He was one of the greats of one of baseball’s greatest eras, when the game was America’s only real pastime and a trio of players who would later be memorialized in song patrolled center field in New York’s iconic ballparks.
Duke Snider died on Sunday, a day before baseball’s newest whiz kid got his first official at bat in an exhibition game in Florida. Bryce Harper will probably never have a song written about him, but the 18-year-old’s debut for the Washington Nationals was a reminder that even as baseball looks to its past there’s always a prospect for the future.
The Duke of Flatbush never really got his due, largely because at the same time he slugged home runs for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Willie Mays was in center field for the New York Giants and Mickey Mantle played for the Yankees. He always seemed to end up third in his own town, and that didn’t change when the 1980s song “Talkin’ Baseball” paid homage to “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.”
Snider hit at least 40 home runs in five straight seasons, played in six World Series and was an eight-time All-Star. But he never won an MVP, and it took 11 years after he was eligible before he was finally elected into the Hall of Fame.
But it wasn’t his stats that endeared him so much to the people of Brooklyn. It was that he was a part of his adopted community in a way that ballplayers of today can never be.
In all the tributes that came pouring in on the news of Snider’s death, one from White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf stood out.
“Along with hundreds of thousands of other kids growing up in Brooklyn, Duke Snider was one of my idols. He really was one of us,” Reinsdorf said. “As a 21-year-old rookie, he lived on my block and often would join us in games of stickball on his way home from his day job as the Dodgers center fielder.”
To understand how big that was is to understand the 1950s, a time before the NFL hit its stride and baseball was everything to a nation. New York was the epicenter of it all with three teams that always seemed to be battling each other either for a pennant or the World Series.
It was a time when winning the MVP award got you a new suit at the local tailor instead of a $500,000 bonus, a time when players worked other jobs in the offseason and Mays and Giants teammate Monte Irvin owned a liquor store to bring in some extra money. Players lived near where they worked, often sharing apartments in the same working-class buildings as their fans.
“I was born in Los Angeles,” Snider once said. “Baseball-wise, I was born in Brooklyn. We lived with Brooklyn. We died with Brooklyn.”
When Snider hit four home runs in the 1955 World Series to help the Dodgers finally beat the hated Yankees and win their first title, the borough of Brooklyn celebrated like there was no tomorrow _ not knowing that just in a few years there wouldn’t be when the Dodgers left town.
The year before, the Giants and Dodgers were battling for the pennant in the dog days of summer and both Snider and Mays hit home runs in a Sunday afternoon game at Ebbets Field the Dodgers won 9-4 to complete a three-game sweep and move to within a half game of first. A New York Daily News photo from that game shows Mays leaping high in the air in front of the exit gate in right center field to grab a Snider blast, as the fans behind him stand in excitement.
Look closely and you’ll see people dressed in their Sunday best for the game. Look even closer and you’ll see that many of them were black, a demographic of fans that baseball has somehow lost over the years as many top athletes gravitate toward football and basketball.
Snider was the last living member of the Dodger starting lineup that day, the last survivor of a box score that included future Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella. For the people of Brooklyn, they were their Boys of Summer long before Roger Kahn immortalized them as that in his book.
Baseball can never recapture those times, much as Bud Selig and company try to sell the nostalgia of the game. Fans today are more cynical, and it’s hard to blame them after having being exposed to the money grabbing, amphetamine taking, steroid ingesting players of today’s era.