Brooklyn Boro

Happy Birthday, Duke

September 13, 2021 William A. Gralnick
Head shot of writer William Gralnick
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HAYYYYYYY DUKIE BAAABE! HAYYYYYY DUKIE BAAABE!  That would be me when the Duke of Flatbush, Duke Snider, bearing number four on his back, would step to the plate. A great catch or throw would merit this as he ran into the dugout. WAYTAGO DUKE! WAYTAGO KID! (I was ten or thereabouts). The 28th of this month would mark Snider’s 100th birthday. The date gave me the chance to recount the wonderful memories he left me with.

First, let’s deal with the endless argument among New York’s baseball fans. Who was the best center fielder? Mays? Mantle? Snider? This is almost like figuring out how many angles can dance on the head of a pin. The three were great. Each was better at one part of the job than the other. Yet each was capable of “blow your mind” plays in the field, though “The Say Hey Kid’s” over-the-shoulder catch is the one that is immortalized. And of course, “The Mick” had physical issues and become somewhat of a dissolute under the influence of Billy Martin. ‘had to impact his playing over the long-term. Duke was the favorite of the blue-collar crowd. He came to work, did his job, and wasn’t much into who’s better than whom. Brooklyn loved the Duke. And so did I.

It wasn’t until recently that I discovered that Snider’s talents were awesome and worthy of the hero-worship I gave him. He was a gifted athlete by his pre-teens. By high school his talents really blossomed to the point where his high school coach wrote to Branch Rickey touting Snider as one of the most gifted ball players he’d ever coached. The Dodgers began to scout him. Here’s a peek at their prospect.

Snider was a star by middle school. He was a premier softball pitcher who led his team to the top in the state. Then he took up baseball. He was fleet-a-foot, baseball smart, could catch anything that came his way, and swung with abandon. If he hit it, it went a long way. By the time he was in high school he was a state-wide phenom prompting his coach to write to Branch Rickey of his 16-year-old star. “I’ve been coaching baseball for 10 years and seen a lot of kids play ball. Duke Snider is the best of the best. You should look him over.” And the scouts came. By age 17, he was on track to the major leagues landing at the Montreal Royals of the International Leagues in April of ’44.. Shortly he was on his way to the Newport News Dodgers in the Piedmont League and at barely 18 was hitting 342 until he got plunked on the elbow by a pitch.

Next came the Navy. Some guys were pool sharks, some poker players but Snider did it his way. When his submarine tender would dock, sailors would bet on how far he could throw the ball. He’d get a cut of the pot, throwing the ball 300 feet the length of the bettors’ submarine. That means by 18 he could throw a ball from most major league outfields, on a fly, to home plate, something he did often in his professional career. Nineteen months of service later Snider was back in a baseball uniform with the St. Worth Cats of the Texas League. He caught Branch Rickey’s attention when he hit a 439 ft. home run over the clock with what became known as his classic upper cut swing and high, arcing shots. 1948 saw him become a full-fledged Brooklyn Dodger, after a few downs and backups in the minors. Back again in Montreal he hit 327 with 17 dingers. Mid-season he was in Brooklyn. His 53 games produced a .244 average. Next season he upped that to .292 with 23 long balls and then 31 in 1950 with 105 RBI’s.

And what was his final scorecard? Eighteen years, 12 with the Bums. .295 was his life-time average. He hit407 home runs, batted in over 1,300 runs and played in over 2,000 games. He was an 8-time All-Star. That meant the sports writers and his fellow ball-players thought a heck of a lot about him and his abilities. He helped lead the Dodgers to six World Series and two world championships.

Thanks to Wikipedia for the stats but more thanks to the Duke about whom there is only one anti-climatic answer to an oft-asked question. “Why Duke?” The answer? His dad liked the way it sounded and pinned the moniker on him when he was 8 and it stuck, so thanks to Dad. Like so many of his “playmates,” The Duke of Flatbush was part of what made my Brooklyn Brooklyn to and for me.

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