By Glen Sparks
Duke Snider liked to tell reporters that he played baseball for the money. Oh, how the fans hated reading that in the newspapers!
He said more than he once that he looked forward to retiring. He wanted to grow avocados on his ranch in southern California. What did the Brooklyn fans think about that?
Utility man Spider Jorgenen said in Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers that Snider was “temperamental when he first came up. He sulked a lot.” Brooklyn pitcher Rex Barney put it this way: “Duke spoke his piece, and the media didn’t like him for a long time.”
He worried too much, his teammates said. He hated, just hated, going 0-for-4. He might be batting .330 with 35 home runs, and he’d go 0-for-4 and it’d be like, “Well, looks like I’ll be going back to Montreal (Brooklyn’s AAA farm club).” Snider, some insisted, started going gray as a teenager. And what does that tell you?
Maybe it was just that people expected so much out of him. Born Sept. 19, 1926, in Los Angeles, Snider played football, basketball and baseball. He played all them well. He could hurl 65-yard spirals. Snider reveled in athletic glory at Compton High School. He was the Duke.
The Dodgers signed him following a tryout in Long Beach. He made it to the big club in 1947, that memorable year in Brooklyn and of No. 42. Jackie Robinson, another southern California product, also played his rookie ball that season.
The writers voted the pioneer Robinson as Rookie of the Year; Snider played in just 40 games. The center-fielder again saw limited action in ’48. Finally, in 1949, he earned a starting spot in the Dodger outfield. He ripped 23 home runs and batted .292. The following year, he clubbed 31 homers, drove in 107 runs and batted .321. He had established himself as a star. Snider added a combined 50 home runs in 1951 and ’52.
Teammates and fans liked his left-handed swing, perfect for cozy Ebbets Field out in Flatbush. What they loved, though, was his defense. Bill Reddy, a long-time Brooklyn fan, said, “Snider was such a graceful player. … I must say Mays was good. Still, a Duke Snider he wasn’t.” … Snider had every tool. He even ran a bit in his early days, stealing in double figures four times. Brooklyn pitcher Ralph Branca said, “Duke was something. … He could do it all.”
Snider really got things going in 1953. He belted 42 homers, drove in 126 runs and hit .336 with a National League-high .627 slugging percentage. The next year, he crushed 40 homers, drove in 130 and batted .340.
Duke started to make this 40-homer thing a habit. He cracked 42 home runs in Brooklyn’s championship season of 1955. He led the league with 136 RBI, hit .306 and paced the league in run scored for the third straight time (132, 120 and 126 in ’53, ’54 and ’55, respectively.
In Bums, Snider admitted to some doubts about his own ability, especially early in his career. “But,” he said, “I think I learned to handle those doubts and was able to push them aside.”
The Duke’s assault on N.L. pitching continued in 1956. He topped the league with 43 homers and drove in 101. He hit .292 and led all National League hitters in on-base percentage (.399) and slugging percentage (.598).
On Sept. 22, 1957, Snider cracked two home runs in a game against the Philadelphia Phillies, both off Robin Roberts. The second homer was especially memorable and historic. It gave him 40 for the season, the fifth straight time he reached that milestone, tying the National League mark set by Ralph Kiner (1947-51) and since surpassed by Sammy Sosa (1998-2003). He also became the first player to hit at least 40 homers in one season and not drive in 100 runs (Snider finished with 92 RBI.) That second dinger also was the final one hit in a game at Ebbets Field.
The Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958. Snider batted .312. Due in part to the faraway right-field wall at the oddly shaped L.A. Coliseum, he hit just 15 homers. Duke ripped 23 homers to help the Dodgers win the World Series in 1959. He drove in 88 runs and batted .312 with a .400 on-base percentage. Over the entire decade of the 1950s, no one in baseball hit as many home runs (326) or drove in as many runs (1,031) as the Duke.
Snider played five more years and made the 1963 All-Star team as a New York Met. He retired with 407 homers and a .295 batting average (.380 on- base percentage, .540 slugging percentage and 140 OPS+). Over his six World Series, the Duke belted 11 homers, four each in 1952 and ’55.
In the end, Snider beat the demons of his own expectations and the wild expectations of others. It wasn’t easy. Carl Erskine, the long-time Brooklyn pitcher, said “No matter how good he was, they’d say ‘His potential is so great. He can do even better.’”
Duke did some coaching and broadcasting after retiring as a player. He did indeed grow avocados on his ranch. Edwin Donald “Duke” Snider died in 2011 at the age of 84. A Hall of Famer since 1980, he will remain forever one of Brooklyn’s fabled Boys of Summer.