Remembering the Duke of Flatbush

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A pillar in Dodger Stadium honoring Duke Snider. (Courtesy of the Los Angeles Dodgers)
A pillar in Dodger Stadium honoring Duke Snider. (Mark Langill/Los Angeles Dodgers)

By Joe Deaux

Edwin “Duke” Snider died last week in Escondido, Cal. He was 84 years old. For many in Brooklyn – especially those born after 1957 — the name conjures no recognition. But for older generations in the borough and beyond his death matters, even if they never met him.

Snider was the center fielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He played in Brooklyn from 1947 until 1957, when the team relocated to Los Angeles. During that time he had a .303 batting average, hit 316 home runs — many of which kissed the pavement of Bedford Avenue — and batted in 1,003 runs. He lived on Marine Avenue in Bay Ridge not far from his teammates, Carl Erskine and Pee Wee Reese. Snider was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980.

Though the team’s lone World Championship came 55 years ago, the ghost of Snider and his teammates – Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Clem Labine, Carl Furillo, Don Newcombe — endures, and not merely in vintage caps and jerseys. They were the Boys of Summer.

The Ink wanted to know what thoughts came to mind for those who remembered the Duke when they heard that he was gone. These are their voices.

Carl Erskine, teammate

He was Snider’s best friend and roommate. The two met in the minor leagues when they were barely 20 years old. Erskine had two older brothers who were not close to him in age, and Snider was an only child.

“We were brothers without the blood,” Erskine says. He first heard about Snider’s death when he got a call from Major League Baseball. He says that the past six months had been tough on Snider. Still, he says, “You can’t get ready for a loved one to go.”

Erskine pauses and remains silent for a moment, “You can’t get ready,” he says. But he says the memories and images he will always have of Snider are of his best days.

Erskine, a pitcher, saw Snider play for over twelve seasons and he says he saw the Duke do things that other center fielders could not. He says he will never forget Snider’s catch in one game against the Philadelphia Phillies. The Dodgers lead by one run and the Phillies had two men on base with two outs and Willie Jones, the Phillies third baseman, was at the plate. Jones got hold of a high fastball and ripped it to deep left-center field. Snider made a good break on the ball and raced toward the fence. He ran parallel to the wall for a moment and then leaped.

“But as he leaps, he leaps again,” Erskine says. Snider vaulted himself against the wall and dug his metal cleats into it. Then he managed to use the wall as leverage for a second jump to reach the ball. “He caught that sucker,” Erskine says.

Snider came down with the ball in his glove for the final out of the game and his teammates celebrated in the dugout and on the field. Steve O’Neill, the Phillies manager, was so surprised by the play that he refused to believe Snider caught the ball, Erskine says. He was protesting even after both teams had cleared the field. O’Neill screamed that Snider must have had another baseball and put it in his glove to make it look like he caught it. Erskine laughs and says O’Neill stayed on the field so late that he probably ended up arguing with the grounds crew about the catch.

Snider, he adds, always played well when he pitched. He recalls Game 5 of the 1952 World Series, a game in which he pitched all 11 innings against the Yankees. Snider had two home runs in the game, but Erskine says it was the Duke’s defense that won that game. “The box score said, ‘Erskine, winning pitcher.’ It should have said, ‘Snider, winning catcher.’”

Gerald Howard, book editor

Snider lived in Bay Ridge, which was also the neighborhood where Gerald Howard grew up. He was born in 1950 and never saw a game at Ebbets Field. But he gathered all the memories of the Dodgers and the Duke second hand from his father.

“The Dodgers were neighborhood guys. They didn’t just play in Brooklyn, they lived in Brooklyn,” Howard says. Howard remembers that growing up Snider seemed a more aloof player than guys like Carl Furillo and not as beloved by the fans as was Gil Hodges. Snider, who could be careless with his words, famously once ripped the Dodger fans as the worst in the league. Howard recalls having gone to Catholic mass at a time when Hodges was in a batting slump and people were there saying prayers that he would get out of it. He doesn’t think it was the same for the Duke.

But Brooklynites, he says, were more than happy to have him on their side. Howard was six years old when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. He says all the myths of the Dodgers’ bond with Brooklyn were really true. “It was not made up after the fact,” he says. “It was a huge stake in the heart of the borough.”

Ron Schweiger, borough historian

Ron Schweiger, who remembers watching Snider play at Ebbets Field, says he heard about the Duke’s death during a New York Mets exhibition game on television. It was not unexpected. Still, it really hit home because the number of players from the old Brooklyn Dodgers that are still alive is dwindling, Schweiger says.

