There have only been a handful of men in baseball history who could carry the title of “Duke.” Fast catchers have, at times, been called Dukes. The relatively speedy Deadball Era catcher Roger Bresnahan was called “The Duke of Tralee” — an homage to his Irish heritage — and former Royals catcher John Wathan who once stole 36 bases in a season is still called “Duke” around town, though that is mostly because he does a killer impression of John Wayne. Duke Sims couldn’t run, but he too was a catcher, and he once hit 23 homers in a season. There have been a few other scattered Dukes, catchers and otherwise.
But, of course, there is really only one Duke in baseball history, Edwin Donald Snider, the Duke of Flatbush. His father started calling him Duke when he was just 5, and he was one of those pure athletes who could pull off the name. There were always fanciful stories about the athletic abilities of Duke Snider — he supposedly could throw a football 70 yards, dunk a basketball without a running start though he was only 6-feet-tall, and in the words of Roger Kahn in the Boys of Summer he was “rangy and gifted and subtle. Duke could get his glove 13 feet in the air.” Kahn explained that Snider was so athletic he used center field wall at Ebbetts Field like a vertical trampoline.
Duke Snider was an outsized character — this should not be lost in death. He was flesh and blood, beloved beyond reason and booed beyond logic. As Bill James has written, “Sport Magazine in the 1950s used to alternate between two types of Duke Snider articles, the ‘Why is Duke Snider Such A Dog’ article and the ‘Why Doesn’t Duke Snider Get The Respect He Deserves” article. Phillip Roth (as Alexander Portnoy) called Snider “my king of kings, the Lord my God.” Others called him loafer.
There are no such contrasts with Mays or Mantle or DiMaggio — few in baseball history have ever animated both sides of the aisle quite like the Duke. You know, his first year on the Hall of Fame ballot, with the memory of his moody brilliance and beautiful strikeouts still sharp, he received only 17% of the vote, the same as Phil Cavaretta. It took 10 years of slow and bumpy momentum — 17%, then 25%, back to 21%, up to 27%, a jump to 30% and so on — before the Duke finally got his Hall of Fame votes. In 1980, he received a stunning and overwhelming 86.5% of the vote. It was as if all the writers decided at once that 10 years on the outside was the proper penance for the Duke of Flatbush.
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Penance? Penance for what? Duke Snider was indisputably a great player, with his career 140 OPS+, his high career peak, his excellent defensive reputation. Penance for what? I have two theories. The first is a pure baseball theory — it seems to me that Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle kind of ruined it for center fielders in the 1950s.
Third base has often been described as sort of a tweener position — a position that doesn’t have the defensive demands of shortstop and but has enough demands that many of the best hitters simply cannot play the position for very long — and because of this there are fewer third baseman in the Hall of Fame than any other position. But if you look only at the 111 players who were voted into the Hall by the Baseball Writers, you will find that there have been just as few listed center fielders voted in as third basemen.
*I never know what to do with Andre Dawson … I’ve mentioned that Tom Tango says you have to list him as a centerfielder because that’s where he was at his best. But he started 240 more games in right field. For the point I’m making here, temporarily we will call Dawson an “Outfielder.” Then again, one of the seven third basemen is Paul Molitor who was really a designated hitter. And Tony Perez played a lot of third base. So the point is probably muted. Either way, there are not many centerfielders voted to the Hall.
This at first seems strange because centerfield seems such a glamour position, the only baseball position to inspire a No. 1 rock song* and the position of Willie, Mickey and the Duke. But maybe the glamour is exactly WHY so few center fielders are voted into the Hall of Fame. What I mean is … well, Ted Williams was, at best, an indifferent left fielder. Reggie Jackson, for most of his career, was an indifferent right fielder. Ralph Kiner could do two things: Walk and slug. Lou Brock was a surprisingly poor outfielder. Willie Stargell, from his youngest days, couldn’t run. Jim Rice was undoubtedly better defensively than his reputation, but that’s in part because his defensive reputation was bad. Dave Winfield won a bunch of Gold Gloves though, other than the joy of watching him uncoil and throw, there is little supporting evidence that he was even an average right fielder in New York. And so on.
*If you call John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” rock … maybe I’ve just heard it too much.
Point is, for corner outfielders we tend to be pretty lenient when it comes to apparent flaws. If the guy could hit, really hit, and he had a reasonably long career, the voters check the Hall of Fame box no matter how little he may have offered in every other phase of the game. Manny Ramirez, I have little doubt, will go to the Hall of Fame someday. This is true for other positions too — Ozzie Smith, for most of his career, was a below-average hitter.
But we accept few flaws when it comes to centerfielders. I have little doubt that, at their peaks, Fred Lynn and Dale Murphy and Jimmy Wynn and Andruw Jones and Jim Edmonds were better baseball players, markedly better, than any number of corner outfielders in the Hall of Fame. But the position took its toll on their bodies. Their career credentials are imperfect. And when it comes to centerfielders, Hall of Fame voters have little tolerance for imperfections.
