One thing leads to another. The other morning I was listening to the glory that was the early 1940s Duke Ellington Orchestra playing, ‘Harlem Air Shaft’ – a four minute masterpiece evoking a world and a culture with thrillingly eloquent charm.
As the music faded the numbskulls (remember them?) in my brain, unbidden, went searching among my memory cells for other Dukes. Slim files came back marked : Duke of Wellington and Duke of Windsor. Middle size files had the titles Duke Fakir, David Duke, Duke Robillard and John ‘Duke’ Wayne.
However the two really bulky files bore the legends, ‘Duke Of Earl’ (a guaranteed jukebox selection for the future) and Duke Snider – the latter one of my very favourite baseball players from my favourite sports team of all time – the late, much lamented, Brooklyn Dodgers.
Here’s a fanfare for the Duke:
There have been few better times and places to have been a baseball fan than New York in the 1950s. The New York Yankees, the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers and their fanatical supporters played out an intense rivalry which was illuminated with iconic moments of drama in a series of historic pennant races and world-series finals.
The names and feats of players such as Yogi Berra, Don Mueller and Jackie Robinson are indelibly imprinted on the memory of baseball aficionados. However, it was the star centre-fielders for these teams – Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Snider, who has died at the age of 84, who came to personify the arguments about which team should have superior bragging rights in the big apple.
Mantle was all explosive power and glamour while Mays was superhumanly enthusiastic and athletic. Duke Snider, the pride of Brooklyn , was a complete player with stellar achievements in all aspects of batting along with brilliant fielding skills combining speed and poise with a whiplash throwing arm.
In the four seasons, 1954-57 that Snider, Mantle and Mays went head to head as centre-fielders it was the Duke who hit the most homers and drove in the most runs. Indeed, throughout the entire 1950s it was Snider who slugged the most home runs (320) and RBIs (1031) as well as placing second in runs (970).
These numbers gave powerful ammunition to Brooklyn ’s blue collar fan base ‘them bums’ in the ceaseless argument as to whose centre-fielder was the best.
The Duke, named so by his father at the age of 5, was born far from Brooklyn in Los Angeles in 1926 (where ironically, chasing revenue, the Dodgers would relocate in 1958). From his early youth he excelled as an all round sportsman and it was no surprise when he was signed out of high school in 1943 by the Dodgers.
Following a brief period in the minors and military service in the navy he made his first appearance in blue in Ebbetts Field the legendary, now demolished, home of the Dodgers in 1947.
Ebbets Field with its short right field fence was ideally suited to a left handed power hitter like Snider and he would go on to become a regular home run hitter there. It was 1949 when he firmly established himself in the team and he was a fixture thereafter until he left in 1962.
During that time he became a key member of a great inter-racial team, a band of brothers, which included heroes such as Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Gil Hodges. The glories, trials and tribulations of this remarkable team were immortalised in Roger Kahn’s classic memoir/history ‘The Boys of Summer’.
This team despite regularly winning the National League Pennant seemed fated to fall at the last hurdle, usually at the hands and bats of the hated Yankees, in their quest to be World Series champions.
The mantra of the long suffering Brooklyn fans became ‘Maybe next year’. In 1955 the dream at last became reality when the Dodgers triumphed against the Yankees with the Duke’s magnificent contribution being four home runs and seven runs batted in.
He became the only player to have twice hit four home runs in the fall classic having previously accomplished the feat in 1952 (though still on the losing team!)
Prior to the relocation of the Dodgers to Los Angeles , which the citizens of Brooklyn have never forgiven, it was fittingly the Duke who hit the last home run in the iconic stadium.
A combination of injuries and the design of the LA stadium meant that he was never the player he had been in Brooklyn on the West Coast though he was a member of the 1959 World Series Championship team. After leaving the dodgers in 1962 he played briefly for the New York Mets and the San Francisco Giants before retiring in 1964.
In his career as a whole he hit 407 home runs and was eight times selected as an all star. After retirement as a player he worked as a scout and later as an announcer for the Montreal Expos.
His global achievements were duly recognised in 1980 when he was elected into the Valhalla of Baseball – the Hall of Fame.
The ‘Duke of Flatbush’ will always be remembered for his heroic feats wearing No 4 for the boys of summer whose legend only grows brighter as the years roll on.
Edwin Donald (Duke Snider) born 19 September Los Angeles Ca
Died 27 February 2011 Escondido Ca.