Duke Snider, mighty Brooklyn Dodgers home-run hitter, dies at 84

By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2011; 11:51 PM

Duke Snider, 84, a prolific home-run hitter with the Brooklyn Dodgers who earned a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame and was part of a famed triumverate of New York center fielders in the 1950s, died Feb. 27 at a hospital in Escondido, Calif. No cause of death was reported.

Mr. Snider played 18 seasons in the major leagues before retiring in 1964 with a career total of 407 home runs and a lifetime batting average of .295. His 389 home runs as a Dodger stand as a team record.

Before the franchise moved to Los Angeles in 1958, Mr. Snider spent 11 years with the Dodgers in Brooklyn, where he earned the nickname "the Duke of Flatbush" after a local neighborhood.

With the Dodgers, he won six National League pennants and is the only player in history to hit four home runs in two separate World Series, in 1952 and 1955. In the latter, he helped Brooklyn win its only world championship.

Depending upon which New Yorker you asked, and from what borough the fan hailed, Mr. Snider was the answer to one of the most contentious baseball debates of the postwar era: Willie, Mickey or the Duke?

Mr. Snider of the Dodgers, Mickey Mantle of the Yankees and Willie Mays of the Giants became legends as center fielders, and all three were later elected to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Although Mr. Snider is generally ranked third behind Mays and Mantle, he was the only player among them to hit 40 or more home runs in five consecutive seasons.

Mr. Snider made his first major league start in 1947, but his debut at Ebbets Field produced little fanfare - it was the same week that his teammate Jackie Robinson broke the major-league color barrier.

By the peak of Mr. Snider's career, he and Robinson would become the top-paid players on the Dodgers' roster, earning more than $40,000 a year in the 1950s.

Roger Kahn, who wrote "The Boys of Summer," the best-selling book about the Dodgers team that included Mr. Snider, Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and Gil Hodges, said in an interview that Mr. Snider's skill as a batter was honed by Branch Rickey, Brooklyn's general manager.

"When Branch Rickey first saw Duke he said, 'This young man has steel springs for legs but he hasn't the vaguest idea for the strike zone,'" Kahn said.

To train Mr. Snider's eye, Rickey had the left-handed batter stand at home plate calling balls and strikes.

Mr. Snider became a regular starter in 1949 and began to show promise the next year when he hit 31 home runs and had a batting average of .321.

Playing at Ebbets Field, Mr. Snider had an advantage as a left-handed hitter, with the right-field foul pole a mere 297 feet from home plate.

His prowess for hitting drives out of the stadium became so notable that spectators in the upper decks would yell "The Duke's up!" to fans gathered below on Bedford Avenue whenever Mr. Snider came up to bat.

When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, the team played in the Coliseum, where the right-field foul pole was 390 feet away. As a result, Mr. Snider's home run totals suffered. In 1963 and 1964, he played one season each with the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants before retiring because of a bad knee.

Edwin Donald Snider was born in Los Angeles on Sept. 19, 1926. He earned his nickname from his father, who upon seeing the boy at age 5 walking with a magisterial air, said, "Here comes the duke."

During World War II, Mr. Snider served aboard a submarine tender in the Navy. He later told Kahn he made money on the side by betting his fellow sailors he could throw a baseball the length of the submarine. He always won.

Although Mr. Snider's spectacular play made him a fan favorite in Brooklyn, his occasionally petulant attitude diminished his reputation.

He was known to throw bats and talk back to managers. He enraged many of the team's most loyal patrons when he declared to sports reporters that "the Brooklyn fans are the worst in the league."

As Kahn recalled in an interview, he was in a Milwaukee bar when Mr. Snider abruptly told him: "You know, if it wasn't for the money, I'd be just as happy if I never played another game of baseball again."

"Didn't you dream about this as a kid?" Kahn asked. "Imagine this. It's the World Series and you're playing the Yankees. The stadium is packed. What's your dream now?"

"I want to grow avocados," Mr. Snider said.

"And that's what he did," Kahn said, noting that for many years Mr. Snider had an avocado farm in Fallbrook, Calif. "But one year there was a drought, and he had to get out of the business."

In retirement, Mr. Snider worked as a scout and minor manager for the Dodgers and San Diego Padres and was a longtime announcer for the Montreal Expos. Survivors include his wife, the former Beverly Null; four children; and 10 grandchildren.

In 1995, Mr. Snider pleaded guilty to tax fraud charges for failing to report income made in memorabilia shows from 1984 to 1993. In addition to repaying the IRS $30,000 in back taxes, he was sentenced to two years' probation and fined $5,000.

"We have choices to make in our lives," Mr. Snider said. "I made the wrong choice."

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