DENVER—He wasn’t Willie. He was no Mickey.
He was his own man, the Duke, with his own style, and a greatness all his own, understated as it may have been. And when Duke Snider died on Feb. 27, at the age of 84, an era ended with him.
Snider was overshadowed at times in his career, but the plaque that hangs in Cooperstown to honor his career reflects his Hall of Fame abilities and the Hall of Fame life Snider lived.
Snider came to the big leagues in 1947, debuting with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 17, two days after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier.
He enjoyed the prime of his career in New York in the 1950s, sandwiched between the elegant Willie Mays of the rival Giants and flamboyant Mickey Mantle of the Yankees.
It took him 10 times on the ballot to be elected to the Hall of Fame, but his legitimacy was never questioned because of a career that saw him play a sparkling center field and hit 407 home runs with a .295 average.
“He’s just a first-class guy, that’s all,” Hall of Fame first baseman Willie McCovey said.
Snider was one of the Boys of Summer, and the last living player who was on the field for the final out of Game Seven in 1955—The Year That Was Next Year, as the Dodgers won the first World Series in franchise history.
He helped give life to baseball on the West Coast, moving with the Dodgers to his native Los Angeles for the 1958 season, spending five years there before winding up his career with one-year stops with the Mets and Giants.
He was immortalized in the Terry Cashman song “Talkin’ Baseball” that honored the three center fielders of New York’s golden age of baseball and was released in 1981, the year after Snider completed the triumvirate’s induction into Cooperstown.
“He was a key player during a special era in baseball,” commissioner Bud Selig said. “Then he went home and helped usher in a new part of baseball history with great class.”
Not only was he often overlooked because of Mays and Mantle, but he was also overshadowed on his own Dodgers teams by the likes of Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo, Don Newcombe and Johnny Podres. But it was Snider who joined teammates Roy Campanella, Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Pee Wee Reese and Robinson in the Hall of Fame.
“He was an extremely gifted talent, and his defensive abilities were often overlooked because of playing in a small ballpark, Ebbets Field,” said Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully, who was behind the mike throughout Snider’s career. “When he had a chance to run and move defensively, he had the grace and the abilities of DiMaggio and Mays, and of course he was a World Series hero that will forever be remembered in Brooklyn.”
Nicknamed Duke by his father at the age of 5, Snider was a three-sport star at Compton (Calif.) High. He signed with the Dodgers at 17 and became a key part to their success, but there was a part of Snider that never could embrace public life.
After slumping late in 1951, when the Dodgers finished a game behind the Giants in the National League, Snider told owner Walter O’Malley that the team would be best served by trading him. “I told him I couldn’t take the pressure,” Snider said in a 1955 issue of Sport Magazine.
He learned to deal with pressure, and to ignore injustices, which was never more evident than his narrow second-place finish to teammate Roy Campanella in the 1955 NL MVP voting. Because of a voting snafu Snider did not receive credit for a vote that would have tilted the award to him, but he did not pursue trying to fix the problem.
“That wasn’t Duke’s way,” said the late Buzzie Bavasi, the Dodgers’ general manager during Snider’s days. “Duke wasn’t afraid to speak up for himself, but not at the expense of a teammate.”
Bavasi, who loved to relive his days in the game, often told the story of how he was working in the Dodgers organization in 1950, and told Snider he had the kind of year that should prompt the Dodgers to pay him twice as much in 1951. Bavasi, to his surprise, then became GM. When he sent out the 1951 contracts, Snider sent his back, unsigned.
“He had a note attached,” Bavasi said, “that explained, ‘This doesn’t look like double last year’s salary.’ I had to laugh to myself. I sent him a new contract, and the salary was doubled. And I wrote a note that told him, ‘You have a great memory, you rat. Don’t forget what you did to earn this.’ “
Snider didn’t. He gave the Dodgers, and the game, everything they could have hoped for.