If you had to be a ballplayer, the ballplayer you'd want to be is Duke Snider.
Probably, no more graceful player ever stepped into a batter's box. No one swung at a ball with the purity of form of Duke Snider. What Sam Snead was to golf, he was to baseball. They used to stop what they were doing on the field to watch Duke Snider take batting practice.
The swing was level and graceful and pretty. If you put it to music, it would be Beethoven. If you painted it, it would hang in the Louvre. If Baryshnikov were a baseball player, this is what he would look like.
The Duke was never off balance, out of sync. This is the way you would teach kids to swing. The Duke not only looked good striking out, he looked good popping up.
He was just as good in the outfield. He played center field as if he owned it. Duke ran up walls, dived in the grass and never even seemed to get his uniform dirty. He was so good, he played the position in New York at the same time as Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle and some people weren't sure who was best.
He probably should have been a New York Yankee, because he was the nearest thing to Joe DiMaggio in style and grace. Except that Joe used to play the game with this glacial ease and detachment. Duke was more temperamental. Duke was right where he belonged--Ebbets Field. Duke was a California beach boy--but he had a lot of Brooklyn in him.
Ebbets Field was baseball's Disneyland in those days, a riot of brass bands and brassier customers, noisy, contumelious. They loved Duke Snider there because he was this great, gifted ballplayer who seemed to chafe under the constraints of "normal" behavior the same as they did.
Duke once took to the public prints in a moment of pique to denounce the fans of Brooklyn as undeserving of the Dodgers. There was a time when this would have been true. Nobody deserved the Dodgers of the 1930s, who were a happy-go-lucky bunch of foul-ups whose specialty seemed to be passing each other on the basepaths.
The fans of Brooklyn forgave the Duke. They liked their ballplayers cantankerous and unpredictable. They left seriousness of purpose to the Yankees. "Bed-f-u-u-d Avenya, Duke!" they screamed when Snider came to bat, and that was his signal to park one over the 40-foot high right-field screen and out onto the street that ran behind it.
The Duke often obliged. Five years in a row, he hit 40 or more homers. When he didn't hit it over that fence, he hit it onto it. He hit .321, .303, .336, .341 and .309 in his good years, drove in more than 100 runs 6 times and led the league three consecutive years in runs scored.
He was so good, people were always wondering why he wasn't better. Branch Rickey, the best judge of baseball talent who ever lived, drooled when he saw the young Snider.
A dedicated gimmickry artist, Rickey put Snider to work with an umpire, pitcher and catcher, under instructions not to swing at the ball but to learn the strike zone. Snider merely ended up arguing with the umpire. Then, he went back to his old free-swinging self.
Said Duke of the ump: "That might be his idea of a strike--but he doesn't have to hit it!"
The Duke once explained his intransigence by saying that he was an only child, so what did you expect? That made perfect sense to Brooklyn. The Duke went back to pouting if he felt like it.
He has told his colorful story in a new book, "The Duke of Flatbush" (Zebra Books), out in the book stalls this week. It is a valentine to the Dodgers of another time, another place, another world we'll never see again.
It is a matter of some astonishment to Duke at how well they still remember him adoringly in that part of the world. "I have a book-signing and there are lines clear around the building," he marvels.
"People come up to you and say, 'I can remember it as if it were yesterday. You were in center field and Whitey Lockman hit this long, high drive and you caught it behind your back.' It's been 30 years and they talk of it as if it were yesterday."
In Brooklyn, they can never forget "the Dook." But, one of the ironies of baseball history is that, when the Dodgers moved back to what was Duke's home area--he grew up in Compton--they didn't do their star slugger any favors. Bedford Avenue was no longer a nice, friendly 340 feet away. "Bedford Avenue" was out in the upper reaches of the Coliseum, half a county away.
"You had to hit it through two ZIP codes," Snider recalls. "It was 440, 420, 460 out there--an awful lot of 4s.
"But, by then, I'd had three knee injuries and surgeries." The once- gorgeous swing looked less like a Rembrandt and more like a comic strip.
"The team changed its character when it came to L.A., all right," the Duke was recalling as he sat at breakfast the other morning. "But, you know they talk of great baseball teams and they talk of the 1927 Yankees and the Gashouse Gang and all, but the team we had in Brooklyn in the '50s was as good a baseball team as ever assembled.
"I mean, we lost some close Series to the Yankees, but who talks about those Yankees? People still talk about the Dodgers. Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo, Pee Wee Reese and Junior Gilliam. And we had Preacher Roe and Don Newcombe and Carl Erskine and Joe Black and Clem Labine on the mound. We were America's team!"
It was baseball royalty. And in center field, they had the archduke.