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A Noble Legacy

Duke Snider's Power Stretched From Coast to Coast. Nearly 74, He Watches With Pride as His Dodger Home Run Record Is Threatened.

September 18, 2000|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN JOSE — "They knew them all, from Boston to Dubuque.

Especially Willie, Mickey and the Duke."

--Terry Cashman

*

He was an L.A. kid who grew up to become New York royalty, a towering figure with a towering home run swing whose big stick helped turn Brooklyn's bums into bullies, one of three superstars who gave a single city a baseball brilliance that will undoubtedly never be matched.

And then, with graying temples and a bad knee, he limped back to his roots to introduce his hometown to major league baseball.

Edwin Donald Snider, simply known to millions of baseball fans as The Duke, went from Compton High to the Brooklyn Dodgers to the Los Angeles Dodgers to brief stops with the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants before ultimately ending up in Cooperstown.

Snider, who turns 74 on Tuesday, is living the quiet life these days, he and his wife, Beverly, splitting time between homes in Fallbrook near San Diego and Ft. Bragg in Northern California. There is time for the Sniders' four children and eight grandchildren, time for Duke to unleash a variation of that trademark swing on the golf course and time to keep his name alive at occasional memorabilia shows.

These days, someone else also is keeping Snider's name alive by his attempt to surpass that name in the Dodger record book.

Outfielder Gary Sheffield is trying to accomplish a feat that has eluded all the Dodger sluggers of the last half-century, from Frank Howard to Ron Cey to Mike Piazza.

Sheffield is two short of Snider's 1956 total of 43 home runs, still the franchise single-season record despite the soaring baseballs, biceps-bulging batters and watered-down pitching of recent years.

"More power to him," Snider said with a shrug and a genial smile while sitting recently on a couch in his daughter Downa's San Jose home. "It's just a number. I just told him to hurry up and break it so I only have to make one trip up to Dodger Stadium for the occasion."

While he professes not to care that much about losing a spot in Dodger history, Snider's pride shows through as he mentions one vestige of his celebrated past that Sheffield won't be able to lay a stick on.

Said Snider: "Johnny Podres [the former Brooklyn and Los Angeles left-hander] told me, 'There's one thing Sheffield can't take away from you . . . the Brooklyn Dodger home run record.' "

The Brooklyn Years

Imagine one city with three major-league baseball teams.

That seems inconceivable today with baseball spread across the nation.

Now imagine each of those three teams with a future Hall of Famer in center field.

That's even less believable.

But that's the way it was in New York in the 1950s. In the Bronx, the New York Yankees had a baseball legend in the making in Mickey Mantle. In Manhattan, center field was patrolled by Willie Mays, considered by some to be the greatest all-around player ever.

And in Brooklyn, there was the Duke of Flatbush, who could not only match his more celebrated rivals swing for swing, but actually exceeded their numbers in those golden years. From 1954-57, the only time Mays, Mantle and Snider all played full seasons in New York, Snider led the other two in home runs and RBIs.

Beginning in 1953, Snider had five consecutive seasons of 40 or more home runs. His 11 home runs and 26 RBIs in World Series play remain the most by a National Leaguer. He is the only man to twice hit four home runs in a World Series. His 389 homers and 1,271 RBIs as a Dodger remain franchise career records. In all, over 18 seasons, Snider hit .295--with a career best of .341 in 1954--and had 407 home runs and 1,333 RBIs.

In addition, Snider could be just as spectacular with his glove as with his bat.

He still cherishes the memory of a catch he made off the bat of the Phillies' Willie Jones in 1950 in Philadelphia in the midst of a tight pennant race, a catch that saved the second game of a doubleheader for the Dodgers, coming late in the game with the potential tying and winning runs on base.

Those who saw it, including former teammate Tom Lasorda, call it one of the greatest catches ever.

Their word is all future historians will have to go by since, in that era when television was in its formative stage, many games were broadcast only on radio, and that game was one of them.

"I would love to just have a picture of the catch," Snider said.

Too bad he can't look into the mind of Lasorda, for whom the moment remains as vivid as any photo.

"It seemed to me like he planted his spikes in that outfield wall," Lasorda said, "and just took three steps up the side of the wall to get that ball."

It wasn't all highlight films for Snider. When he first came up to the big leagues, he was an undisciplined hitter who was known to swing at anything within reach--or beyond.

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