“They knew them all, from Boston to Dubuque.
Especially Willie, Mickey and the Duke.”
He was an L.A. kid who grew up to become New York royalty, a towering figure with a towering home run swing whose big stick helped turn Brooklyn’s bums into bullies, one of three superstars who gave a single city a baseball brilliance that will undoubtedly never be matched.
And then, with graying temples and a bad knee, he limped back to his roots to introduce his hometown to major league baseball.
Edwin Donald Snider, simply known to millions of baseball fans as The Duke, went from Compton High to the Brooklyn Dodgers to the Los Angeles Dodgers to brief stops with the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants before ultimately ending up in Cooperstown.
Snider, who turns 74 on Tuesday, is living the quiet life these days, he and his wife, Beverly, splitting time between homes in Fallbrook near San Diego and Ft. Bragg in Northern California. There is time for the Sniders’ four children and eight grandchildren, time for Duke to unleash a variation of that trademark swing on the golf course and time to keep his name alive at occasional memorabilia shows.
These days, someone else also is keeping Snider’s name alive by his attempt to surpass that name in the Dodger record book.
Outfielder Gary Sheffield is trying to accomplish a feat that has eluded all the Dodger sluggers of the last half-century, from Frank Howard to Ron Cey to Mike Piazza.
Sheffield is two short of Snider’s 1956 total of 43 home runs, still the franchise single-season record despite the soaring baseballs, biceps-bulging batters and watered-down pitching of recent years.
“More power to him,” Snider said with a shrug and a genial smile while sitting recently on a couch in his daughter Downa’s San Jose home. “It’s just a number. I just told him to hurry up and break it so I only have to make one trip up to Dodger Stadium for the occasion.”
While he professes not to care that much about losing a spot in Dodger history, Snider’s pride shows through as he mentions one vestige of his celebrated past that Sheffield won’t be able to lay a stick on.
Said Snider: “Johnny Podres [the former Brooklyn and Los Angeles left-hander] told me, ‘There’s one thing Sheffield can’t take away from you . . . the Brooklyn Dodger home run record.’ ”
The Brooklyn Years
Imagine one city with three major-league baseball teams.
That seems inconceivable today with baseball spread across the nation.
Now imagine each of those three teams with a future Hall of Famer in center field.
That’s even less believable.
But that’s the way it was in New York in the 1950s. In the Bronx, the New York Yankees had a baseball legend in the making in Mickey Mantle. In Manhattan, center field was patrolled by Willie Mays, considered by some to be the greatest all-around player ever.
And in Brooklyn, there was the Duke of Flatbush, who could not only match his more celebrated rivals swing for swing, but actually exceeded their numbers in those golden years. From 1954-57, the only time Mays, Mantle and Snider all played full seasons in New York, Snider led the other two in home runs and RBIs.
Beginning in 1953, Snider had five consecutive seasons of 40 or more home runs. His 11 home runs and 26 RBIs in World Series play remain the most by a National Leaguer. He is the only man to twice hit four home runs in a World Series. His 389 homers and 1,271 RBIs as a Dodger remain franchise career records. In all, over 18 seasons, Snider hit .295--with a career best of .341 in 1954--and had 407 home runs and 1,333 RBIs.
In addition, Snider could be just as spectacular with his glove as with his bat.
He still cherishes the memory of a catch he made off the bat of the Phillies’ Willie Jones in 1950 in Philadelphia in the midst of a tight pennant race, a catch that saved the second game of a doubleheader for the Dodgers, coming late in the game with the potential tying and winning runs on base.
Those who saw it, including former teammate Tom Lasorda, call it one of the greatest catches ever.
Their word is all future historians will have to go by since, in that era when television was in its formative stage, many games were broadcast only on radio, and that game was one of them.
“I would love to just have a picture of the catch,” Snider said.
Too bad he can’t look into the mind of Lasorda, for whom the moment remains as vivid as any photo.
“It seemed to me like he planted his spikes in that outfield wall,” Lasorda said, “and just took three steps up the side of the wall to get that ball.”
It wasn’t all highlight films for Snider. When he first came up to the big leagues, he was an undisciplined hitter who was known to swing at anything within reach--or beyond.
“He would swing at paper airplanes thrown out of the stands,” Lasorda said. “It got to the point where they would have Duke stand there with a pitcher and catcher and just call the pitches going by without being allowed to take the bat off his shoulders. He would have to watch 50 or 60 pitches and just yell out ball or strike. I never saw anybody else have to go through that.”
It didn’t help that Snider had a terrible temper that would flare up when his batting average went down.
“Duke Snider needs a kick in the pants about every third day,” said Burt Shotton, one of his managers in the Brooklyn days.
“I was immature,” Snider admitted. “I put way too much pressure on myself and I was way too critical.”
It wasn’t easy trying to carve out a spot on a team like the Dodgers. When Snider was coming up in 1947, team President and General Manager Branch Rickey ruled over an organization that would bring in as many as 600 players for spring training.
Snider remembers Rickey calling him in along with Gil Hodges. Snider was on the depth chart as a sixth outfielder, Hodges as a third-string catcher.
“Gentlemen,” Rickey told them, “within a couple of years, you two will be leading the league in home runs and RBIs. Have patience. Your time will come.”
As they walked out of the office, Hodges looked at Snider and asked, “If we are going to be the top two power hitters in this league, how come I’m only the third-string catcher and you’re the sixth outfielder?”
Replied Snider: “I don’t know. Maybe he sees something we don’t see.”
Even when everybody saw what Snider and Hodges could do, a trip in to see “Mr. Rickey,” as the players called him, could be traumatic.
Snider still remembers when Chuck Connors, who went on to became more famous as television’s “Rifleman” than he ever was as a Dodger, bragged about how he was going to go in and get a raise out of Rickey.
