The New York Times obituary portrays a self-lacerating Duke Snider. I had no idea. Snider’s career (1947–64) overlapped my early following baseball only on the late side. I therefore had a slight connection to this member of the New York City troika of classic center fielders. (OK, there was The Great DiMaggio—as Ernest Hemingway called him in The Old Man and the Sea, the short, probably overrated parable that did as much to gain Papa a Nobel Prize in Literature as any of his best books—who it is generally said outplayed all three.)
(My dear buddy, the late literary critic David Castronovo, observes the Hemingway fable has some of the worst dialogue ever to appear between boards by the way, not to say coming from the quill of a great artist. As an example, not exact but close enough: “I fear the Cubs of Chicago . . . the Reds of Cincinnati.” But such critique is better left for a different blog or to the literary hoi polloi.)
Snider always seemed to have a five-o’clock shadow, to look a little sinister to my young eyes, and to play in the shadow of Mantle and Mays. Snider was working-class sweat compared to muscular Mantle’s effortless largesse, “Aw shucks! That tape measure registering 600 feet never even left the press box.” Or to Mays’s cold war “Ode to Joy,” “OK Skip!” or “Say Hey!”
So who was the best of these three Hall of Famers? To ask another way, is William Tell’s son ever up to standard by splitting his father’s quiver? This is not to say Snider played the son to Mantle and Mays. (In fact, he was several years older.) The Duke hit the big time first and was pure royalty among the Brooklyn Bums, the Ebbets Field Sym-phony Band, Hilda Chester with her cowbell. Snider’s land, center field, was not the Ponderosa-distances patrolled by Mays in the ruins of the Polo Grounds or Mantle in Death Valley at commanding Yankee Stadium.
If I could not name the best, since their careers diverged markedly in the 1960s (in fact, Snider called it quits as a teammate of Mays’s in San Francisco), I could say Snider always seemed an afterthought to me and maybe others who really ought to know better. Sadly, he was never awarded a Most Valuable Player in the National League by the writers. Too bad.
The only one alive is Willie Mays, shortly to turn eighty. The Mick died an alcoholic wreck sixteen years ago, not even old enough to collect Social Security. Snider’s later life was not so nearly spectacular a flameout, though there were troubles with the Internal Revenue Service. RIP Duke of Flatbush. You were born sixty years to the day before my daughter and 83 years to the day before my mother died. He also broke in the year Jackie Robinson garnered all the headlines (with good reason) and heartaches. Learning all this, and more importantly reading about your mental travails, I feel closer to you Mr. Snider, Boy of Summer and Duke of Flatbush.