Philadelphia Daily News - January 10, 1980

Paying Homage to Duke

 

By Bill Conlin

 

The marathon ended for The Duke of Flatbush and Falbrook yesterday. Edwin Donald Snider chased Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays for the better part of 30 years. He finally ran them down in the outfielders wing of Baseball's Hall of Fame.

 

There was a time when all major league baseball was played east of the Mississippi and north of St. Louis. And in the !50s, the three best center-fielders on the planet were grouped in New York City, a five-cent subway ride apart.

 

Mantle came to Yankee Stadium in 1951 with the body and speed of an Oklahoma tailback and that lopsided Louvre of a ballyard was as suited to his style as the stage of the Old Vic was to Barrymore's "Hamlet." In the same landmark season, Mays burst on the Polo Grounds like a skyrocket, the first great black athlete to reach the major leagues while in the full bloom of his youth.

 

Mantle hit.267 with 13 home runs. Mays hit.274 with 20 home runs.

 

IN THE BOROUGH of Brooklyn, Duke Snider had an off year. He hit.277 with 29 homers and 101 RBI. Maybe if Snider had come close to his 1950 season his image would have withstood the media blitz which accompanied the debuts of Mantle and Mays. In 50, Snider hit.321 with 31 homers and 107 RBI. But the Dodgers, who would blow that 13½-game lead to Mays and the Giants the next year, lost the pennant to the Phillies on the final day. The natives were restless.

 

Duke Snider never caught on. If he had a good year, Roy Campanella would have a great one and win the MVP award. Jackie Robinson galvanized the Ebbetts Field mobs even in his declining years. Gil Hodges was a prodigious right-handed slugger and Pee Wee Reese was a tremendous crowd favorite. Snider was merely the most consistent player on a great Dodger team now immortalized as the Boys of Summer. He is the third of their number to reach the Hall of Fame. Robinson and Campanella preceded him but it took Snider 11 elections to finally swing the required 75 percent of the votes.

 

Snider came up in 1947 and he struggled to establish himself as a hitter. He always played center with an elegance reminiscent of DiMaggio, but his great range and silky speed were wasted in the small outfield of the bandbox on Bedford Ave.

 

I WAS A SOPHOMORE at Brooklyn Prep in '49, the year Snider won the regular center-field job. Ebbetts Field was just a 10-minute walk through Flatbush, and if you showed your student ID card on weekday afternoons you could sit in the bleachers for a quarter and catch the last six innings or so. Duke was having a terrible spring and Cowbell Hilda Chester’s bleacher mob booed his ears off.  Only 23 that year, Snider’s hair was already streaking into a premature gray which later in his career earned him the nickname, “The Silver Fox.”

 

“He was a very unpopular player for a few years,” recalls Rich Ashburn, the fourth best centerfielder of that fading-in-time decade.  “He never enjoyed the popularity of a Pee Wee Reese or a Gil Hodges. Talk on the Phillies was that he didn’t get along with some of the players. But I've talked to him about it since then and he says he always got along with everybody. That was quite a group they had there, I can see where there could have been some frictions, but that was the best team I have ever seen in baseball for a stretch of a few years. It's a shame his career hasn't been remembered for what it was, although he probably should have paid to hit for that club. He was the only left-handed hitting regular and I'll bet he didn't see five lefthanders a year in that ballpark.

 

"But he could hit lefthanders pretty well. I remember him hitting two homers off Curt Simmons when Curt was one of the great young pitchers. He used to wear Robin Roberts out. Robby would keep challenging him and Duke loved to hit that fastball."

 

THE PAGES OF THE scrapbook begin crumbling around the dogeared edges. Distant images fade to blurs, like the background in an early daguerreotype.

 

But some moments remain frozen in time, as perfectly preserved as a meadow flower enshrined in a glacier.

 

Ashburn is fuzzy about the year, the date and the inning, but the play is in crystal focus.

 

"I think it was '52 and it was a game in Philly they really needed late in the season," Rich said yesterday. "Anyway, Willie Jones stung a long drive to left-center. It was going to hit pretty high up on the fence. Duke leaped at the fence and his right spikes caught in the wood and he just kind of propelled himself upward another step, literally, running up the fence. And he caught the ball. But we've always felt over the years that he trapped it. We couldn't see any way he could have caught that ball with his glove turned into the fence without trapping it.

