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.