In the 1950s, New York was the Capital of Baseball, and three teams, the New York Yankees, New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers seemed to hold sway over the game and the imaginations of fans (back in the pre-internet/24-hour cable news coverage/overexposed superstar days, when fans' imaginations were an essential part of experiencing the game). Three of the biggest stars of the era were the teams' respective center-fielders, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Edwin "Duke" Snider, who died Sunday at the age of 84.
To the casual fan, Mantle was the game's greatest slugger, Mays, its all-time greatest all-around player, and Snider... well, the name is vaguely familiar but does not really compute.
Too bad, and not only because for the throngs of fans that lived and died by the outrageous fortunes of "Dem Bums," whether scaling the centerfield wall to snuff out home run hopes, knocking a hard but graceful liner over the right field wall, or donning top hat and monocle to ham it up for the camera, Number Four, The Duke of Flatbush, was royalty. During the time when the three of them played concurrently, big, powerful Snider led in home runs and RBI, and though which one was the best centerfielder of the '50s is a debate for the ages, the Duke himself stated at his 1980 Hall of Fame induction that since the three of them were now there, it didn't really matter.
More important to me than his stats, and they were good, is what he represents. He is the last regular position player of Roger Kahn's famed "Boys of Summer" of the Dodgers of the '50s to pass on, joining Carl Erskine, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese. He was one of the last living links to a time when kids dodged cabs and played stickball near open hydrants in the streets of Crown Heights and Bensonhurst and sat on fire escapes or in open bedroom windows to listen to the Dodgers on transistor radios when they weren't sneaking into Ebbets Field to catch a Saturday doubleheader. (Back when working families could afford to go to big-league games and kids actually could sneak into a major league ballpark). A time before Walter O' Malley ripped the heart out of Brooklyn and became a hero to grateful Southern Californians. Before free agency strained the moorings between players and fans, before the designated hitter sheltered American League pitchers from having to stand at the plate and take their cuts, and before unnaturally augmented sluggers looked like linebackers and fouled the record books with asterisks.
That's why baseball fans everywhere are sad at the passing of Duke Snider. So long, Duke. Say hi to my grandparents (die-hard Dodger fans) for me. You'll find them at that great Ebbets Field in the Sky, probably chatting to Campy from behind home plate.