From Compton to Cooperstown
As Marvin Gaye sang, “Whenever blue teardrops are falling…”
Well, the teardrops fell from my blue eyes several times over the past few days, upon the news last Sunday of the passing of the immortal Duke Snider. Edwin Donald Snider of Fallbrook, California–commonly known as “The Duke”–had a special place in my own heart, going back to when I was a teenager…and he meant so much to Dodger fans from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, and to anyone who appreciates the game of baseball and its legends.
I wrote about Duke in this space last September on the occasion of his 84th birthday, not knowing it would be the last he’d celebrate.
And today, I celebrated the life and legacy of the great center fielder who wore #4, joining others in his rural community in remembering his life and legacy.
Long before Don Henley sang about them, of course, Roger Kahn wrote about them–The Boys of Summer. The title of his book was taken from a Dylan Thomas poem, but Kahn’s paean to a bygone era of baseball lulled me into falling in love. Over the course of reading it at age 15, I developed a passion for this team, these men who became iconic. Most of them were still alive when the book was written in 1972. (Gil Hodges and Jackie Robinson would die that same year.) Duke appealed to me in particular, because he lived nearby and there were local connections.
My father had bought a copy of the book, which I still cherish to this day. Although I was more of a casual baseball fan back in the early to mid-1970s, over the next couple of years I became a passionate, true blue, diehard, eager to learn more about the rich history of the game, and my favorite team–the Dodgers. Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, an icon himself, helped in that regard. So did my late dad, who’d taken me to my first baseball games and taught me the basics–how to follow the game, keep score, etc.
Of course, 40 years or so ago, we didn’t know how much the structure of baseball would change in years soon to come. Free agency began to tear at the heart of teams that had been built from within, such as the Dodgers and Reds of the ’70s were.
The first time I met Duke Snider was very briefly, outside of San Diego Stadium in 1970. I was 10. My friend and I were waiting after a Padres game to see if we could catch a glimpse of slugger Nate Colbert. Instead out came Duke, who at the time was a color commentator for the second-year expansion team in San Diego, and a couple of other men. Duke Snider was just another name to me at the time, a former player, someone important. But I didn’t know much about his feats. And he wasn’t who we were waiting for.
But within a few years, he’d become an important part of Dodger lore for me. I regretted having been born to late to see him play. Still, I would have more opportunities to be in the same place as he was over the course of the next 40 years, a short list of which follows. And how blessed do I feel now because of that?
-There was the sentimental journey taken in 1980 when Duke’s No. 4 was retired at Dodger Stadium upon his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
-There was the reunion in 2005 of the surviving members of the hallowed Brooklyn team on the golden anniversary of the Dodgers’ first world championship. By that time, Duke was the last living player from the starting lineup of “Dem Bums”. With me at Dodger Stadium that glorious afternoon was an older friend who had grown up idolizing Duke in Brooklyn, who now lives in San Diego. Also present was a friend from Delaware who had flown to Los Angeles specifically to attend this game. What a ceremony, and what a celebration!
-Earlier that spring, there had been the San Diego Hall of Champions event in which he appeared with, among others, former Dodgers GM, the late Buzzie Bavasi, before a packed house of baseball fans, many of them graying, transplanted Brooklynites–telling stories and sharing anecdotes with an adoring audience, of that golden era of baseball. What great memories they shared!–everything about baseball from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. Joining them at the Sports at Lunch event was former Yankee/current Padres broadcaster Jerry Coleman. Another San Diegan who was unable to attend that day was still a hot topic, with his career highlight–no small feat–discussed, anyway: Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Snider and Coleman were both on the field that day and shared their recollections of it. I also enjoyed hearing Duke’s memories of playing in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the team’s home for four years upon their arrival in L.A. in 1958. After the event was over, I had Duke sign my Dodgers 2005 yearbook celebrating the 50th anniversary of the ’55 team, then simply shook his hand and said, “Thank you, sir; it is an honor.” He smiled back, a smile that made the day of everyone in attendance. (That autograph of his, by the way, was one of the most beautiful in all of sports–it looked positively eloquent.)
-There was the “Field of Dreams” opening day pre-game ceremony in 2008, the 50th anniversary of the Dodgers’ arrival in L.A., in which Duke stood in centerfield of Dodger Stadium, with everyone in the house on their feet cheering wildly.
-And there was the famed “Return to the Coliseum” exhibition game, just a couple of weeks earlier at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Dodgers’ first home in Los Angeles. It was clear at the time that Duke had slowed down a lot, but I still remember him signing autographs at the cavernous stadium before the game, even though it was never his favorite place to play given its unfriendly dimensions toward left-handed hitters. Friends and I wondered then how much longer he would still be with us.
-And I’m not likely to forget being in attendance for Induction weekend at the Hall of Fame the previous summer, when in 2007 crowds setting record attendance descended on Cooperstown to see Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn, another San Diegan, honored. Seeing Duke in the elite company of so many others of his era was a thrill beyond just his Dodger moments.
