Remembering Duke Snider

Duke Snider and I were never in the same place at the same time. When I was growing up in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, the Dodgers were playing in Brooklyn. By the time Snider arrived in Los Angeles, my family had moved to Puerto Rico. And when Snider got to New York in 1963 to play out the string for the Mets, I was still two years away from starting my career in Manhattan.

Snider, as far as I was concerned as a youth, was just another big league star I would never see. When my California friends and I debated about whether baseball’s best center fielder was Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays or Snider, we always added the Hollywood Stars’ Carlos Bernier to the equation. Bernier played just one year in the majors, 1953 when he hit .213 for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he thrived in the Pacific Coast League, every bit as good an outfit as the show in our opinion. In 16 seasons in the minors overall, Bernier hit .298 with 2,291 hits and 200 home runs.

As an adult, I’ve gotten to know more about Snider. His death on February 26 came only a few days after I had taken the Yankee Stadium tour that devotes a large section of its museum to the Golden Era of New York baseball, 1949 to 1957, and displayed old uniforms, photographs and equipment from the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers from that period.

To imagine three players as great as Mays, Mantle and Snider in the same metropolitan area all at once is hard to fully grasp. During the only four years that they all played in New York, in 1954 the center fielders averaged 36 home runs, 114 RBIs and .327; 1955, 43, 121 and .312; 1956, 40, 105 and .314 and 1957, 36, 94 and .324

During that period, Snider dominated in homers (165) and RBIs (449) while Mantle led in batting average.

Snider’s relationship with the fans was often contentious. In 1955 Snider told sportswriter Bill Gilbert that “The Brooklyn fans are the worst in the league. They don’t deserve a pennant.” Then a year later, because of a Collier’s article titled “I Play Baseball for Money—Not Fun,” Snider took another public relations bashing.

Never one to mince words, Snider once gave manager Walter Alston a piece of his mind. In 1954, Alston’s first season as the Dodger’s manager, Snider was taking batting practice during spring training. Alston, standing next to the cage, asked Snider if he always held his back leg so deep in the batter’s box. Replied Snider, “I hit forty-two home runs in the big leagues last year. Where did you make your mistakes?” Snider’s barb was a reference to Alston’s single plate appearance as a St. Louis Cardinals when Lon Warneke struck him out on three straight pitches.

Whatever Snider’s true personality may have been, on the field he had few equals. As my final tribute to the Duke, I offer this 1956 Sports Illustrated scouting report:

“Physically, the perfect ballplayer—tremendous left-handed power, vast fielding skill, a fine arm. Last year, hit .309 with 42 home runs, 136 runs batted in.”

Watch a video of Snider almost breaking up Don Larsen’s 1956 World Series perfect game here.

Other recent passings: Chuck Tanner, George Crowe, Art Mahan, Gil McDougald, Billy Raimondi

10 Replies to “Remembering Duke Snider”

  1. On a balmy Spring day in 1953, I, along with about 15 or 20 sports editors of NYC high school newspapers, was invited to Ebbets Field “to meet the Dodgers.” As we sat along the third base line, I observed the Dodger traveling secretary, Harold Parrot, walking toward us, and with him was Duke Snider. My heart skipped a beat. Snider and Carl Furillo, aka “Skooj,” were a formidable couple patrolling the spaces of right and center field at Ebbets Field. Whereas Furillo was square and swarthy, with a heavy beard that indicated he needed to shave, seeing Snider up close was a revelation: he was the handsomest player I’d ever seen, with proverbial movie star looks, and with a wisp of early grey hair visible under the baseball cap. It was Snider’s early greying that earned him the sobriquet, “the Silver Fox.”

    Snider, with his glove tucked under his arm, answered the questions from the group, but I sensed, perhaps incorrectly, that he really didn’t want to be there. After more than 30 minutes elapsed, Parrot called an end to the “interview.” But I’d come prepared in another way: I had brought along a feature story of Snider that Sport Magazine had done on #4, hoping “the Duke” would sign the photo for me.(I kept every single monthly issue of Sport Magazine from its first publication in 1947, to my family’s moving out of Brooklyn a decade later. Where was Ebay when I needed them!)

    As Parrot and Snider were leaving, my seat was near the aisle, and with my contralto voice I asked Snider if he would sign the photo for me. Snider stared at me with his luminiscent blue eyes, and with mocking condescension shook his head and walked on. I left with a story, but no autograph.

    His problems with taxes after he left baseball were an unpleasant surprise, but autograph or not, I thank my lucky stars that I saw one of the finest ballplayers of his era play for my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. Edwin “Duke” Snider was a true member of that club that was called the “boys of summer.”

