive but somehow laid-back, self-aware restraint that went against the grain of Dem Bums. It would also have been nice to mention Dodger owner Walter O'Malley's betrayal of New York (and fleecing of the residents of Chavez Ravine in LA): there are various stories and I've seen them include Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hammil, and/or Jack Newfield, but the gist was they were asked to write down the three most despicable men of the twentieth century and each one listed Hitler, Stalin, and Walter O'Malley.
There is something special about that time, especially for someone like me who was a little boy then, and growing up within media distance of New York (though rooting for Boston's Red Sox). Mantle was every kid's dream then, even if you weren't a Yankee fan; Willie Mays was a joy to watch, and the Duke was somehow the quiet anchor who linked the three boroughs together...

In the Fifties, New York saw itself as the vibrant centre of an American-led world. Baseball was still America's national pastime, and New York's three teams dominated baseball. Their dynamism was symbolised by the teams' center-fielders, each a mix of speed and power, grace and flair. The Yankees had the late Mickey Mantle, the Giants the 'Say-Hey Kid', Willie Mays, while Brooklyn's Dodgers boasted the 'Duke of Flatbush', Duke Snider, who has died aged 84 .

That the Dodgers, perennial losers known even to their fans as 'Dem Bums', were part of this mix was down in good part to Snider, who joined the team in 1947, the same day Jackie Robinson broke baseball's segregationist apartheid. From that point through 1957, after which the Dodgers and Giants abandoned New York for California, Brooklyn won six National League pennants, and, in 1955, their only World Series championship, beating the hated Yankees, champions of the American League. The Duke hit four home runs in that seven-game series; he remains the only player to homer four times in two different World Series.

The Dodgers' move to Los Angeles broke the hearts of Brooklyn's fans, and shifted baseball's balance of power away from New York. Snider hit the team's final home run in Brooklyn, and got their first hit in LA, but the move sorely affected his career. Brooklyn's cozy Ebbets Field had a short right-field perfectly suited to his sort of left-handed 'pull' hitting. Snider actually hit more home runs than either Mays or Mantle in the decade of the Fifties, but in Los Angeles the Dodgers played first in the Coliseum, with a vast, deep right-field, and then in Chavez Ravine, a park which was hard on hitters to all fields. The ballparks held his hitting statistics down, and the vast outfields put more strain on Snider's aging knees. But his most serious injury came popping his elbow while throwing a ball out of Dodger Stadium to win a bet. Although he finished his career with 407 home runs, only 81 of them came after 1959, and his career batting average fell just under the magical .300 mark at .295.

Born in Los Angeles 19 September 1926, Edwin Donald Snider was nicknamed Duke by his father Ward, who brought him up to be a baseball star, forcing a natural right-hander to learn to bat lefthanded. After starring at Compton Junior College, he signed with Brooklyn, but his minor league apprenticeship was interrupted by service in the navy during World War II. After the war he resumed in the minors, then played part-time for two seasons, before emerging in 1949 as the team's full-time center-fielder. With his good looks and talent he was a fan favourite from the first, but he also developed a reputation for moodiness, which sometimes saw him at odds with Brooklyn's notoriously acerbic crowds.

He helped Los Angeles to the 1959 World Series crown, but was already slowing down, and in 1963 the Dodgers sold him to the Mets, New York's new National League team, one of the worst in baseball history, in desperate need of a drawing card. When the Mets gathered his old Dodger teammates on Duke Snider Day at Shea Stadium, he said you couldn't ever take the Dodgers out of Brooklyn. Granting his desire to play for a contending team, the Mets sold him on in 1964 to the Dodgers' arch-rival Giants, now in San Francisco. He retired after that disappointing season. He coached in the minor league systems of the Dodgers and San Diego Padres, and broadcast games for the Padres and the Montreal Expos. Although he was the subject of two biographies, in 1964 and 1988, he was immortalised best in 1971 in Roger Kahn's classic book about the Fifties Dodgers, The Boys Of Summer. In 1980 he was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame, where he called the three-way rivalry with Mays and Mantle 'a great time for baseball'. The following year, singer Terry Cashman had a hit song, 'Talkin Baseball', which is better-known by the words of its refrain: 'Willie, Mickey, and The Duke'.

In 1995, Snider returned to Brooklyn one last time, to appear in federal court charged with failing to report income from autographs and souvenir shows on his taxes. He was fined and given probation. He raised avocados on his California ranch, and died 27 February in Escondido, of what were described as natural causes. He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Bev, two daughters and a son.

1 comment :

Yvette said...

Duke Snider was my hero growing up. When the Dodgers moved to California, it was one of the saddest days of my life. Thanks for posting this.