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February 28, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
Duke Snider, 1926-2011
On Sunday, the baseball world learned of the passing of Duke Snider, who made his name for the Brooklyn Dodgers at a time when New York was the center of the baseball world, with its three teams each boasting a future Hall of Fame center fielder. "Snider, Mantle, and Mays," wrote the great Red Smith. "You could get a fat lip in any saloon by starting an argument as to which was best.”
Born in 1926, which made him more or less five years older than Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, Edwin Donald Snider was the first of the trio to arrive on the major league scene, and the first to depart, but in his heyday, he was the centerpiece of a lineup that dominated the National League. Snider was the top slugger and typical number three hitter in a lineup that included fellow future Hall of Famers Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Pee Wee Reese, the anchor of a team that won five pennants from 1949 through 1956—and could have added two more had it not been for losses on the final days of the 1950 and 1951 seasons.
He was one of Roger Kahn's Boys of Summer, a lovable squad fated to lose to the Yankees in the Fall Classic in four consecutive matchups (one of which, 1947, preceded Snider's arrival as a regular) before "Next Year" finally arrived in 1955. He was the Duke of Flatbush, a prematurely gray-haired nobleman playing in an Ebbets Field bandbox set amid a working-class neighborhood heavy with immigrants of Irish, Italian, and Jewish descent. "He was the perfect hero for an underdog borough and every underdog kid," wrote Jane Leavy in The Last Boy, her recent bio of Mantle.
Born in Compton, California, not far from where the Dodgers would ultimately land upon being uprooted from Brooklyn, Snider was a three-sport letterman at Compton High School. Initially pursued by the Cincinnati Reds, who never made him a firm offer, he signed with the Dodgers for a mere $750 bonus in March 1944 at age 17. Making stops at Newport News, Montreal, and Fort Worth, he displayed ample power, but struck out frequently, and his rise to the majors was delayed by a year spent in the military. He broke camp with the Dodgers in 1947, debuting in the game following Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier, and collecting a single off the Braves' Si Johnson.
Nonetheless, Snider rode the bench for the first half of the season, stuck behind a stockpile of outfielders that included Dixie Walker, Pete Reiser, Carl Furillo, Gene Hermanski, Al Gionfriddo, and even an out-of-position Arky Vaughan in the twilight of his career. Hitting just .258/.279/.318 in 68 plate appearances through July 4, he asked Branch Rickey to send him to the minors so he could play regularly. Impressed by the enlightened youngster's gumption, Rickey agreed to send him to St. Paul, even promising him a quarter share of any World Series money. Snider was recalled in September but was ineligible to play in the World Series, which the Dodgers lost to the Yankees in seven games.
Despite whatever enlightenment he showed Rickey, the young Snider was more than a handful for the Dodgers. The Mahatma attempted to cure the budding slugger of his free-swinging ways in the spring of 1948, forcing him to stand in the batting cage with a catcher and an umpire with instructions not to swing but to learn the strike zone. As legend has it, Snider ended up arguing with the ump. Upon breaking camp with the big club, he again found playing time scarce and was sent to Montreal in mid-May. There he feuded with manager Clay Hopper, who called him "the worst-acting .330 hitter I ever handled." Snider finally returned to Brooklyn in August, bitter at having been bypassed for promotion not once but twice despite a promise from since-ousted manager Leo Durocher. Under Burt Shotton, who had skippered the team in 1947 when Durocher was suspended for gambling, Snider received a long late-season look in center field.
That winter, Rickey traded Reiser (who'd been limited to just 64 games) to the Boston Braves. Furillo had played the bulk of the season in center field, but was shifted to right for the 1949 season, leaving center field open for Snider. He didn't disappoint; playing 146 games, Snider hit .292/.361/.493 with 23 homers, helping the Dodgers win their second pennant in three years. Alas, Snider went just 3-for-21 in the World Series against the Yankees, with eight strikeouts to go atop his league-leading 92 regular-season whiffs.
Snider broke out the following year, homering 31 times and collecting a league-high 199 hits. He made the NL All-Star team for the first time, and ran third in the race for the batting title, with a .321 average to go with his .379 on-base percentage and .553 slugging percentage (the latter fifth in the league). While he still hit 29 homers the following year, he slumped significantly, dipping to .277/.344/.483. Already saddled with a reputation as a problem child due to his temper, he clashed with manager Charlie Dressen, who called the 24-year-old "immature" and "an alibi artist," and suggested the Dodgers might trade him. Snider was dreadful down the stretch as his team blew what remained of the seemingly insurmountable 13 1/2-game lead they once held on the Giants, hitting .191/.283/.255 in September and October. Blamed for the collapse by many a sportswriter, he went to Dodger president Walter O'Malley and suggested a trade. O'Malley refused, telling Snider, "We'll never trade you... We're going to give you all the time you need. I'm not blaming you one bit for losing this pennant."
