Archive for February, 2011

Long live the Duke

By Steve Klinger

A grown man is not supposed to cry when a retired baseball player of 84 dies in a convalescent hospital in southern California, but this wasn’t just any old baseball player, it was Duke Snider, and I can still remember hearing the cheers in the apartment where I grew up, eight block from Ebbets Field, when the Brooklyn Dodgers mounted a rally back in the mid-50s, and the wind was blowing right.

This was the graceful, gliding centerfielder who rivaled Mays and Mantle in his heyday, before he stepped in a hole in Wrigley Field and tore up his knee, who was described by one sportswriter as having “steel springs in his legs.”  There was even greater torque in his hips and shoulders as he drove the ball out of the park on 407 occasions – or perchance struck out, which he did a lot as well.

But he was the Duke, probably the greatest of the Boys of Summer, and I kept a scrapbook of his exploits, only to leave it behind when I went away to college and my parents moved to Florida. It wound up, like most of my belongings, flooded in my aunt’s suburban basement a couple of years later.

The memories of Snider’s heroics in the 1955 World Series and numerous pennant races of that era were strong, however, and I couldn’t forsake the Duke and his cohorts even after Walter O’Malley uprooted them for more lucrative pastures in Los Angeles. While some of my friends became Yankee or, later, Met fans, I finessed the AM radio dial late into the night, searching for an LA Dodger broadcast. I even wrote to Vin Scully, who actually answered me, to relate that there were no radio stations from LA sending Dodger games back to Brooklyn. Where was MLB.com when I needed it?

About 15 years ago, I happened to be driving up the Florida coast on my way to the Orlando airport during spring training, and on an impulse I stopped at the Dodgers’ fabled training camp in Vero Beach to take in a Grapefruit League game. The crowd was sparse that day, but I spotted Snider, then about 70, sitting all by himself in the stands up behind third base. It took all the courage  I could muster, but I approached him and introduced myself. He was gracious and willing enough to talk about the Dodgers’ days in Brooklyn and their controversial departure, which he blamed not on O’Malley but on Robert Moses, a New York City official with great power over land use in those days.

Be that as it may, we had a pleasant chat and I drove off to the airport, tearful then as I was today, with those innocent days of baseball hero worship fresh in my heart.

I can’t think of anything more traumatic in my childhood than the day the New York Post announced the Dodgers were abandoning Ebbets Field — not for Jersey City, which would have been bad enough, but for California, and taking the Giants with them!

A couple of years later, the wrecking ball smashed into the 50-year-old bricks of that hallowed ballpark so that a man named Marvin Kratter could demolish it to build apartments.  I clipped out the photo and put it in my scrapbook.

Snider grew slow and fat and mercifully retired after a year with the Mets and another, inconceivably, with the San Francisco Giants.

But my boyhood bond was strong, and I was elated when he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1980.  In retrospect, his career statistics don’t measure up to those posted by the other New York centerfielders of his day, but for a few seasons he could run and field and throw with the best of them and blast the ball as high and far as anyone. In fact, he hit more home runs than anyone in the National League in the decade of the 1950s.

He was the Duke of Flatbush, and today I wept for him and, I suppose, for the dreams of childhood, so irrevocably replaced with adult realities, where greed trumps glory every time.

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