I think that Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle inspired that feeling in voters — DiMaggio too. They made centerfield unrealistic. They made the five-tool player seem like a natural thing. Andruw Jones in his younger days might have been the greatest defensive centerfielder in baseball history. His defensive statistics are otherworldly, and in this case the defensive statistics matched the eye. He was absurdly wonderful out there. And he also hit with immense power — he averaged 35 homers a year between 1998 and 2007. But he hit for fairly low averages then, and he struck out a ton, and he regressed almost defiantly, and I don’t think people will appreciate his brilliance over the years.
The problem is: Willie Mays did the same things as Jones, but he did them longer, and he hit better, and he ran faster …
The problem is — as I have written before — nobody comes off looking too good when compared to Willie Mays.
So, I think that was Duke Snider’s first issue. He, more than anyone, was compared daily to Mays and Mantle, and he was beat up often in the process. Snider, best I can make out, was good defensively but certainly no Mays. He hit for great power — he led the league in homers in 1956 and hit 40-plus three other times — but he was certainly no Mantle. He walked a lot but not like Mantle, he could run well but not like Mays, he had a powerful arm when he was young but hurt it and was never quite the same after he turned 30 while Mays went along brilliantly until he was 40 or so — even the star-crossed and oft-injured Mantle almost won an MVP in 1964 when he was 32.
Being about 70% to 80% as good as Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays still qualifies someone as a great baseball player, but it’s hard to think of it that way. It seems to me that the centerfield brilliance of Willie Mays has crowded our imagination and left us slightly jaded and numb to the notion of mere greatness.
My second theory revolves around something I’ve written about before and that is what I call the curse of gracefulness. Raul Ibanez is one of my favorite people, and one of my favorite players, but even I would not call him graceful as a player. He runs like my old Ford Escort drove uphill. You can almost hear the engine revving. He is all energy, all the time, legs pumping, arms pumping, sweat everywhere. When he is chasing a fly ball, he might get there, he might not get there, but there is little question about his sense of purpose.
The same is not true for Carlos Beltran … or at least Carlos Beltran before he got hurt. Beltran was infinitely faster than Raul, and I mean infinitely — if they were racing around the bases Beltran would round the bags an infinite number of times before Ibanez would round them once. Raul would admit this without hesitation. For this reason and others, Beltran was clearly and unquestionably a much better outfielder.
And yet … I have absolutely no doubt that Beltran has been booed countless more times for his defense than Ibanez. Why? Well, in part because Beltran has the curse of gracefulness.* Beltran never quite looks like he is giving full effort. He never seems to be pushing against the edges of his potential. There may be some truth to this — maybe Beltran has not always given full effort, and maybe he has not always lived up to his potential. But who does? Anyway, he is trying much harder than it looks like he’s trying.
*For you Mets fans, I wrote an essay on Beltran for Amazin’ Avenue which I am told will be in stores this week.
Duke Snider had this problem. For unto whomsoever much is given, shall be much required. Everything with Duke was grace and ease. His swing was beautiful and easy. His stride was natural and easy. The word is “easy.” There’s a telling story about Snider in The Boys of Summer about this time he was benched by manager Charlie Dressen for loafing on a fly ball. Kahn does not get into whether Snider actually was loafing — he wasn’t at that game — and anyway the point of the story seemed to be that some of the writers ripped Snider which caused him to threaten to punch Dick Young in the face and so on.
Then, there is this rather startling paragraph:
“Three days later, Snider was back and for the rest of the season he played brilliantly. Dressen’s impersonal brutality worked. I don’t know what was more disturbing, that or the way Snider while hitting at a .400 pace, continue to discard his bat jubilantly when walked, joyous, as (writer Bill) Roeder had observed, not to face another challenge.”
Kahn liked Snider a great deal, but even he could not help but think of Snider as a player uneasy with his own immense talents — an underachiever. This, I think, is the curse of gracefulness. After he was benched in 1952, Snider hit .345 with 9 doubles and eight homers in 36 starts. He cracked two home runs against Cincinnati on Sept. 15 with the Giants trailing by only three games, and hit another homer the next night to lift the team to win over Pittsburgh.
But here’s the big thing — he walked a grand total of five times in those 36 starts. Five. Snider was generally a patient hitter. In 1955, he walked more than 100 times, and in 1956 he led the league in walks. But for more than a month, he swung freely, an obvious effort to turn up his aggressiveness. But even so, many years later Roger Kahn remembered Snider longing to walk, remembered Snider being thrilled for any reprieve against putting his own great talents to the test yet again.
I just think that certain people play their games so gracefully and make it all look so easy that people cannot help but judge them … and judge them harshly. Coaches always thought Eric Dickerson wasn’t running all out because he ran so gracefully. And Duke Snider’s grace — along with his own difficulties to deal with the impossible expectation — led to a perception of him, a perception that led to those competing stories in Sport Magazine, that he was a dog and that he was not given his due respect.