Reassured, Snider rebounded, hitting .303/.368/.494 the following year—including a searing .355/.373/.607 in September—and helping the Dodgers to another pennant. Though he'd come up a bit short in the power department during the regular season with just 21 homers, Snider bashed four in the seven-game World Series against the Yankees, including the go-ahead blast in Game One. As good as his 10-for-29 effort was, the Dodgers again fell in seven games.
Snider was really just getting started. His home run total doubled to 42 in 1953, the first of five straight seasons he'd reach the 40-homer plateau, an achievement matched by only Babe Ruth and Ralph Kiner at the time. Snider hit a combined .311/.407/.618 during that five-year period, leading the league in slugging percentage twice (1953 and 1956), and in home runs once (1956, with 43); his 207 homers during that five-year span were 10 more than the next-highest total, by Eddie Mathews. In fact, nobody hit more homers in the 1950s than Snider, whose 326 beat out teammate Gil Hodges (310) and Mathews (299).
Snider's sweet left-handed swing was described by Jim Murray as, "level and graceful and pretty. If you put it to music, it would be Beethoven. If you painted it, it would hang in the Louvre." A thing of beauty, it allowed him to wreak havoc in a ballpark that was only 297 feet down the right-field line, with a 40-foot screen beyond which lay Bedford Avenue. He hit .313/.396/.603 during his time at Ebbets Field, with a homer for every 16.7 plate appearances, and an average of 38 per 154 games.
Following a season in which he batted .309/.418/.628 with 42 homers and league-leading totals of 126 runs and 136 RBI, Snider homered four times in the 1955 World Series. His three-run shot off Johnny Kucks in Game Four expanded a 4-3 lead to 7-3, and helped the Dodgers knot the series at two games apiece. His two home runs the following day off Bob Grim helped them take a 3-2 series lead, though it would take the Dodgers until Johnny Podres' Game Seven shutout to finish the job. Snider didn't collect a hit in either of the final games, but he'd already done his part to help the Dodgers finally shed their label as bums.
Alas, Snider lost out to teammate Roy Campanella in that year's NL MVP voting, finishing second by a mere five points. The result may have been due to an error: each player received eight first-place votes, but one ailing writer submitted a ballot with Campanella listed both first and fifth while leaving Snider off his ballot. The first place vote was counted, but the fifth place one was tallied as blank. Had Snider been listed fifth, he would have received six points, enough to give him the award. That was as close as he ever came to winning, though he did have six top ten finishes from 1950-1956.
Even with the Dodgers as a perennial powerhouse, Snider was less than fulfilled. In 1953, at the height of his career—26 years old, making $50,000—he confided to Kahn that he'd prefer a more pastoral pursuit. From a passage in The Boys of Summer:
"Something bothering you, Duke?"
Kahn sat on the conversation for a couple of years before turning it into a piece which ran in Collier's in the spring of 1956, titled, "I Play Baseball for Money—Not Fun," and bearing the bylines of both men. By then, the center fielder had only grown more disillusioned. He'd battled the Flatbush faithful, who booed him during a slump during the 1955 season, amid which he heatedly told sportswriters, "The Brooklyn fans are the worst in the league. They don't deserve a pennant."
On paper, dem's fightin' woids, but as Murray wrote in 1988:
Duke once took to the public prints in a moment of pique to denounce the fans of Brooklyn as undeserving of the Dodgers. There was a time when this would have been true. Nobody deserved the Dodgers of the 1930s, who were a happy-go-lucky bunch of foul-ups whose specialty seemed to be passing each other on the basepaths. The fans of Brooklyn forgave the Duke. They liked their ballplayers cantankerous and unpredictable. They left seriousness of purpose to the Yankees.
The Dodgers left Brooklyn following the 1957 season, and while Snider may have had reason to rank among those happiest about the move, he was flummoxed by the unorthodox dimensions of the Los Angeles Coliseum. As I described it in It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over:
The Coliseum was as different as could be from the intimate bandbox of Ebbets Field. With ground for Dodger Stadium unbroken until mid-September—the ‘59 season would see a stormy battle over the team’s deal with the city to acquire Chavez Ravine—the team was consigned to a massive 93,000-seat facility built in 1923 for University of Southern California football games. The field was asymmetrical; while dead center field was a relatively normal 420 feet away, the right-field line was just 300 feet, and right-center stretched to 375 feet (reduced from an astounding 440 feet after 1958, much to Snider’s benefit). Left field was another thing entirely, just 251 feet from home plate, with a 40-foot screen only partially helping to compensate... In 1958, of the 193 homers hit in the Coliseum, 166 of them went to left field, 18 went to center, and just nine went to right. With the new dimensions in 1959, 115 out of 172 shots went to left field.
