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Monday, February 28, 2011

Always Duke

   


       By Ross Newhan

       He returned to Southern California in his prime. The Compton boy, the center fielder who came to be known as one of the Boys of Summer, was 31, but fans who would welcome the Dodgers to Los Angeles in record numbers, would never see the real Duke Snider, the Duke of Flatbush.
     
       Part of it was the distored distances at the Coliseum, where the Dodgers played their first four seasons in Los Angeles, and part of it was a knee surgery prior to Snider's first season in Los Angeles.

       Still, even now and forever more, Snider, who passed away Sunday at 84, will be remembered at the heart of those storied Brooklyn teams, a mainstay in Dodger and baseballl history--always insightful and honest in our innumberable conversations over a period of almost 50 years.

       The last time we talked was two years ago in connection with the Dodgers' 50th anniversary of their move from Brooklyn, where Snider had hit 40 or more homers in each of his last five seasons.

       Between 1958 and 1961, however, before the opening of Dodger Stadium in 1962, Snider hit 15, 23, 14 and 16 homers, of which only 38 were hit at the Coliseum, where the center field fence might as well have been in Pacoima, and right field was little better.

       Snider recalled taking batting practice prior to the opening game against the San Francisco Giants, and Willie Mays, in reference to the distant dimensions, saying to him, "Duke, they killed you."

        By phone from his Fallbrook home, Snider said, "baseball deserves its own identity. It shouldn't ever be piecemealed into a football and track stadium, which is what the Coliseum (was). It was great for drawing those big crowds, but that wasn't good baseball or real baseball people were watching because it wasn't a real baseball field."

       The Dodgers, of course, had little alternative other than 20,000 seat Wrigley Field at 42nd Place and Avalon Boulevard, which in 1961 became the one season home of the expansion Los Angeles Angels of the American League.

       At the Coliseum, the Dodgers broke all of baseball's attendance records, and Snider, during that last conversation, said he harbored no bitterness at the fact that his 404 career homers might have been 450 or more had the Dodgers played on a legitimate baseball field with legitimate dimensions during those first four seasons in Los Angeles.

        Knee surgery in December 1957, before the first game at the Coliseum, was the principal reason his production fell, he said.

        "That was before arthroscopic surgery and the knee was never the same. I was never the same hitter.

        "I had to change my whole style. I had to try to be more of a contact hitter, a tough adjustment when you've been a free swinger your whole career." 

         The Dodgers were in transition in more ways than one when they came to Los Angeles.

        Roy Campanella was in a wheelchair, and Pee Wee Reese, Carl Furillo and Carl Erskine were all within a year or two of retirement. The Boys of Summer were past their peak or unable to regain it, and new faces and maturing faces dotted the roster in '59 when the Dodgers became the first team to go from seventh place one season to a World Series title the next.

        Snider kept swinging on his one good leg.

       He wasn't the same hitter who had helped inspire the memorable song "Willie, Mickey and the Duke" during the halycon days of those three great center fielders in New York, but he will always be the Duke of Flatbush in Dodger lore, Compton's Edwin Donald Snider who became royalty in name and Hall of Fame performance, and it sadness me to think I will be drawing a line through his phone number, no longer seeing him at Dodger and baseball functions--always Duke..             

             

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