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Duke of Flatbush Returns Home

Baseball: Snider goes back to Brooklyn, where he ruled center field for the Dodgers.

July 25, 2002|JOE GERGEN | NEWSDAY

Standing in a ballpark he hadn't seen until Wednesday, wearing the jersey of a team that didn't exist before last summer, Edwin Donald Snider said it was nice to be back home. Although the site was KeySpan Park, not Ebbets Field, and the inscription on the uniform shirt said Cyclones, not Dodgers, the presence of the erstwhile Duke of Flatbush on a Brooklyn diamond was cause for the man and the borough's older baseball fans to smile. Forty-five years is a long time to frown.

When Walter O'Malley moved the Dodgers to California after the 1957 season, it should have represented a homecoming for the great center fielder who was born and raised in the Los Angeles area. But the new ballpark--the ill-shaped Coliseum--had godawful dimensions for a left-handed power hitter, his knees hurt and relationships he had developed during his first 11 years in the major leagues were permanently ruptured. The franchise flourished financially and he even earned a championship ring in the 1959 World Series, but the player and his feelings for the sport were never the same.

"Baseball-wise, I was born in Brooklyn," he said. "Brooklyn was my baseball home." He recalled the house he rented on Marine Avenue in Bay Ridge. The Duke and his wife cruised around the old neighborhood in February while they were in New York for the opening of the Hall of Fame's traveling show at the Museum of Natural History. But they didn't venture anywhere near the location of Ebbets Field.

"I had a picture taken of me jumping up against a wall [at the Ebbets Field Apartments] in my sports coat many years ago while I was broadcasting for the Montreal Expos," Snider recalled. "I won't go back."

But the thought of a professional team reviving the great Brooklyn baseball tradition intrigued him. And so he found himself Wednesday on Surf Avenue in Coney Island accepting a Cyclones' jersey from Jeff Wilpon in the Brooklyn Baseball Gallery and throwing out the first ball before the Mets' Class-A affiliate played the Staten Island Yankees.

Featuring memorabilia collected by the Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Fame during the last 25 years and a timeline created by the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Gallery showcases uniforms and pictures associated with the Dodgers and their NL rivals.

Among the items showcased was the road jersey worn by Johnny Podres when he shut out the Yankees in Game 7 of the 1955 World Series.

Happily, Podres was standing nearby to offer an explanation of why the uniform top looked so short. "I took that shirt home [to upstate New York] after the World Series," he said, "and gave it to my brothers. They were only this high at the time. It went down to their knees. So they cut it in half."

Like Snider, Al Gionfriddo came all the way from California. He did not come empty-handed. He brought the spikes he wore in the 1947 World Series when he pinch-ran for Carl Furillo, who drew a walk after Bill Bevens of the Yankees retired 26 batters without yielding a hit.

Gionfriddo stole second base, Bevens walked Pete Reiser and Cookie Lavagetto doubled off the right-field wall at Ebbets Field, turning a potentially historic occasion into a stunning Dodgers' victory.

Of course, the 5-foot-6 1/2 Gionfriddo was more renowned for his glove, the one with which he made the famous grab of a Joe DiMaggio drive in front of the left-centerfield bullpen at Yankee Stadium in the same series.

The man proudly confided that when the two appeared at a banquet in Albany that winter, DiMaggio told the audience, "Look at this man. Do any of you think at his size he should be in the big leagues? He had to give 110% to get there."

Ralph Branca and Gene Hermanski also came to honor Snider, who had a forgettable turn with New York's expansion club in 1963.

"I would have liked to have a say when the Dodgers sold me to the Mets," he said.

"The Mets lost 120 games the year before. I helped them a lot. We only lost 111. It was hard to get used to that. And my knee was so bad I couldn't move. But I had four kids in school and I couldn't retire."

At 75, the Duke spends much of his time now watching his eight grandchildren, one of whom--Jordan Michael Snider--batted .500 as a high school freshman last year. After he had bypass surgery in 1987, the doctor told him he had 10 good years left. "When the time was up," he noted, "I called him to renegotiate. I said I'd like another 10."

He's making the most of it, which was cause for a celebration in Brooklyn.

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