Snider hit .312/.371/.505 in 1958, albeit with just 15 homers and drastic splits: .294/.335/.441 with six homers at the Coliseum, .331/.407/.573 with nine homers elsewhere. With more favorable dimensions, he rebounded to 23 homers and a .308/.400/.535 line in 1959, and the Dodgers did as well, shaking off an atypical seventh-place finish to outlast the Giants and Braves in a three-way race which included a sweep of the latter in a best-of-three playoff series.
The Dodgers won the 1959 World Series over the White Sox, but Snider strained his knee and started just three of the six games. The injury lingered and affected his swing, and his career began its downward slide. He played three more seasons with the Dodgers, and while showing he could still hit (.272/.383/.526 combined), he averaged just 249 plate appearances per year. In 1963, he was sold to the Mets, a dreadful expansion team in their second year of existence, but one stocked with former teammates Hodges, Roger Craig and Charlie Neal, and managed by Casey Stengel, himself a Brooklyn alum—though more famously, the skipper of the Bronx teams that had tormented Snider. Amid a 111-loss season, Snider provided some highlights by collecting his 400th homer and 2,000th hit. Wishing for one final season on the west coast, he was sold to the Giants prior to the 1964 season, and played out the string in relatively ignominious fashion, hitting .210 with four homers.
Despite his youthful take-it-or-leave-it view of the game, Snider stayed in baseball after his playing days were done, and even though he'd gotten his acreage in Fallbrook, California, the "Avocado Capital of the World." He spent 1965 through 1967 managing in the Dodgers' minor-league chain, just prior to the great wave of draft choices which would fuel the franchise's return to prominence in the '70s; he would later manage in the Padres' organization as well. He also returned to Montreal, initially pulling double duty as a hitting coach on manager Gene Mauch's staff, and as a color man in the broadcast booth alongside 2010 Frick Award recipient Dave Van Horne. Forced to choose between the two jobs, he chose the microphone and went on to spend 14 seasons with the Expos in the latter capacity.
During that stint, Snider was elected to the Hall of Fame, although it was hardly as automatic as one might have expected for an eight-time All-Star consistently mentioned in the same breath as Mays and Mantle. In fact, his was an arduous, Blyleven-esque climb to Cooperstown. Snider hit the ballot in 1970 but received just 17 percent of the vote, the lowest debut percentage of anyone subsequently elected to the Hall since the modern system of annual balloting began in 1966. He didn't top 30 percent until his fifth turn in 1974, didn't cross the 50 percent rubicon until 1977, and finally gaining entry in 1980 after falling 16 votes shy the year before, as Mays was gaining first-ballot entry. Interestingly enough, it wasn't until after Snider's election, during the 1981 players' strike, that Terry Cashman's "Talkin' Baseball" immortalized the triumvirate in song.
While the great debate regarding Willie, Mickey, and the Duke raged during their careers, particularly during the four-year period after Mays returned from the military, BP's advanced metrics put Snider far behind the other two in terms of both career and peak value, and below the JAWS standard for center fielders:
Snider loses ground to both due to the favorable hitting conditions of Ebbets Field, the relative brevity of his career (258 fewer games than Mantle, 849 fewer than Mays, and just 486 total after his age-32 season), and to our system's relatively low opinion of his defense, one that hardly jibes with the descriptions of his grace afield. "He played center field as if he owned it," wrote Murray. "Duke ran up walls, dived in the grass and never even seemed to get his uniform dirty."
Al Stump's epic 1955 SPORT profile describes Snider's wall-climbing catch against the Phillies in 1954, which some hailed as better than Mays' legendary World Series catch. The article features a flattering comparison of Snider to another center field great:
Smaller, lighter off-the-wall operators, like Paul Waner, Mel Ott, Dom DiMaggio, and Clyde Milan have made defensive baseball history, but among the big men there have been few with the catlike qualities of the thickly muscled Duke. "He's an acrobat, the same as Mays," Ralph Kiner says, "but with the difference that he scrambles only when it's necessary. Mays looks like a man in a revolving door. I'd say Duke covers more ground, wastes less motion and is more consistent than anyone since DiMaggio. And in playing the real tough ones, he's very close to Joe."
Other statistical systems view Snider's fielding more favorably. Bill James' Win Shares system grades him as an A- center fielder, part of the basis via which he ranked Snider sixth all-time in the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. Baseball-Reference's version of WAR puts Snider just 2.1 wins below average for his career, after taking a big defensive hit upon moving to the Coliseum.
In any event, Snider has his plaque in Cooperstown, his place in baseball history as the home run king of the 1950s and the Dodger franchise's all-time leader at 389, and his spot in the hearts of millions of fans. As Dodger Thoughts' Jon Weisman put it, "The Duke is iconic, a legacy carved in granite." He'll be missed.