 

"It comes up every time we get together, but after all these years Duke swears he caught it cleanly. Anyway, that's the kind of player he was. He'd give you that big play and usually make it look easy. He was very smooth and he had excellent speed. The Dodgers didn't run much in those days with all those home run hitters, but he would have stolen a lot of bases."

 

Al Kaline, who amassed 3,007 hits during a 22-year career in Detroit, joins Snider, making the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

 

It turns out the Phillies almost signed Kaline out of high school in 1953. Ashburn was there when the 18-year-old kid worked out for Bob Carpenter after his high school graduation.

 

"I really think Al wanted to sign with the Phillies," Ashburn said. "But under the bonus rule then, if you gave a kid more than a certain amount of money to sign you had to keep him on the big league roster. He was just a skinny kid then and the Phillies didn't think he'd hit that much, I guess. He had excellent actions in the field and looked like he'd be a fine defensive player. Al threw the ball low and on the line. The Phillies signed a pitcher named Tommy Qualters instead."

 

TOMMY QUALTERS... Never won a big-league game in a career which lasted three seasons and 52 innings.

 

Kaline never played an inning of minor-league ball, and in 1955, at age 20, he hit.340 and became the youngest player to ever win a big-league batting title.

 

Kaline's swift election was expected 3,000 hits is a sure ticket lo Cooperstown.

 

The Dodgers' move to Los Angeles in 1958 tarnished the image that Snider was a ferocious home run hitter and probably kept him from early election to the Hall. In 1957, the avocado farmer from the valley northeast of San Diego hit 40 homers in Brooklyn. In '58, swinging at the smoggy vastness of right field in the Coliseum, Snider fell to 15. Despite a.312 average, the West Coast critics viewed his skills with the same suspicion Mays engendered in his early San Francisco seasons.

 

 

Snider finished his career with the Mets and Giants, a white-haired gentleman who never achieved a higher.station in his game than third-best centerfielder in New York City. And who made the Hall of Fame the hard way.

Snider, Kaline Fame-ous

 

NEW YORK (UPI) – Al Kaline, Detroit's rightfielder for 22 years, and Duke Snider, New York's "other cen-terfielder" in the heyday of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, were voted into baseball's Hall of Fame yesterday on a tidal wave of votes.

 

Kaline, who hit.297 and had 3,007 hits with the Tigers, was the 10th player elected in his first year of eligibility when he got 340 of 385 votes from 10-year veterans of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

 

Snider, who batted.295 and hit 407 homers in 18 seasons spent mostly with the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, was elected on his 11th try with 333 votes.

 

Kaline and Snider easily topped the 75 percent of votes needed for election.

 

"I don't think my vocabulary can express what I feel," said Kaline. The first thing I would like to do is thank all the writers for the greatest honor I've ever had."

 

"I felt after missing last year by 11 votes, my chances were prety good," said Snider. "I feel I am a Hall of Famer... The news was like hitting my first World Series home run off Allie Reynolds."

 

Don Drysdale, who won 209 games in 14 years with, the Dodgers, finished third with 238 votes, followed by the late Gil Hoges former Dodger first baseman, and Hoyt Wilhelm, knuckleballing reliever who appeared as a pitcher in the most games (1,070) in baseball history and had 14 seasons with an ERA under 3.00.

 

Kaline's.340 average in 1955 at the age of 20 gave him his only batting title. He hit over.300 nine seasons; hit more than 20 homers but never more than 29 in nine seasons for a total of 399 and drove in more than 100 runs three times.

 

Kaline was rated the AL's top defensive rightfielder nine times. He had a.987 lifetime fielding percentage. Kaline played in one World Series, batting .379 in 1968 as the Tigers beat the Cardinals in seven games.

 

A powerful left-handed hitter, Snider was a superb defensive outfielder who might have been rated as the No. 1 centerfielder in the game. However, he played for the Dodgers at the same time Mays was playing for the New York Giant? and Mantle for the Yankees.

 

 

Snider's top season homer total was 43 and he never won an MVP. But he also led the NL in homers, RBI and hits once each, runs scored and total bases three times each and slugging percentage twice. He played on six pennant winners and two world championship teams and his 11 homers and 26 RBI are ,thf most bv a National Leaguer in World Series competition.