Duke Snider, 1926-2011
If you have ties to Brooklyn and follow baseball, you probably feel a little older today. Edwin "Duke" Snider wasn't the best ballplayer of the 1950s - he wasn't even the second best centerfielder in New York - but he was good enough to drive in more runs than any other player during the decade and to make the Hall of Fame. And with the exception of Jackie Robinson - he made his major league debut the same day as Jackie - no player will ever be more associated with Brooklyn baseball, even though they both grew up in the Los Angeles area.
Snider hit 40 or more home runs five times (in consecutive seasons, from 1953-57) and was an eight-time All-Star who played in six World Series, winning two championship rings. Some have called him the best player to never win a MVP.
Yet there was always a feeling about Snider that he was never quite as good as he could have been.
It was something of a bitter irony that he replaced his idol, the Dodgers' Hall of Famer who never was, Pete Reiser, in Brooklyn's' outfield. Reiser was the hard noser who shortened his career by several years by crashing into walls in pursuit of fly balls.
There were reports from time to time of Snider "dogging it," including a famous story where the young Duke refused to do calisthenics and Branch Rickey told him to take off his uniform and go home. (Snider apologized, asked for a second chance, was sent to the minor leagues, and came back strong.)
He also had what Bill James once called "a somewhat dicey reputation with the press. In the 1950s, Sport magazine would alternate between two types of Duke Snider articles, the 'Why Is Duke Snider Such A Dog?' article and the 'Why Doesn't Duke Snider Get The Respect He Deserves?' article. One summer they would run one; the next summer they'd run the other."
When I was growing up, I knew him mostly as a baseball card from his last few seasons as a LA Dodger or one year with the New York Mets or, something that disgusted Dodger fans the most, his final season, 1964, with the San Francisco Giants. (It didn't matter that the Giants had moved to the West Coast, they were just as hated.) My best friend's mother, Mrs. Nordstrum, grew up in Brooklyn and showed me her Dodgers scrapbook. "You never saw him at his best," she told me wistfully. Funny, but that's what Steve Dilbeck wrote in Sunday's LA Times obit.
I only met him one time. He loved to do card shows and talk with fans about the old days. What did he think about the Terry Cashman song, "Talking Baseball," with the line "Willie, Mickey and the Duke"? He grinned, sat back in his chair, and said, "To tell you the truth, I kind of have mixed feelings about that. The good part is that it got people like you who aren't old enough to remember me playing talking about me. The down side is that in the song, it seems like they were ranking us - Willie, Mickey and me - one, two, three."
"I mean," he said with a laugh. "Hell, they were better than me. All I really want is for people to think about it for a moment before remembering it that way."