A third of his basement is full of Brooklyn Dodgers paraphernalia, including a photograph of the 1955 World Championship team autographed by Snider and 12 other players.

“I learned to become a switch hitter by emulating Duke Snider’s batting stance,” Schweiger says of the lefty-hitting Duke. He remembers that the first time he saw Snider and the Dodgers play was in 1952. Schweiger’s father had bought box seats behind home plate below the netting. He says when he finally got a glimpse of the field he stopped. His father asked him what was the matter.

“The grass is green,” he told his father. “On television it is black and white.”

Duke Snider in the 1950s, (Courtesy of the Los Angeles Dodgers)
Duke Snider in the 1950s. (File Photo/Los Angeles Dodgers)

Schweiger’s mom used to tell him that if he took the local subway to Prospect Park it would take him nine stops to get to Ebbets Field. If he took the express train, it would only take three stops. He remembers walking out of the subway station with a mob of people and seeing others flood from trolley cars.

He remembers one day, sitting in the upper deck with his older brother and watching Snider make a diving, rolling catch in center field. The Duke also hit a home run.

“You could tell it was Snider running around the bases by his trot,” Schweiger says.

Joe Long, owner Birdel’s Records

Joe Long, who will finally close his Bedford-Stuyvesant record store next month, says that when he heard of the Duke’s death he wondered if there are any of the old Dodgers left. He thought Snider might have been the last of the legends. He ticks off the Dodgers’ names – and their numbers.

“Those were the good old days,” Long says. He used to go to daytime double-headers with his uncle who loved watching Jackie Robinson. In the last game he saw Snider play, Long says, he caught a foul ball off the net behind home plate.

“I think I still have that ball,” he says.

Tom Knight, Dodger historian
Knight who is now 84 says he was born three days after Snider. He remembers Snider as a rookie. He recalls Snider’s prodigious home runs, and graceful fielding. “Over right was a home run in any ballpark,” Knight says. “He could catch any ball that was hit in the park,” he says.

But when the Dodgers relocated to the oddly-configured Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum the outfield was troublesome for Snider because it was as large as an airport. Knight believes that had Snider not played alongside so many legendary ballplayers – and fellow Hall of Famers – he might have been an even greater star.

Tom Villante, former Dodger television executive

Villante remembers being in the Baseball Commissioner’s office in 1980 when it was announced that Snider had been elected to the Hall of Fame. He called Snider and his wife Bev and invited them to dinner at the River Cafe in DUMBO.

“When we walked into the restaurant, all the patrons stood and applauded Duke as we went to our table. They recognized him,” Villante says.

A priest bought a bottle of wine for Snider and the chef made him a special desert. As Villante, Snider and their wives left the restaurant, people gave Snider a standing ovation.

Wes Parker, former Dodger

Parker and Snider worked together at Dodgers’ fantasy baseball camp for fifteen years. They also grew close through their faith. He first met Snider in 1958 when he was still a senior in high school. By then the Dodgers were in Los Angeles and Parker had been asked to come train with the team.

During batting practice Parker took a bat of Snider’s he found lying around and took a few swings. The bat broke.

“I said, ‘I broke Duke Snider’s bat, what do I do?’” Parker recalls.

“You better tell him, kid,” someone said.

Parker went to Snider, who could be very prickly, and told him he broke his bat.

“Don’t worry, kid,” said the Duke, “there probably weren’t any hits in it any way.”

Roy Gleason, played for Snider

Roy Gleason’s career batting average is a perfect 1.000. He got a hit for the Dodgers on his first at bat in 1963, got a World Series ring that same year and then was drafted; he served in Vietnam, where he earned a Purple Heart.

Gleason met Snider in the minors, which is where he spent most of his career. In 1966 Snider was his manager. He says all the players knew that they were playing for a legend. No one disliked him.

The team had won 10 straight games. In the eleventh game, they were down by a run in the top of the 9th with a runner on third base and only one out – a fly ball away from tying the score. Gleason was at the plate. He says the first pitch was high and he swung at it.

He popped the ball straight up in the infield. The team ended up losing the game. In the clubhouse, Gleason remembers Snider was so angry at him for swinging at the first pitch and not waiting for a better one that he threw a chair across the room.

“I remember thinking, ‘Jesus, we just won 10 straight, Duke,’” Gleason says. But that was Duke, who as a player was forever berating himself for his failures.

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