Monday, February 28, 2011

I was actually a millionaire once…and then my mother threw away my baseball cards!

The Duke of Flatbush is dead. Long live the Duke!

Imagine having the confidence to name your son “Duke.” Edwin Donald Snider’s father gave him (and us) that name, a name young Edwin grew into in an18 year professional baseball career. Snider signed a major league contract in 1943 but first enlisted to fight Nazis. He came back from the war to become one of the greatest. The Duke played professional baseball from 1947 until 1964, from the year before I was born until two years before I graduated from high school.

He was such a part of my life, I thought I knew him personally. He batted .295. If you don’t know, that means that nearly one try in three, he hit that ball so hard they couldn’t get to it in time to keep him off base! 407 of those hits were home runs and 1,333 of them scored runs…all in 2,143 games, played before anyone ever heard of much less used steroids.

The Duke hit the last home run ever hit by a Brooklyn Dodger at Ebbets Field. That matters to real Dodger fans.

In the old days there was no baseball in the Mountain Time zone. Though Larry Birleffi did a magnificent job of play by play off the ticker with all the appropriate sound effects, those of us who loved the game were confined to watching one game a week. The “Game of the Week” on Saturday afternoon.

In those days I was actually a millionaire…and then my mother threw away my baseball cards at least the ones left after we clothes pinned them to the spokes of our bikes!

I recall only three big teams in those days, the Dodgers, the Yankees, and the Giants. They each had centerfielders we all argued about. Duke Snider was the best though some of my Little League friends thought it was Willie Mays of the Giants. Still others said Mickey Mantle of the Yankees.

Now my old friend, The Bachelor,
Well, he swore he was the Oklahoma Kid.
And Cookie played hooky,
To go and see the Duke.
And me, I always loved Willie Mays,
Those were the days!

We all had it right. Willie, Mickey and the Duke. Can you even imagine living during a time when you could watch these three fellows play almost every week?

I saw the Duke play in 1962. I was a paperboy for the Wyoming Eagle and had won a trip to Los Angeles for the National Newspaper Boy Convention. They took us all to Dodger Stadium. It was brand new but it was the Duke’s last year as a Dodger. I actually met him again 32 years later. Then I was attending the 1994National Baseball Collectors Convention in Anaheim. I hung around my hotel room watching a great ball game between the Dodgers and the Rockies. When the Rockies won it with a home run in the bottom of the 9th, I headed for the elevator to walk to the convention hall.

The door slid open and I knew immediately who it was with whom I was about to share a ride. “You are Duke Snider,” I said. He said, “Yes, I am…do you know who won the Dodger game?” “It was Colorado, 14-13 with a last inning homer.” He shook his head and mumbled something disagreeable about Coors Field being a Little League ballpark. I said, “I gotta ask you, how would you have liked to hit today against these pitchers… and at Coors Field?” He just smiled…a knowing smile that said it all. Wouldn’t we all have liked to see Willie, Mickey and the Duke do just that?

Later I wished I had offered to buy him a beer but was too awestruck. He walked off the elevator, smiling…as he is smiling today even as Saint Peter asks for one last autograph.

Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. (Say hey, say hey, say hey)
It was Willie, Mickey and the Duke (Say hey, say hey, say hey)
I'm talkin' Willie, Mickey and the Duke (Say hey, say hey, say hey)
Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. (Say hey, say hey, say hey)
Say Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. (Say hey, say hey, say hey)

“Willie, Mickey and the Duke”

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