Adieu to the Duke

The Duke of Flatbush.

As you’ve probably heard by now, Duke Snider died Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011, at a convalescent hospital in Escondido, California. He was 84 and his cause of death was announced by family as due to “natural causes.” Snider’s health apparently had been in a state of quiet decline for some time.

The loss of the Duke inspires all the expected reminiscence about his major role among Brooklyn’s “Boys of Summer” and New York City’s “Big Three” center fielders of baseball during the 1950s. Mantle, May, and Snider – who was the best? Once the writers started coming at that angle from places other than Brooklyn, Duke Snider most often came out on the short side of highest praise, but he was still a great one, and many held onto him as their choice over Mays and Mantle in spite of all arguments to the contrary.

Why so? How could old #4 of the Dodgers have won the votes of any writer other than the biggest of homers? Duke wasn’t as fast as either Mays or Mantle. And, as a pure lefty batter, he certainly could not hit left-handed pitching as well as either the right-handed  Mays or the switch hitting Mantle. And, as a middle class kid from Los Angeles, he was never the stuff of lyrical fiction that Mays of Alabama and Mantle of Oklahoma always were as kids playing their way out of poverty with strong natural talent and that good old “love of the game.” In fact, at one point in the 50’s, Snider even sank his sympathy card further by telling a writer that he would not even be playing baseball were it not for the “big money.”

In the end, Snider ranked high by having great defensive skills, including one of the best arms in baseball, an ability to stay out of the army and off the disabled list, and a clear and elevated presence, year in and year out, among the statistical hitting leaders of the National League. In 1955, for example, and at the heart of the Mantle-Mays-Snider years in New York, The Sporting News named Duke Snider as the Major League Player of the Year as a tribute to his complete game. In 1955, Duke finished among the top three in the National League in batting average, slugging average, hits, runs, runs batted in, doubles, triples, home runs, total bases, and stolen bases. Wow!

Duke Snider may have lacked all the full athleticism of his two big center pasture rivals, but he could still cover the ground and execute most of the same sensational “out” plays with far more grace and style than either Mays or Mantle. And when the Dodgers left Brooklyn for LA after the 1957 season, Snider almost singlehandedly became the face of hero abandonment for the entire Burrough of Brooklyn. The Noble KIngdom of Flatbush had lost its Duke!

Snider’s 18-season career included 11 years as a Brooklyn Dodger (1947-1957), 5 years as a Los Angeles Dodger (1958-1962), 1 year as a New York Met (1963), and 1 final ironic year as a San Francisco Giant (1964).

For his career, Snider batted .295 with a slugging average of .540 and 407 home runs. The Dodgers retired his uniform #4 after his retirement and he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980. Duke scouted for the Padres and Dodgers after his playing days were done before settling into a long career as a broadcaster for the Montreal Expos.

Center field is a little less graceful this Monday morning. The Duke is dead.

God bless you, Duke. Wherever you are now, we know you will make the catch on whatever comes your way.

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2 Responses to “Adieu to the Duke”

  1. Sumner Hunnewell Says:

    Don’t forget The Spook, too. Spook Jacobs, a long time supporter of the Phila. A’s Historical Society & Museum just died as well.

    Snider’s 400th HR inspired Jimmy Piersall to run the bases backwards on his 100th HR. See Piersall’s The Truth Hurts, pp. 64-66.

    • Bill McCurdy Says:

      Thanks, Sumner. I didn’t know The Spook died. He was one of the nicest baseball guys I ever met, and I didn’t even know he was gone. I am deeply saddened and will pick up his story tomorrow.

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