I never had the privilege of seeing Duke Snider play in person, but I mourn his loss because of what he meant to old Dodgers fans like my grandfather and uncles, who then became Mets fans like I am today. Of all the players they talked about, none seemed to loom as large as Edwin Donald Snider.
The Duke played during what many baseball fans still see as the golden era, and that is especially true for fans here in New York City. While Boston may have had Ted Williams and St. Louis had Stan Musial, NYC was blessed with three superstar players: Willie Mays of the Giants, Mickey Mantle of the Yankees, and Duke Snider of the Dodgers. Can you imagine being a fan at that time with this amazing competition going on?
Of course, I was told of the ongoing debate among New York fans about which team had the best center fielder. It is without question that my family felt that in no uncertain terms that it was the Duke, though they seemed to acknowledge that the other two were pretty fine players too.
Pop mentioned that there were always rumors of a trade: Mantle for Mays, or Snider for Mays, and so on. The one thing he and my uncles dreaded most was the prospect of the Duke going to the Bronx for Mantle. He said that it wasn’t even the thought of Mantle as a Dodger that bothered him as much as the Duke becoming a Yankee: that was blasphemy.
Besides hearing about the old Dodger stories as a kid, the thing that brought Duke Snider into my world was Terry Cashman’s iconic song, “Talkin’ Baseball” and it’s famous line “Especially Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.” That song came out in 1981 and hit a chord with many baseball fans, and though it is dated now, there is still the resonance in its reflection of the impact of baseball on American life.
Duke Snider played one season for the Mets (1963), seventeen seasons overall, and played in six postseasons. He had 407 career homers and 11 in the postseason. His greatest year was 1955 when he led his Dodgers with 42 homers, 136 RBI, and a .309 average. This would be the one and only time that the Dodgers beat the hated Yankees in the World Series, with the Duke hitting 4 homers and knocking in 7 runs.
There is no understanding the euphoria Dodgers fans felt that year they beat the Yankees, and Duke Snider was an integral part of that victory. He and the rest of those Boys of Summer managed to do the unbelievable, endearing themselves forever in the hearts of their fans because this time the Bums beat the Yanks. According to Pop, the party went on for days (at least what he could remember of it after “closing all the bars in Brooklyn”).
So we can mourn the loss of Duke Snider at 84, but we can also see it as the final piece of the reunion of those Boys of Summer in that great baseball park somewhere on the other side. I can picture him walking onto the field and seeing Gil Hodges taking balls at first base, Jackie Robinson flipping the ball to Pee Wee Reese to turn a double play, and they and all the rest of the starting players on that great team who have passed on walk over to greet him. Catcher Roy Campenella comes up to him, hands him a ball, and they all decide to play nine. Talk about a field of dreams!
Duke Snider passed away on Sunday, Hall of Famer and, as Pop used to say, “an all around good guy.” Rest in peace, Duke!
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