  2. Very nice piece Joe about a great player.

    I never knew about Duke’s pr problems or his nasty behavior to the amazingly loyal Brooklyn fans. I’d read recently some very positive things about him by people who lived in his neighborhood when he lived in Brooklyn. It doesn’t jive at all with Vince’s experience for example. There’s an interesting disconnect there on why Snider could be so callous on a large scale and yet some neighbors remembering him so nicely.

    Vince’s story says a whole lot about his loyalty as a fan and the kind of fans that Brooklynites were. I recall a similar rebuff by the Mick when I was 12, and like Vinnie, I was so in awe that I was standing a mere few feet from “The Mick”, that I could barely speak and never felt bad about it. He looked awesome up close too. But must have been in some real pain as he had this real pained, angry look that added to taking my breath away. In Mick’s case I got it and so did alot of other fans who saw him not only in pain, but also struggling in those later years.

    BTW, Joe, when you were living in Puerto Rico did you get to see Puerto Rican Winter League games? If so, it would be fun to hear your impressions of the legendary players that came there each year! Some amazing mix of good and great players on those teams.

  3. @Alvy: Yes, I saw many great Caribbean League players. I referenced it briefly in my earlier post about George Crowe. You can find it in the Baseball Past and Present archive. And I’ll be writing about one of the most amazing baseball careers even—Carlos Bernier cited in my Snider column and one of the best PCL players of all time.

  4. @Vincenzo: Looks like Snider gave you the treatment Darryl Strawberry was so infamous for during his Mets’ days. Snider had a history of troubled finances. During his best Dodger days, he invested in an avocado ranch and lost his shirt.

    I believe Snider’s personality may have been adversely impacted by constantly being considered to be the third of the three New York center fielders—as if coming in behind Mays and Mantle was some kind of slight. A better way to look at it would be to consider Snider the third best center fielder in all of Major League Baseball during the peak of his career.

  5. Joe, good story on The Duke. As I mentioned on The Grandstander on Monday, his death prompted me to blow the dust off of my copy of Kahn’s “The Boys of Summer” and reread the chapter on Snider. One factoid that struck me was that in his heyday in the ’50s, Duke would work in a men’s clothing store in California selling sports coats during the Christmas season to make a few extra bucks.

    THOSE days sure are gone forever, aren’t they?

    To other readers, look for Joe’s future story on Carlos Bernier. He did a presentation on Bernier at our SABR meeting last year and it was most informative.

  6. Re: the Grandstander.
    Despite their astounding success in the World Series, many of the key players of the NY Yankees were very aware how important that “extra money” was to their families. Like Snider, many held full time jobs during the off season. I don’t know if he was appointed or took on the job voluntarily, but Hank Bauer, a former Marine, would remind all newcomers to the Yankee squad the need to win the pennant and the Series, for they depended on that money. But the explosive growth of salaries has changed that dynamic, and with it the notion that baseball is just a game. Perhaps to the chagrin of many readers of this blog, it never really was.

  7. It hurts to watch film like this because it reminds me that there was a time when games were virtually commercial-free. Now, somebody farts in the dugout and it’s “brought to you” by one company or another.

  8. Thanks for the memories, as always, Joe.

    Vincenzo, it’s a big disappointment to learn that one of my Nana’s beloved “bums” really was a bum.

    No offense, gentlemen, but Nana was indisputably the world’s biggest Dodger fan. I’ll have to add Duke Snider’s less than sportsmanlike demeanor towards young fans to the list of things I’m glad she never lived to learn about, along with American Jewish leaders having known about the Holocaust and done nothing, FDR having had a chance to bomb the death camps and the rail lines feeding them, gangsters degenerating to the point where they routinely commit atrocities against tough old ladies, and Bess Myerson’s ending up as a crook.

  9. Duke Snider married a second or third cousin of mine and when we loved in New Jersey, twice Duke drove his family over from Brooklyn to have dinner with us after games. He was always a gentleman, a gentle and engaged person with my brother and I, both young teen-age geeks with as much baseball talent as Snider left on the locker room floor after a game. It was a real reach to travel all the way from Brooklyn to us but he did it anyway. We were also supposed to meet him at his hotel in St Louis but had to cancel to meet with a sports manufacturer. His teammates were very kind in trying to find him, to no avail. Several weeks later we received a very nice letter of apology from him explaining the situation. We came away with nothing but respect for him, and as we were kids, a houseful of awe. To us he was a person of talent and kindness. Sorry to hear of the other stories, but it was just not our experience at all. He was a great person.

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