Duke Snider, one of the Brooklyn Dodgers' "Boys of Summer" and among a celebrated trio of New York center fielders in the 1950s, died Sunday. He was 84.
Snider died at Valle Vista Convalescent Hospital in Escondido, the Dodgers announced. No cause was given.
Hall of Fame member, the eight-time All-Star helped the Dodgers to six National League championships, and Brooklyn's only World Series title, in his first 11 seasons, providing Dodger power from the left side of the plate.
"He was an extremely gifted talent and his defensive abilities were often overlooked because of playing in a small ballpark, Ebbets Field," Dodgers' broadcaster Vin Scully said Sunday in a statement. "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 the borough of Brooklyn. Although it's ironic to say it, we have lost a giant."
Snider hit 40 or more homers in five consecutive seasons and during the decade of the '50s led all major leaguers in home runs, 326; runs batted in, 1,031; runs scored, 970; and slugging percentage, .569. He finished his career with a lifetime batting average of .295 and 407 home runs, 389 of them as a Dodger, still the team record. He is the only player to have twice hit four homers in the World Series, matching his 1952 feat in '55, the year the Dodgers won the Series and he was named major league player of the year by the Sporting News.
He hit the last home run in Ebbets Field and had the first hit in Dodger Stadium, a single on opening day in 1962, and was part of the 1959 Los Angeles Dodgers team that beat the Chicago White Sox in the World Series.
"When you saw him play, the guy could hit, he could run, he could throw, he could field," former Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda said Sunday. "He was one of the great, great players of our time."
In a simpler but more demanding era — there were only 16 major league teams when he broke in, eight each in the National and American League — Snider was a star among stars, both on his own team and in the Big Apple. Among his Brooklyn teammates were Hall of Famers Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. Walter Alston, another Hall of Famer, was the manager, and a couple of young pitchers, Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax, were showing promise.
And New Yorkers carried on a running argument as to who was the best center fielder in town, Willie Mays of the Giants, Mickey Mantle of the Yankees or Snider. Songwriter-singer Terry Cashman extolled them in his 1981 recording "Willie, Mickey and the Duke," also known as "Talkin' Baseball."
From 1954 through '57, when Mays, Mantle and Snider all played full seasons in New York, Snider led the two others in both home runs and RBIs.
"They used to run a box in the New York papers, comparing me and Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays," Snider recalled for the New York Times in 1980. "It was a great time for baseball."
Actually, Snider's entire career was a great time for baseball. He came up as a highly touted prospect in 1947. "His swing is perfect," Branch Rickey observed upon signing him as a 17-year-old. "And this young man doesn't run on mere legs. Under him are two steel springs." He left the game as a player for the ages.
Like Mantle, whose father began grooming him for baseball stardom as a child, Snider had a parental push. Born Sept. 9, 1926, the only child of Ward and Florence Snider, young Edwin Donald Snider grew up in Compton with a bat in his hands. In his book, "The Duke of Flatbush," written with Bill Gilbert, Snider recalled his father instructing him to bat left-handed, even though he was a natural right-hander. His father pointed out that many ballparks had short right-field fences, that there was a preponderance of right-handed pitchers in the majors and that left-handed batters were two steps closer to first base.
"We argued about the switch loud, long and often because it was awkward," Snider wrote. "When our backyard arguments reached their loudest, Mom would call out, 'You two children behave out there.' "
Snider also had his father to thank for his nickname. The elder Snider began calling his son Duke as a child, and the kid never objected. " 'The Duke of Flatbush' sounds a lot better than 'The Edwin of Flatbush,' " he often said.
After he graduated from Compton High School, Snider signed with the Dodgers as an amateur free agent. He served in the Navy on a submarine tender in the Pacific from 1944 to 1946.
Snider's debut with the Dodgers, on April 17, 1947, was especially memorable, but not for anything he did. That also happened to be the day that teammate Robinson got his first base hit, two days after he broke baseball's longtime color barrier.
"I was in such complete awe of everything going on, I didn't totally appreciate the significance of the event," Snider told the San Diego Union-Tribune's Bill Center in 2004. "I didn't realize until later … how important it was."
After two seasons of part-time play — and learning the strike zone — Snider became a Dodger regular in 1949, then blossomed in 1950, hitting .321 with 31 homers and 16 stolen bases. That was also the season that he stamped himself as a center fielder to be reckoned with.