Along with Willie Mays of the Giants and Mickey Mantle of the Yankees, the Dodgers’ Snider was one of a trio of Hall of Fame centerfielders about whom fans debated one of the most frequently asked baseball questions of the 1950s: “Who’s the best centerfielder in New York?” Snider debuted in Brooklyn with Jackie Robinson in 1947, but it wasn’t until 1949, after Branch Rickey hired George Sisler to help Snider “establish an acquaintance with the strike zone,” that Snider showed the form that would make him the leading home run hitter of the 1950s, with 326. In the four years (1954-1957) that Mays, Mantle, and Snider starred simultaneously in New York in full-time capacities, it was Snider who led the three in homers and RBI. His power stroke was well suited to the bandbox structure of Ebbets Field, and the drives he hit that didn’t leave the ballpark regularly pounded the stadium’s high right-field wall for extra bases. From 1947 to 1961, Snider teamed with Gil Hodges to hit 745 homers, the third-highest total for a duo in National League history, and the fourth-highest total in the majors.
In 1955 TSN named Snider Major League Player of the Year in recognition of the completeness of his game. At one time or another, Snider finished among the top three in the National League in batting average, slugging average, hits, runs, RBI, doubles, triples, home runs, total bases, and stolen bases. He was also speedy and graceful as an outfielder. Stan Musial named Snider, Carl Furillo, and Andy Pafko “the best-throwing outfield I ever saw.” He also named Snider, Mays, and Aaron his all-time NL outfield.
Although Snider did not hit lefthanders well, he was protected from facing them often by the Dodgers’ lineup, which was heavily weighted with righthanded hitters Reese, Robinson, Hodges, Campanella, and Furillo. With those five Boys of Summer, Snider participated in five World Series from 1949 to 1956. He made his sixth and final Series appearance in 1959, en route to posting National League World Series home run and RBI records of 11 and 26. He hit four homers in each of the 1952 and 1955 Series, and is the only man to accomplish that feat twice.
Snider was not the darling of the press during his career. Over 50 newspaper articles castigated him following the publication of a 1956 Collier’s article in which he told Roger Kahn that he wouldn ‘t be playing baseball if it weren’t for the money. Nevertheless, he was a favorite of Brooklyn fans, who rued his departure and that of the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958. From 1958 through 1961, the Dodgers played their home games in the Los Angeles Coliseum, a football stadium converted to house the Dodgers. A vast right field compensated for a short left-field line and combined with injuries to end Snider’s days as a dominant home run hitter. Snider was named team captain in 1962, his last season as a Dodger. He collected the first hit in Dodger Stadium, which opened that year.
The Mets acquired Snider for sentimental reasons in 1963, and he finished his career, ironically, with the Giants in 1964. After he retired, the Dodgers retired his uniform number 4, ending the use of the number by New York’s original teams; Lou Gehrig and Mel Ott had already had their uniforms retired by the Yankees and Giants. Snider scouted for the Dodgers and Padres and managed in the minor leagues before becoming an announcer for the Montreal Expos. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1980.
Snider is the subject of The Occurrences of Duke Snider, one of the strangest books ever written about a baseball player. This small, surrealistic cartoon book by Lee Dejasu features a fantasy Duke Snider who meets up with characters as diverse as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Pallas Athene. Snider’s own autobiography became a best-seller in 1988. (TG/CR)