My boyhood hero, Duke Snider

Posted: March 01, 2011

CLEARWATER, Fla. - The Phillies formally signed Mike Schmidt on June 11, 1971. Manager Frank Lucchesi's team was dreadful and general manager John Quinn was doing everything he could think of to put a happy face on the first season in monolithic Veterans Stadium.

That club should have played all night games with the lights turned way down.

The Phils introduced the college kid from Ohio University they had selected on the second round of the draft to the media, then he went out on the new turf and took batting practice and fielded some ground balls at shortstop, his college position.

Schmidt moved with a deceptively indifferent grace that later would give the impression he didn't have the pedal all the way to the metal.

Just like my favorite player of all time.

Just like Duke Snider . . .

Same seemingly effortless, fluid actions in the field. But the baseball would jump out of his hand like a lightning bolt, just as it did when Snider loped under a fly ball, then nailed a runner daring his arm.

The Duke batted left, of course, Schmidt right. But bat on ball produced that different, louder crack that often defines special hitters with superior bat speed.

The hero of my teenage years died Sunday. I was shocked to read that Snider was 84, but should not have been. I am just 8 years younger.

I was 16 on the Sunday afternoon when Phillies centerfielder Richie Ashburn cut down plodding Cal Abrams at the plate with what would have been the winning run. Then Dick Sisler homered in the top of the 10th. God, I hated that White Mouse . . .

I had never told Schmidt about the instant association I made between his laid-back approach to the game and the Southern California cool Duke Snider exuded. Not even during years in Montreal when Snider was radio color man for 2011 Frick Award winner Dave Van Horne.

It was not often you got to hate one team's centerfielder and love your growing-up team's CF star. Then through various turns of fate you wind up having Rich Ashburn as a beloved colleague for 31 years while getting to spend some quality time with Duke Snider in Montreal and Philly. Later, we would see Snider often at Dodger Stadium, where he was a frequent visitor.

Duke was called up to the Dodgers from Montreal when the International League Royals were one of three Triple A affiliates in the mighty Dodgers farm system. After his playing days, manager Gene Mauch hired him in 1974 to work with Expos hitters. After batting practice, Snider began doing a few innings of radio color with Van Horne. After the season, Mauch asked him to choose the field job or the booth. Duke chose the booth and began a 14-year gig with the popular Van Horne.

Snider had a great line during a 2008 interview with the Montreal Gazette.

"I often tell people I took full advantage of having two titles for that one season," he said. "After a win, I'd tell everybody I was the hitting instructor. After a loss, I'd say I'm in broadcasting."

Duke Snider was one of the three major reasons that Rich Ashburn, "The Other Centerfielder" of the 1950s, had to wait so long for the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee to anoint him.

But when Whitey finally made it in 1995, he went in with Schmidt to the roaring acclaim of more than 40,000 Phillies fans on one of Cooperstown's most memorable days.

Terry Cashman's seminal song, "Talkin' Baseball" about that magical baseball decade and the high-water mark of New York baseball featured "Willie, Mickey and The Duke."

I was astounded a second time Sunday by the fact that while Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle were first-ballot shoo-ins when their HOF time had come, Duke Snider, the greatest position player in Dodgers franchise history, needed 11 elections to hit the required 75 percent of the BBWAA vote.

Put part of the blame on owner Walter O'Malley's greed. During the 4 years Dodger Stadium was being built in Chavez Ravine, the man who moved the team from Brooklyn could have played in Wrigley Field, home of the Pacific Coast League Angels and Hollywood Stars. It was the site of the original "Home Run Derby" TV show. It was also the home of the expansion Angels in 1961.

But O'Malley opted for seating capacity rather than a legitimate ballpark. He chose the gargantuan Coliseum, built originally for the 1932 Olympic track and field events, and later football home of Southern Cal and the Los Angeles Rams.

Snider was a pull hitter. It was 441 feet to the right-center power alley. When the Dodgers loaded the vans after the 1957 season, Snider had hit 40 or more homers four straight seasons. He was just 31 in 1958. Battling injuries and unable to hit "Moon Shots" over the towering leftfield screen less than 250 feet away as did lefthanded-hitting Wally Moon, Snider hit just 15 homers that first year in LA.

By the time the Dodgers moved into their spectacular new ballpark, Duke was 35 and hanging on. A year later, he was a part-time outfielder for Casey Stengel and the wretched Mets.

Just as Rich Ashburn, "The Other Centerfielder," had more base hits than any player in the 1950s, Duke Snider had the most home runs in that first postwar decade.

Nobody seemed to notice, particularly in New York. After the Dodgers and Giants landed on the shores of the Pacific, the Apple belonged to Mickey Mantle.

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