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Was He Really a Duke?

By Bennett Liebman

Dodger Hall of Famer Duke Snider died two months ago on February 27. To many baby boomers, especially those of us who grew up in and around Brooklyn, he will always be our idol. To those of us who saw him in his prime, he could do little wrong. He hit home runs - more than anybody in the 1950's. He had a special distinctive grace, and he was clutch. With the aging and fading in talent of Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese, and to a certain extent Roy Campanella, Duke personified the Dodgers in their last five years in Brooklyn.

When he returned to New York to play for the Mets in 1963, I spent months cajoling my mother to drive around Rockville Center on Long Island to scope out his apartment so that we could meet the Duke. (Nobody called it stalking in those days.) Even one of the world's most indulgent mothers would not put up with this 13 year old's demands.

Yet, the Duke had a more fragile relationship with the bulk of Brooklyn fans than his other teammates. He was the youngest of the regulars who dominated the Dodger lineup from 1947-1957. He was also the least media savvy of the Boys of Summer. Every once in a while, he would complain about Brooklyn and its fans. He always seemed to need to be schooled by Pee Wee Reese. The kids who followed the Dodgers loved Duke far more than their parents.

Perhaps that was what was most striking about all the encomiums to Duke Snider in the media when he passed away. All of the Duke's perceived petulance had disappeared. What remained was a man who behaved as gracefully in person as he had patrolled center field in Ebbets Field. Everybody had an enjoyable encounter with Duke Snider.

His Hall of Fame induction speech included no mention of his playing abilities but included his gratitude for his teammates, family, and fans. He found the time to talk with everyone. Dodgers historian Mark Langill said, "Hanging around him, he always was the nicest, most unassuming of stars...He was always truly just happy to be a Dodger."

We read of him returning to his former home in Bay Ridge in Brooklyn just to talk to the people who now lived in his home. Former colleagues during his time as a broadcaster for the Montreal Expos talk about his stopping on every visit to New York City to meet with a longtime fan who had become homeless. His visits to New York also included trips to old friends who owned a restaurant where the Duke would play bocce. At Vero Beach, he would get up early to help fantasy campers with their swings. He wrote encouraging letters to the kids who played baseball at his local high school in Falbrook, California. Even at his death, his family directed donations to the Fallbrook Union High School Baseball Program.

As Richard Griffin in the Toronto Star wrote, "There are other celebrities like Duke Snider who was comfortable with his status in life as a sports hero and didn't try to hide it. He tried to share it. For the short time they are together, athletes like Duke elevate their new friend du jour to their own level and make them feel for a shining moment that they also are very special, more important than when they entered the room. Duke never apologized for celebrity and was always willing to share it generously."

I was able to encounter Duke Snider once during spring training in Palm Beach Florida in 1980, where the Atlanta Braves and the Montreal Expos shared a training camp. I was walking up the ramp to the mezzanine while the Duke was walking down. There was almost nobody else in the ballpark. We talked for ten minutes. He told me how he hit knuckle ball pitchers. I told him about seeing his 300th and his 400th home run. He couldn't have been more gracious. I didn't have the heart to tell my mother that it would have been worth it to stalk his apartment in Rockville Center.

While Mickey Mantle remained a kid (maybe not the "last boy" of Jane Leavy's book, but a boy nonetheless) throughout his life, alternating between debauchery, drunkenness, humor, and confessionals, and Willie Mays, for all his greatness, withdrew from his public almost to a level approaching Greta Garboism, Duke Snider grew up. He wasn't just a Duke. He became the Mensch of Flatbush.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 26, 2011 8:58 PM.

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