Duke Snider died this weekend. The Duke of Flatbush was 85 and sadly, the last two decades of his life was a parable for many a sports star: beset with money and health problems and largely forgotten by the masses that once showered him with adulation. But during his prime, he represented, along with Willie Mays and Mickie Mantle, baseball at its finest.
Edwin Snider, called Duke by all but his mother, was the smooth, power hitting lefty outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers during their hey day in the 1950's. He hit 407 home runs with a .295 average and displayed a fantastic arm in the field. During the Dodgers glorious 1955 World Series in which they finally beat the Yankees, he did what stars do: Shined. He led the team with 4 HRs and 7 RBI's while hitting .320.
He hit the last homerun at Ebbet's field before the Dodgers moved out west, but his career fell apart from there. Plagued by injuries and the Coliseum's absurd right field dimensions, he was eventually traded to the Mets and, ironically, the Giants. He waited until 1980 and eleven ballots to make the hall, even as Mays and Mantle were first year inductees. Late in life, he was sentenced for tax evasion in a Brooklyn courthouse, forced to undergo the indignity of being berated by a Judge who had looked up to him as a child.
One of Branch Rickey's many brilliant finds, his plate discipline was so poor as a rookie that Rickey would force him to stand at the plate and call balls and strikes without swinging. His time with the Brooklyn Dodgers was chronicled, along with his team mates, in Roger Kahn's brilliant, gorgeous book "The Boys of Summer". I urge all Barkers and such to put it on your reading list, even if you don't care about baseball, because it gives a snap shot of baseball when it was still worth following and watching. Plus: Descriptions of Brooklyn SANS hipsters. Crazy, I know.
The Dodgers of the 50's were that generation's Atlanta Braves: Unquestionably the best of the NL, and forever finding themselves on the losing end of yet another world series, always to the crosstown Yankees. Yet, Snider was there, thumping away, finishing near the top of the MVP race virtually every year, and missing out in '55 to teammate Roy Campanella on a controversial vote.
The title of this post refers to the three young, flashy outfielders of the 50's that represented a transition from the days of Joltin' Joe and Teddy Ballgame. Duke Snider, along with Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, represented the rise of the prototypical 5 tool ballplayers, able to excel at all aspects of the game, not just thumping homers or hitting for average, but stealing bases, gunning down runners, and turning in web-gems in the outfield. Snider was the first to come up, but by 1955, all three players were doing things that nobody had seen since Babe Ruth was young. Mantle died in 1995, with Snider's passing, only Mays remains. As baseball continues to be plagued by scandal, expensive ticket prices, games of interminable length, and irrelevance in a world defined increasingly by 140 characters, it's nice to think back to a time when the game was something that really warranted your attention. Duke Snider was undoubtedly part of the royalty of that time.