There’s a fun Twilight Zone episode where a degenerate gambler dies and enters his own afterlife. He awakens in a beautiful hotel, surrounded by gorgeous women and with an unlimited amount of money to spend however he likes. He is puzzled by this — he knows that he lived a rotten life, and he’s sure there has been some angelic mistake.
“No mistake,” his guide says.
So, almost immediately, he starts gambling with his money. And he finds that he wins every time. He pulls a slot machine, money pours out. He plays blackjack, and it’s 21 every time. He rolls dice and life is a golden road of sevens. He cannot believe his good fortune. He’s sure there’s s mistake but the guide says, no, this is his afterlife.
Only after a few days, he realizes something: He cannot lose. When he hits on 19, he gets a deuce. When he tries some ridiculous odds at the roulette wheel, it always comes through. The money soon means nothing And he’s bored out of his mind. There’s no thrill, no risk, no surprise, no danger, none of the things that marked his life. He goes back to the guide and says, “This is a terrible mistake. I don’t belong here. I’m a bad guy. I don’t belong in heaven.”
And the guide says: “This isn’t heaven.”
* * *
In 1952, Duke Snider hit four home runs in the World Series. He was the first man since Lou Gehrig to do so. In Game 6, his Brooklyn Dodgers were a game away from clinching their first World Series ever — against the hated Yankees no less — and Snider tried to singlehandedly take over. In the sixth inning of a scoreless game, Snider crashed a long home run against Vic Raschi. In that moment, everyone in Brooklyn could almost feel victory.
But the Yankees were great. Yogi Berra homered. Raschi himself singled in a run. A young Mickey Mantle blasted a home run of his own. The Yankees led 3-1 in the eighth when Snider came up again. And he homered again. There was hope in Brooklyn, hope that maybe Snider would come up one more time. He didn’t. The Dodgers lost again.
But here’s the the thing: While Duke Snider was hitting those home runs — even with the huge crowds and deafening cheers and baseball glory — you know what he was thinking? He said he was thinking about being an avocado farmer. The idea of a normal life, raising avocados in his home state of California, that’s what filled his mind. The ballplayer’s life had left him cold and bored and even a little bitter.
“I dreamed of being a big leaguer once,” he told Roger Kahn as quoted in “The Boys of Summer.” “But that’s not it for me any more. … If it wasn’t for money, I’d be just as happy if I never played a game of ball again.”
* * *
Edwin Snider was four years old when his father, seeing the way he strutted, called him Duke. Few nicknames have fit better. Snider had a regal quality about him more or less from the day he was born and through his California childhood.
Duke Snider was an extraordinary athlete. His could throw a football 70-yards in the air, and he could dunk a basketball, and he probably threw a mid-90s fastball though there were no radar guns to confirm it. A high school friend wrote letters to the Long Beach Press-Telegram about the almost superhuman player at Compton High School, and the newspaper featured heavy coverage of the Duke. The friend, incidentally, was Pete Rozelle, who would go on to become one of the great PR men of the day and then the groundbreaking commissioner of the NFL.
Snider went to a Dodgers tryout camp when he was 17 years old and was so clearly a star in waiting that he was signed immediately. The story goes that the Pirates later offered him $15,000 to back out of the Dodgers deal but he would not. Everything seemed a dream. He was going to Brooklyn to become a star.
And, immediately, he realized it was no dream. This was during World War II, and the Dodgers trained in Bear Mountain, New York. It was damp and cold, and Snider had not brought a coat, might not have even owned one. Branch Rickey ran a strict camp, lots of running, and Snider did not like that either. He grumbled. He refused. He complained.
Then he went to Newport News, Va. and continued his petulance. He kicked water buckets. He broke bats. He ignored signs. He moaned about the town. Even so, he led the Piedmont League in home runs and doubles. He went to war for a year, When he came back, he continued his great hitting and self-loathing.
