He Was Number Four

February 27

I once asked a friend who grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950’s what was so special about baseball during that time. “You wouldn’t understand,” he said. “It was the best.”

Three teams, all good, all filled with future Hall of Famers. All won World Series championships during that decade. All within a short train ride of each other. I think I understand.

Edwin ( Duke ) Snider, #4, was a big part of that golden era as an All-Star center fielder with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Fans would argue who was a better center fielder — Duke, Mickey Mantle, or Willie Mays. The trio was immortalized in the song “Talkin’ Baseball” by Terry Cashman.

Duke was just honored to be included in the conversation. He deserved to be. As Cliff Corcoran correctly points out at SI.com, during his peak years Duke was just about the equal of Willie and Mickey.

In another era he might have been considered the gold standard in center field. You look at his numbers, and you wonder why it took eleven tries for him to get into the Hall of Fame. He was one of the National League’s most feared sluggers for a decade, a big left-handed bat who also had a great arm, and he had an MVP-type year in the storybook 1955 Dodgers championship season.

Duke Snider passed away Sunday at the age of 84, leaving Willie as the only surviving member of that triumvirate. And Willie will celebrate his 80th birthday on May 6th. Fans should treasure him while he’s still around — and I know many do.

I had a chance to meet Duke in the summer of 2000, when he watched my son Nick and his Santa Clara Pony All-Stars play in a sectional tournament in Morgan Hill. Duke knew the family of one of Nick’s teammates, and I think he owned some property in the area.

Duke not only watched the game, but was introduced to the team after they won and told them they played with a lot of spirit. Then he signed autographs, although many of these kids didn’t know who he was. I made sure Nick knew. Duke couldn’t have been more gracious.

It was sad that later in life, Duke suffered numerous health problems as well as tax problems. He failed to report 97 thousand dollars in earnings from autographs he signed at card shows, and was sentenced to two years probation. Giants’ Hall of Famer Willie McCovey was given the same sentence on similar charges.

Duke was sentenced in Brooklyn, where 40 years earlier he had been the toast of the town. The judge had the nerve to tell him he had been “publicly disgraced and humiliated.” Snider had been trying to make money after some bad business decisions, but he apologized and he paid back taxes.

That’s not what people will remember. They’ll remember the elegant center fielder, the Duke of Flatbush, the good guy who helped define an era in baseball that may never be equalled.

Something else people won’t remember: Duke finished his career as a San Francisco Giant in 1964. McCovey, who should know a classy guy when he sees one, called Duke “first-class.”

I was lucky enough to see Mantle and Mays play at the tail end of their prime, but I never got to see Duke play. However, Duke saw my son play. That was worth just as much if not more.

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2 Responses to “He Was Number Four”

  1. Jim from Napa Says:

    Ray it’s sad there are more parents like you that teach their kids about history. It was a staple in my house. I’m not old and obviously never saw him play, but the Duke was baseball royalty. A clutch power hitter that loved the fans and the game.

    When the Dodger players were asked about his passing, most had never even heard of him and only Andre Ethier commented.

    This is the problem with the culture we have today. In other countries they respect history. In ours most could care less.

    I hate when an Icon dies on a weekend. With less staff they never seem to get their just due.

    Great article; great man. And you too Ray! lol

  2. Larry Miller Says:

    In Brooklyn in the 50s was a candystore/soda fountain called Raywood’s, probably with that spelling. Any relationship? — About a dozen of us who used to hang out there and play ball in the Avenue L park are having a reunion there soon. I can still jump and shoot–just not at the same time.

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