With Duke Snider's passing this weekend, there's been a lot of discussion of the three great New York centerfielders of the 1950s – the famous "Willie, Mickey, and the Duke" trio. And with good cause: Snider was a great player who, for better or worse, will always be tied to those two all-time greats. The fact that he wasn't the equal of Mays or Mantle is no blemish on his fine career.
There is at least one other metric that we can use to compare the three centerfielders that I think many have neglected. We'll call it the "Charlie Brown Coefficient."
As you recall, the Peanuts comic strip was published daily from October 1950 until February 2000. In that time, nearly 18,000 strips were drawn, with a full 10% featuring baseball in some way. The height of the strip – and of its baseball fandom – came in the 1960s, though the late-1950s and early-1970s saw their fair share of top-notch strips. That also happened to be the era of Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. How often, then, were each of the three centerfielders mentioned by Charlie Brown and friends?
Duke Snider appears in the strip only twice. His first mention came on July 2, 1955, when he was at the top of his game and when Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle were just coming into their own. Charlie Brown is sitting at the piano with Schroeder, who seems to be torn about his favorite composer: sometimes it's Beethoven, sometimes it's Brahms. Charlie Brown turns to him: "I know EXACTLYwhat you mean, Schroeder. I feel the same about Willie Mays and Duke Snider!" (See the strip.)
Fitting that the first Snider mention would come through an explicit reference to the rivalry between the centerfielders. Snider's name is only mentioned in passing the second time, as Charlie Brown tries to trade his entire baseball card collection to Lucy for a single Joe Shlabotnik card. (See the strip.)
Charlie Brown also offers Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle cards for the Joe Shlatbotnik in that August 1963 strip. There are three more strips that have both Mantle and Mays mentioned. The best is probably from October 1966, when Charlie Brown explains how he remembers his locker combination. The combination is 3-24-7… you can probably figure the rest out. (See the strip.)
There is only one strip where Mantle is mentioned alone. On July 7, 1964, Linus reads about Mickey Mantle's tape measure home runs in the newspaper and asks Charlie Brown if they might need a tape measure themselves. "Our hits can be measured quite adequately with an eighteen-inch ruler!" (See the strip.)
As you may have guessed, Willie Mays wins the "Charlie Brown Coefficient" quite handily. Not only was Mays the best of the three centerfielders (and with the longest career), but Mays also happened to play for the San Francisco Giants. With Charles Schulz writing from northern California, the Giants came to be Charlie Brown's unofficial favorite team (just see this strip where Charlie Brown laments the end of the 1962 World Series).
All-in-all, Mays was featured in four strips alone. I suppose it sounds like a small number (I admit I was expecting a bigger total), but, considering just how rare it was for the Peanuts gang to go outside their own world, it shouldn't be too big of a surprise.
The best Mays strip, though, may quite possibly be my single favorite Peanuts strip from it's entire fifty-year run. In 1966, Charlie Brown is competing in a spelling bee and doing better than he imagined. As he stands at the front of the class, he is given his word to spell: MAZE. "Yes, ma'am, that's an easy one… M-A-Y-S…. aaugh!" (See the strip.)
I am about 30 years too young to have witnessed "Willie, Mickey, and the Duke" at their height. I feel grateful, then, that I am able to get even a little taste of that through old Peanuts comic strips. And, now, as we celebrate Duke Snider's life, I hope I was able to help anyone else in the same boat feel it as well.