In the fabled fifties when New York was New York, there was one sure way to begin an argument and no way to end it. Just ask any member of the male species who the best center fielder in New York City was and you would hear tall stories of Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. Women (or girls as they were called in those days) were less likely to follow baseball then. The debate still arouses much more passion than logic.
Only a Brooklyn Dodger fan would defend what cannot be defended, attack what cannot be attacked, marshal evidence to contradict what is sacrosanct in baseball—statistics—hits, runs batted in, home runs, double, triples, stolen bases, strikeouts, ultimately pennants and World Series victories. But what Brooklyn boy ever backed away from a fight only because the chances of victory were slight?
Duke Snider, along with his teammate Jackie Robinson, were the class of the Brooklyn litter. They are in the Hall of Fame together with their teammates Roy Campanella and Pee Wee Reese. Snider, who died on Sunday was the best on a ball club that has entered the domain of fable. Handsome and youthful even though prematurely gray, Snider was grace. His stance was pure perfection. He crouched a bit, but kept his body in flawless proportion. His swing was powerful, but never off balance. His fielding superb, Snider was the quickest off the bat of the three and he seemed never harried in the field because he was where he was supposed to be, perfectly positioned to make the catch, pivot and throw, and Snider could throw a ball 400 feet on a fly. Just for fun, Snider would throw balls out of the park. Among his teammates, the Boys of Summer, Snider was the once-born, the well tanned, handsome man, a proud stallion, the athlete to whom all things came easily. Although he was to enjoy his best years in Brooklyn, Snider was the California kid, the sure thing.
Imagine it; the Duke of Flatbush owned an avocado farm in California. Hell, growing up people we knew ate meat and potatoes, kishka and kasha, herring and borscht, pasta and spaghetti, chitlin and fried chicken. Who in Brooklyn ever heard of avocado? Was it green or yellow? Did one really eat such things?
Snider was the one Dodger most unlike the Brooklyn fans. He was uncomplicated, the natural. Everyone in Brooklyn was complicated; each had a complex story to tell. A superb school athlete, Snider had won sixteen letters in high school and with Pete Rozelle as his publicist, Snider was an all-star in baseball, basketball and football. He married his high school sweetheart, the beautiful Bev, the type of girl who would be found with the school jock. Snider was the player we wanted to be, but could not be. He never even seemed to sweat—or so it seemed to us then.
At the height of his powers, after his best season, he made $42,500. At the peak of his achievements, he left Brooklyn when Walter O’Malley absconded with the Dodgers to Los Angeles – even though I now live in Los Angeles and my son Josh adores the Dodgers I will never forgive O’Malley for his betrayal—where the Bums became sophisticated, California chic. The California kid was home again, but the Duke of Flatbush was a stranger in LA. Right Field was 296 feet down the line in Ebbetts field. Right Center Field was 440 feet away at the Coliseum. They move to LA took the bat out of Duke’s hand. Still, he hit more homeruns in the decade of the 1950s than any other player in Baseball including Mickey and Willie.
After his talents eroded, Snider lost almost everything. When he returned to New York with the Mets only the number 4 remained. Like Willie Mays, he was but a shadow of his former self, a has been .The final indignity, he was traded to the hated Giants.
Duke later became a casualty of the Vietnam War. His bowling alley located adjacent to Pendleton Air Force base went bankrupt when soldiers en route to or from Vietnam did not spend their final hours throwing strikes. He lost his farm. And he was forced to wait year after year to make the Hall of Fame. Few men of his era with his statistics more than 400 homers and 2,000 hits waited as long. He returned to baseball as a minor league manager and an announcer for Montreal and he bounced back by charging for what he once gave away for free, his signed name on a baseball. Apparently, he wanted more; he needed more so he cheated Uncle Sam.
The heroes of our youth: Mantle destroyed himself drinking; Snider cheating. And Willie, still morally undiminished, for a time made the rounds greeting gamblers and playing golf with those who once dreamed of standing in his shadow and now can afford to pay for such fantasies come true.
We, the boys of New York City, are older now, perhaps wiser. We couldn’t make it as jocks so we became professionals. We have gone on to distinguished careers and impressive accomplishments. Even as we age, and come close the retirement age, our future is in front of us, not in the past. We watch these men with anguish and sadness for now we are in the age of success and accomplishment as they trail into the sunset and now at the ripe age of 84 into death.
But fans take heart. They were heroes, not saints.