Jackie Robinson debuted for the Dodgers on April 15, 1947. Duke Snider debuted two days later by pulling a single off Boston’s Si Johnson. Duke was 20 years old and already this odd blend of confidence and resentment. He was born with athletic grace, a unique ability to make the difficult look easy, and the impossible look possible. He knew that. At the same time, nothing he ever did could satisfy, and he raged against the expectations. Strikeouts made him crazy. Looking foolish — like he did when he lunged at bad pitches — crushed his spirits. Rickey had called his legs “steel springs,” but he cautiously approached ground balls for fear they would skip by and humiliate him.
The Duke would go inside himself. He confounded teammates (and sportswriters), who envied his gifts and tired of his belly-aching. In 1951, he asked to be traded. In 1952, he was benched for loafing on a fly ball. Pee Wee Reese told him to grow up and be a man.
Perhaps the best thing that Snider did in those early years was learn the strike zone. Discipline did not come naturally to him. In 89 plate appearances his rookie year, he walked just three times. The next year, he walked only 12 times in 172 plate appearances. The story goes that Rickey in particular took on the challenge of making him more patient at the plate. He used Snider’s fear of embarrassment as a motivation — he said, again and again, that if Snider would just stop swinging at those bad pitches, he would stop looking bad. Snider had always worked hard, of course, but he was such a miraculous athlete he never had really STRUGGLED with something the way he struggled with mastering the strike zone. But, eventually, he got it.
And you can see how strike zone mastery transformed him as a hitter. From 1949 to 1952, his walks increased slowly — he averaged about one walk every 11 plate appearances. He hit .298/.363/..507 with a 129 OPS+, certainly good numbers.
But then, in 1953, he walks jumped. In 1955, they jumped again. From 1953 to 1957, he walked once every seven or so at-bats. And for those five years, he was legendary. He hit .318/.407/.618, hit 40 home runs each season, averaged 116 runs and 117 RBIs. He was a full-blooded superstar and easily could have been the league MVP in 1953, 1955 or 1956. He didn’t win any of them. He sometimes thought this was because the writers didn’t like him or respect him. He might not have been entirely wrong.
Duke Snider is the only player to hit four home runs in two separate World Series. You know the noble effort of 1952. In 1955, he was the hero. He hit two home runs in Game 5, which put the Dodgers on the brink of winning. This time, the team closed the deal in seven games — the only championship ever for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Snider continued to amaze and infuriate for longer than anyone expected. There were writers who never had a good thing to say about him, and writers who were fiercely loyal to him, and they kept the Snider argument hot and in the papers raging continuously. When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, Snider made some statements about being excited about going home to California which did not exactly endear him to the Brooklyn crowd. He then said his quotes were taken out context. It didn’t really matter. Some loved him. Some despised him. He couldn’t change that.
Perhaps the most surprising part of Duke Snider’s career is that he didn’t quit a lot earlier than he did. After age 30, he never got 500 plate appearances in a season. He was hurt a lot, and he was all but useless against left-handed pitching — managers simply stopped hitting him against lefties. But he kept going. He played for the 1963 Mets for a year. He went to play in San Francisco for a year. He did manage to get to 400 homers and 2,000 hits, which might have been a goal. It still took 11 years for the BBWAA to vote him into the Hall of Fame.
After retirement, he tried farming but it didn’t take. He coached for a while. He was caught avoiding his taxes on memorabilia sales and called it the worst mistake of his life. He co-wrote an autobiography and a book about beloved Dodgers through the years. He died in 2011 and it’s hard to tell, in the end, how he saw his turbulent career. There were a lot of thrills. There were a lot of frustrations. There was a lot of accomplishment. There was a lot of criticism.
“For unto whomever much has been given,” it is written in Luke, ‘of him shall be much required.” Or, as it is often paraphrased, “To those whom much is given, much is expected.” Duke Snider was given what looked to many like unlimited baseball gifts. Duke Snider was also draped with expectations that no one could live up to. In the end, he was a fantastic baseball player in a fantastic city for a fantastic team. Best I can tell, I think Snider made his peace with it and figured, all in all, baseball was closer to heaven.