Over the years, friends purchased and had autographed for me two of Duke’s books. Most recently, “Few and Chosen - Defining Dodger Greatness Across the Eras”, was one Duke signed at Dodger Stadium, thanks to my friend Emma. In the late 1980s, an old (ex)-boyfriend of mine from that era–a diehard Mets fan–gave me a copy of “The Duke of Flatbush.” I cherish these as well as every other bit of memorabillia I have that reminds me of this wonderful player.
Duke was a Brooklyn Dodger, and one of the original Los Angeles Dodgers, having come full circle from his hometown. He was proud to play in Brooklyn, thrilled to be a part of a legendary group of men playing at a classic ballpark remembered by many as the greatest ever; yet he was happy to come home to the City of Angels, even as his career was waning with his best days behind him. He was a treasure to baseball, and fans in both cities adored him, as did baseball fans around the country. Duke was not only a “transitional” Dodger, but he played for a world championship team in both cities–and in both cases, the first for the city (1955, 1959). He was the last surviving member of the starting lineup for the Dodgers that won the team’s only title in ’55.
As time went on, I still remember the rest of those boys, slowly leaving us–”Campy”, Roy Campanella; “Pee Wee” Reese; and “The Skoonj”, Carl Furillo. By 1999, Duke was the last one of the position players who was left standing. In recent years, the passing of pitcher Johnny Podres was yet another blow to fans.
So, all these thoughts were swirling in my head when I heard the news last Sunday. And I thought it was very fitting that I was present in Compton, California–yes, the Duke was “straight outta Compton”–on the very site where Snider had played in his youth, the same weekend that he died 70 miles south in Escondido.
Some great college baseball was being played. The annual Urban Youth Academy Baseball Tournament took place from Friday through Sunday, alternating between periods of rain and sunshine, and the academy, located at Compton Community College in Duke Snider’s hometown, is on the very same ground that “The Duke” would prove himself to his community, before becoming one of baseball’s most feared hitters.
Snider’s debut in the major leagues in April, 1947 was overshadowed by the arrival of one Jack Roosevelt Robinson, but the two became integral pieces of a decade of the Dodgers establishing themselves as baseball’s beloved underdogs–losing to the Yankees in the World Series numerous times before finally defeating them in 1955. Duke found it ironic that he broke in with the Dodgers at the same time as Robinson, a multi-sport athlete he’d admired in his youth back home, at Pasadena City College, and then as a UCLA Bruin–yet now they were teammates 3000 miles away from the sandlots of their younger days.
He was beloved beyond comparison in Brooklyn, and this past week many accounts have been written of his wonderful career there, where his Hall of Fame credentials sparkled. In fact, one of his ten grandchildren is named with a variation on the borough–”Brooklynn.”
A few facts about Duke’s greatness are as follows:
-His 11 World Series home runs and 26 RBI are the most ever by a National League player.
-He knew how to celebrate his birthday with fanfare: on two separate occasions in his career, he homered twice on September 19 (1950 and 1953).
-To this day, he remains the Dodgers’ all-time home run leader.
He contributed some historic firsts and lasts to Dodgers history:
-On Sept. 22, 1957, he hit the last home run at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, the second of two off Hall of Famer Robin Roberts Philadelphia Phillies
-At the Coliseum on April 18, 1958, the Duke singled for the first Dodger hit in his hometown
-And on April 10, 1962, he had the first Dodger hit in the brand new Dodger Stadium
Beginning with his rookie year, he was a part of many historic moments in baseball over the next 18 seasons.
His passing came at an uncanny time:
-Two weeks after the death of his good friend Cliff Dapper, another former Dodger, lesser known to be certain–but also a Fallbrook resident. (For more information, see my previous entry.) So, after meeting a friend of Duke’s at the National Baseball Expo in January who had informed me he wasn’t doing too well at the time–and then hearing Dapper had passed away in mid-February–one of three Brooklyn Dodgers to die within one week–I organized a campaign with friends in my female baseball fans forum to all send a card to Duke. We knew at the time that his health was failing, but didn’t realize how brief a time he had left. A former coworker of mine had a sister who worked for the convalescent center in which Duke had been quietly placed. I asked her to follow up that our cards were received, which she did. I am so glad we took the time, and now I know they put a smile on his face. For me, I simply wrote that even though I was born too late to enjoy his talents firsthand, I appreciated all that he had meant to baseball, and what he had been to the Dodgers. I enclosed a copy of my blog entry from last September.
Two other notes about the timing of his death:
-It took place on the weekend of the GuacFest in San Diego, celebrating that sublime concoction produced from avocados, and the weekend the Dodgers would begin playing exhibition games in Arizona.
-And, it happened just a week after the release of a movie titled, “I am Number Four.”
So, to memorialize him last Sunday, my friend and fellow Dodger fan who works at a North County nursery set a floral arrangement, all in blue, and had it placed on home plate at Duke Snider Field in Fallbrook. This was similar to what I’d done in 2002 on the occasion of the great Ted Williams’ death, when roses were placed on home plate at Ted Williams Field in San Diego.