“When he came out,” Snider said, “I asked him how it went. ‘Boy, it’s great to be a Dodger,’ Chuck told me. ‘And I only had to take a $1,000 pay cut to be one.’ ”
Players, with no agents in their corner, simply didn’t have leverage in those days.
Snider remembered one year when he came to Dodgertown for spring training without having signed his contract.
As he made his way out to the field, he found General Manager Buzzie Bavasi’s secretary, Edna, blocking his path with a contract in hand.
“You are not supposed to put your uniform on until you sign this,” Snider was told.
He looked at the document and said, “But there are no salary figures on it.”
“Just sign it,” Edna said. “Mr. Bavasi will put those in later.”
The most Snider ever made in a season was $53,000, but he’s not complaining.
“I wouldn’t trade those years for all the money they make today,” he said. “It was special, very special.”
Snider was there for the worst of times. He was in center field at the Polo Grounds when the New York Giants’ Bobby Thomson hit the “shot heard ‘round the world,” the home run into the left-field stands that won the 1951 National League playoff series between the teams, climaxing the greatest comeback in a pennant race.
And Snider was also in center field for the best of times at Yankee Stadium in 1955, watching as shortstop Pee Wee Reese picked up a ground ball and fired it to first to clinch the Dodgers’ first world championship with a 2-0 victory over the hated New York Yankees in the seventh game of the World Series.
“Seeing the number of people lining our bus route back from Yankee Stadium to Ebbets Field after that game, just waiting to cheer us on,” Snider said, “was something I’ll never forget.”
But two years later, that triumph was a bittersweet memory for Brooklyn fans as the Dodgers did the unthinkable, abandoning their once-beloved borough to head west.
Was Snider thrilled to be going home?
He can still remember watching a wrecking ball pulverizing Ebbets Field years later with tears running down his cheeks.
The Los Angeles Years
As an L.A. native, Snider was quite familiar with the Coliseum, having gone there to watch everything from football games to fireworks.
But when he walked in for the first time to see the baseball layout, his jaw dropped.
A left-handed hitter, Snider had salivated at his first sight of Ebbets Field, where it was 297 feet down the right-field line and anywhere from 393-399 to center as adjustments were made over the Snider years. At the Coliseum, it was originally 390 at the start of the fence in right to 425 in center.
“There was an awful lot of real estate out there,” Snider said recently, the daunting image still in his mind. “It just was not fair.”
Add to that the fact that Snider was beginning to have knee problems that required periodic draining of fluid and the result was a Duke Snider who was only a pale imitation of the Duke of Flatbush.
But much like Kirk Gibson a generation later, a limping Snider could be more valuable than a lesser talent on better legs. In 1959, Snider, in only 126 games, hit .308 with 23 home runs and 88 RBIs to help the Dodgers win another pennant. Snider also homered in the team’s World Series-clinching victory over the Chicago White Sox that season.
Yet when fans with long memories meet Snider, they often react the way legendary basketball coach John Wooden did upon encountering the longtime Dodger, asking: Did he really try to throw a ball out of the Coliseum?
Yes he did and, along with the home runs and the clutch hits, that embarrassing incident will forever be part of his legacy.
Snider had such a powerful arm in high school that he once threw a touchdown pass 68 yards in the air.
Opposing runners were well aware of the Snider cannon. So was teammate Don Zimmer, who made a $400 bet with teammates in 1958 that Snider could throw a ball out of the saucer-shaped Coliseum. Zimmer told Snider they would split the winnings. Snider almost made it on his second try. Instead, he heard an ominous sound. His elbow had popped.
That forced Snider to miss a game, which resulted in a $200 fine.
But Snider, tantalized by the fact that he had come so close to the Coliseum rim, told Zimmer to hold the bet until his elbow healed.
On the last day of the season, he tried again, and this time, the ball sailed into neighboring Exposition Park. That earned Snider $200.
Bavasi, unaware of the repeat performance and feeling guilty over the fine, gave Snider back the $200 he had levied against his center fielder.
“So I got $400 out of the deal,” Snider said with a grin.
He doesn’t smile when he remembers his last game as a Dodger. It was in 1962, the finale of another playoff against the Giants, another crushing elimination.
“I was sitting next to [pitcher] Don Drysdale in the dugout,” Snider said of the last game, “and I asked him why he wasn’t in the bullpen getting ready to go in in relief if needed. He said that [manager] Walt Alston told him he’d be pitching tomorrow in the World Series against the Yankees.
“ ‘I was there in ’51 and there was no tomorrow,’ I said. ‘Go over and tell them you’ll pitch.’
“He did, but they told him to go sit down, and the next time he pitched was in Vero Beach in spring training.”
After retiring, Snider managed 3 1/2 seasons in the minors and he also spent 19 years in a baseball broadcast booth.
He became a familiar figure at memorabilia shows, which eventually got him in trouble. Snider was sentenced to two years probation in federal court in 1995 after pleading guilty to failing to report income for tax purposes.
“I apologized and I am square with the government, so I don’t worry about it anymore,” Snider said. “It no longer bothers me. I made a mistake and that’s it.”
Now Snider is only focusing on the publicity generated by Sheffield’s run at his record.
“It’s a positive thing to see your name in print for this,” Snider said. “Maybe some young players who never heard of me will say, ‘Hey, he must have been pretty good to have been able to keep his name in the record book all this time.’ ”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Gary Sheffield is making a run at the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodger season home run record:
HR Player Year 43 Duke Snider 1956 42 Duke Snider 1953 42 Gil Hodges 1954 42 Duke Snider 1955 41 Roy Campanella 1953 41 Gary Sheffield 2000 40 Gil Hodges 1951 40 Duke Snider 1954 40 Duke Snider 1957 40 Mike Piazza 1996