February 27, 2011
You Can Blog It Up
Only Willie Remains: Rest Well, Duke Snider
Sad news today, as Hall of Famer Duke Snider has passed away at 84. I am too young to have seen Snider play, his career having ended in 1964, but what I can say is that I have often replayed a snippet of video I have from an old Mets highlights video showing him parking one at the Polo Grounds during his 1963 sojourn with the second-year expansion team: though on his way out of the majors, Snider still had a beautiful left-handed swing.
During Snider’s career and after, much was made of two environmental factors that worked in his favor. First, he was the sole left-handed slugger in a lineup of right-handed hitters—think of the championship ’55 Dodgers. There were Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, and Carl Furillo, all righties. Only switch-hitter Junior Gilliam and light-hitting outfielder Sandy Amoros got in many swings from the left side. As such, opposing managers tended to shuffle their lefties out of the way whenever the Dodgers came to town, granting Snider more at-bats with a platoon advantage than he would otherwise have seen. The other advantage he had in his favor was tiny Ebbets Field; Mickey Mantle once said that had he played there he would have hit a thousand home runs. He wasn’t joking and he probably wasn’t exaggerating either.
As for the first claim, it’s pretty clear that it was accurate. The Duke of Flatbush had just 916 Plate Appearances against lefties versus 6445 against right-handers, and he hit just .259/.324/.437 against them as compared to .303/.393/.566 against righties. Conversely, the home field advantage was exaggerated. Snider definitely benefitted, but he was a good hitter everywhere. Put in another park, he would no longer have been compared directly with Mays and Mantle, but he probably would have been a Hall of Famer anyway—hitting .287/.369/.511 (his career road rates) as a center fielder tends to get you noticed, as does leading the majors in home runs for an entire decade. From 1950-1959, Snider blasted 326 home runs, 16 more than Gil Hodges, the only other player to paste more than 300 during those years (Mantle was fourth with 280, Mays seventh with 250).
Willie, Mickey, and the Duke were together as regulars in New York for just four seasons, 1954 to 1957 (thank you, US military). Here is how the trio measured up in those years according to BP’s WARP, as well as for their careers:
No shame in being third in that crowd. Snider burned out faster than his two contemporaries due to some chronic knee injuries and the relocation of the Dodgers to the L.A. Coliseum, a track-and-field stadium with the right field line ending in Utah. Still, on a park-adjusted basis he was still quite strong for several years after the move, hitting .292/.385/.523 in a much tougher offensive environment.
It’s worth noting that Snider was a great World Series performer, hitting .286/.351/.594 in six series/36 games, all of this coming after an embarrassing rookie effort in 1949 in which he tried to crush every pitch he saw and ended up going 3-for-21 with eight strikeouts. He twice hit four home runs in once series, the second time coming in the Dodgers’ sole winning World Series effort against the Yankees. That progress in the postseason is testament to one of Snider’s best qualities: he was capable of learning. When he made the majors as a raw 20-year-old right out of the military, he took just three walks in 89 PAs, and Branch Rickey worried that he would never learn the strike zone. Though never as patient as Mantle, with some tutoring from Hall of Famer George Sisler, Snider became more selective and finished his career averaging 70 walks per 154 games.
Perhaps most importantly, he faced one of the great tests in baseball history and passed it—when Dixie Walker circulated a petition in the Dodgers’ clubhouse that insisted that Robinson not be added to the roster, Snider refused to sign. In fact, he called Robinson his boyhood idol, having seen him, years before, playing baseball, football, and running track. He wasn’t going to deny so great a talent on the basis of something so petty and irrelevant as skin color.
Snider was known as a cranky guy during his career, someone who had to be reminded to hustle occasionally. Still, he came through when it counted, both on and off the field, and that’s plenty to say about any person, ballplayer or not. Today we celebrate a great career and mourn the loss of a man. Our condolences to the friends and family of Edwin “Duke” Snider.