But what about Duke Snider before and beyond his glory days? Here’s some background on Duke’s pre-Brooklyn life, and post-retirement:
Like Williams, and many players of his era, Duke proudly served his country–in his case, with the U.S. Navy.
He never forgot his roots. He was born in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, just a couple of miles south of where Dodger Stadium is now located (and made note of that in the ceremony when his number was retired). He was a gifted multi-sport athlete in Compton at Enterprise Jr. High and Compton High. On a side note reflecting the times, the South Bay Daily Breeze notes of his junior high days, “Three of the team’s best hitters were Japanese boys, and when the war started they were sent to internment camps.”
In high school, Duke played QB and running back on the football team, and in his debut in his first spring on the baseball team, threw a 6-0 no-hitter against Beverly Hills High. He also hit .411. Duke excelled on the basketball court as well. But it was on the baseball field where he flourished most. (My dad, who was four years younger than Duke and graduated from Santa Monica High, remembered his exploits as a local athlete in those days.)
As he developed into an outstanding player on the diamond, Duke’s coach at Compton wrote to then-Dodgers GM Branch Rickey alerting him to the talented athlete he was mentoring. Scouts from the Cardinals and Reds organizations were also after him, but it was the Dodgers he eventually signed with.
The Daily Breeze also noted:
“His Dodgers tryout in 1943 was held at Rec Park in Long Beach, the old dusty field that now is Blair Field [home of the Long Beach State Dirtbags]. If you dig through newspaper archives deep enough, you’ll find a few stories on Duke Snider’s high school exploits were written by a schoolmate and close friend from Compton who grew up to be NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle…The “Duke of Compton” helped plant the seeds of success that made the Dodgers as beloved here as they were in Brooklyn.”
In his post-baseball career, while he tended to growing avocados in Fallbrook in North San Diego County, Duke’s children grew up and graduated from Fallbrook Union High School, and he has been a visible supporter of youth and high school sports in that community for decades. A writer covering Palomar College baseball remembered Duke following his son Kevin’s games while playing for that small school: “While later Major League dads such as Graig Nettles kept low profiles at Palomar games and Bruce Bochy disguised himself, Snider openly mingled with the crowd for two full seasons.”
Duke was married to his wife, Beverly–his high school sweetheart at Compton High–for 63 years (they were wed just after his rookie season ended), and for most of his retirement has lived in the backcountry (just as did his friend Cliff Dapper), where he was considered a community treasure. Early in his retirement, one of his business ventures was Duke Snider Lanes, a bowling alley in town.
But, baseball always drew him back, particularly baseball in the Avocado Capital of the country. Duke was active with fundraising for the Fallbrook baseball Booster Club, in particular their annual golf tournament, and he also sponsored an annual Home Run Derby. During that event in 2002, Fallbrook High’s baseball field was renamed in his honor. Local prep products benefitted from his involvement; in recent years, Cincinnati Reds pitcher Mike Leake (Class of 2006) was one.
Today, under bright sunshine on a beautiful March day, the Fallbrook High Warriors honored Duke Snider before and during their game against Temecula Valley, prompting me to make a special drive out to the backcountry of north San Diego County to meet a couple of friends. Both teams wore #4 jerseys in memory of the Duke and all he has been to baseball at many levels. There was a sentimental and stirring pre-game ceremony, with Farmer John Dodger Dogs® (grilled!) for sale at the game, and many men and women wearing Dodger jerseys and caps. (I wore my “My Town Brooklyn” Tshirt from last year’s Dodgers promotion.) It was the first high school game of the season for me, and the first time I’d attended a game at Duke Snider Field since my nephew pitched there as a visiting high school senior in 2008. Most of Duke’s family was present today, and were comforted by the tributes to him. A moment of silence was observed during the pre-game ceremony. While at today’s game, I also ran into Bill, the same man I had met at the National Baseball Expo, who told me that this gesture on behalf of the Fallbrook varsity team would have meant so much to Duke Snider: “He was all about baseball at this level. He was all about community.”
One more thing about the day’s events: During team warm-ups, the school PA system played the very fitting song,”Willie, Mickey and the Duke.”
Next weekend, the Duke’s private memorial service will be held. Fittingly, the Snider family has asked that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to FUHS Warriors baseball. What a precious gift!
And tonight, in an unrelated event, one of his contemporaries mentioned above, former Yankee Larsen of perfect game fame, is appearing in San Diego at a fundraiser for the benefit of Point Loma baseball. He’s sure to share some memories of that centerfielder in Brooklyn.
Among my favorite Duke Snider comments are the following:
From his Hall of Fame induction speech:
“I’d like to thank God for including me in his master plan . . . being a Brooklyn Dodger and Los Angeles Dodger.”
And his most enduring, endearing himself to the Dodger faithful:
“I don’t much care for Halloween because its colors remind me of the Giants.”
Upon the announcement of Duke’s death, legendary Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda had said, “God was waiting for a left-handed hitter in that lineup”…and now he’s got him.
It surely must be heavenly now that you’ve joined the Big Dodger in the Sky with the rest of that baseball family. But we’ll miss you down here, Mr. Snider!