Fanfare for Duke Snider – Brooklyn Dodgers Legend, Baseball Immortal

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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.

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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.

Muhammad Ali: Miami 1964 – I Shook Up The World!

On the 25th of February 1964 Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, ‘Shook up world’ when he defeated the apparently invincible man/myth that was Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston to become World Heavyweight Champion.

On that sultry Miami night the callow, impossibly brash and outrageously self-boosting 22 year old from Louisville Kentucky turned all rational predictions on their head.

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The boxing fraternity was certain Sonny would win.

It was just a matter of how quickly he would knock out Clay, the prancing pretender, and how badly he would hurt him.

The grizzled veterans of the gambling world, above and below the legal line, knew there was no percentage in backing the long odds outsider.

The good old boys of the south wanted the lippy, too smart for his own good, too handsome to trust black youngster to be put firmly in his place.

The only person who truly believed that there would be an epochal upset was Muhammad himself.

His greatest asset was not his wonderfully lithe athleticism or his lightning jab and reflexes.

His greatest asset was and would continue to be a stratospheric self-confidence, a sure belief in his own talent and the destiny he was born to enact.

Looking into his opponents eyes Sonny usually saw a losers downcast dullness and often naked fear.

Looking into Muhammad’s eyes he must have been shocked to see the glitter of absolute zeal and belief.

Sonny couldn’t accept that this young punk could really believe that he might win – but maybe he really was mad not just acting like a lunatic – and nobody likes to fight a madman.

Over six historic rounds Sonny was to learn, painfully, that Muhammad was smarter, stronger and faster than he could ever have imagined and that behind the youthful charm there was a ruthless and brutal boxer who had come to win not to put up a good show.

By the start of the seventh Sonny was beaten physically and exhausted mentally and emotionally.

Sitting on the stool and not coming out for more humiliation was the only choice in the circumstances.

The victory was a cue for wild celebrations in our suburban Harrow on the Hill home. I was eight years old and full of grown up pride to be listening with my dad to the early hours commentary.

Dad, a long time boxing aficionado, was already a fully paid up Ali fan and, as sons will, I followed and shared my father’s enthusiasm.

In 1964, given my tender years, we were fortified in our vigil by industrial strength tea.

As the years progressed through epic victories and defeats we listened,rapt, to Ali’s fights sipping bottles of Guinness.

I can never think of Ali without lifting a metaphorical bottle of the black stuff to my dad.

Over the fifty years following the Liston victory Muhammad would demonstrate that he was the preeminent sportsman of the twentieth century and an icon of courage and steadfastness in triumph and disaster.

Even in the face of cruel illness he would live with grace and grandeur.

He was always been a credit to his race; by which I mean the human race.

It seems to me that the world is still shaking from the impact Muhammad made on the globe.