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One thing that’s funny about Duke Snider is that, on almost every All-Time Centerfielders List I see, he is ranked the seventh-best centerfielder in baseball history. Yes, some will have him sixth, others eighth, but it’s almost always seven. I think it’s kind of funny to have that sort of consensus about someone being seventh, but if you look at the players ranked ahead of him it actually makes sense.
1. Willie Mays is first on almost every list. Occasionally, someone will throw Ty Cobb up there for argument’s sake, but it’s usually Mays.
2. Ty Cobb is probably second, unless you are one of those people who put him first. Occasionally someone will put Mantle or DiMaggio up here, knock down Cobb for the era when he played and his general surliness, but that seems kind of petty.
3. Tris Speaker is third in WAR — both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference. Bill James puts Mantle here.
4. Mickey Mantle probably belongs here, but the lists I’ve seen bounce all over the place — from DiMaggio to Griffey to Speaker …
5. Joe DiMaggio seems the right choice, but again it’s all over the place — I’ve seen everyone mentioned up to now except Mays in this spot.
6. Ken Griffey seems sixth by most references, but again it’s tricky. I’ve seen a couple of lists Negro Leagues great Oscar Charleston here, which I find a little strange. Many people who saw Charleston — including Buck O’Neil — say he was the best to ever play. And of course, most people never saw him at all. So I don’t really understand ranking him sixth. I’m guess he was either one of the all-time greats or he wasn’t, but he probably wasn’t sixth. Bill James boldly ranks Charleston the fourth-best player of all time — only Mays ahead among centerfielders — and I would probably think along the lines.
7. Duke Snider.
It’s crazy. No matter what order the Top 6 seem to be in, no matter what players are in there, people tend to put Snider seventh. It’s almost as if everyone sees Duke Snider as not QUITE as good as the legends, but ALMOST as good. Well, every great player has his own legacy, and this is the legacy of the Duke.
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In 1955, Snider should have won the MVP award. Well, in fact, Willie Mays was probably the best player in ’55, but Mays was probably the best player in the National League in 1954, ’55, ’57, ’58, ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63, ’64 and ’65, and they weren’t about to give him 10 MVP awards, so this was a good year to give it to someone else. The writers DID give it to someone else.
And it seems pretty apparent to me that Snider was the right choice. He was second in the league in on-base percentage (.418) to Richie Ashburn, second in slugging (.628) to Mays, led the league in runs scored (126), led the league in RBIs (136) and so on. Some of this was helped along by the hitter-friendly Ebbetts Field, but it was still a great year.
Snider’s teammate Roy Campanella had a great year too … but in my mind it was decidedly not as great as the Duke. For one thing, he played 25 fewer games as catchers will. For another, Snider put up bigger numbers offensively. And while catching is unquestionably the most demanding defensive position — physically and mentally — centerfield as mentioned is plenty tough too and Snider was a good centerfielder.
Anyway, Campanella had already won two MVPs by then which should not play into voters thinking but in almost every case DOES play into their thinking. But not this time.
So what happened? Well, for one thing, Snider was a difficult guy. In late July, he was hitting .330 and slugging better than .700 and looked on his way to a season for the ages. Then he went into a pretty massive slump, the fans started booing him — the fans in Brooklyn, like Sport Magazine, loved him and despised him in equal measure — and he snapped that they were the “worst fans in the league.” He started hitting again after that, and pretty soon everything was forgiven.
Well … maybe not everything. When the season ended, though Snider had clearly the better counting numbers, he and Campanella both got eight first place MVP votes. The other eight votes went to Ernie Banks (six votes), Robin Roberts (one vote for what was actually a down season for him) and, somewhat absurdly, Pee Wee Reese (one vote). Reese was a terrific player, a Hall of Famer, but he was 36 that year, and he was quite apparently declining (he never had another good year) and he so clearly did not have as good a year as either of his teammates.
In any case, because of the split vote the thing was really decided by the other ballots, and when everything was totaled up Campanella beat out Snider by five points. The final scoring looked like so:
Campanella: 8 first place votes (112 points); 6 second place (54); 3 third place (24); 4 fifth place (24); 3 seventh place (12). Total: 226.
Snider: 8 first place votes (112 points); 4 second place (36); 2 third place (16); 5 fourth place (35); 3 fifth place (18); 1 seventh place (4). Total 221.
You can look through that and figure out who you think deserved it based on the breakdown. Campy had more second and third place votes which I think is pretty telling. But another way to look at it is that Campanella appeared on all 24 ballots. Snider appeared only on 23. And that’s where the story turns.
The story that has been told — most recently by Tracy Ringolsby — is that one of the voters who was in the hospital (this turns out to be important later) had put Campanella down both as a first place vote and fifth place vote. The assumption was that he meant to put Campy first and Snider fifth (or the other way around) but had put Campy down twice by mistake. The assumption was strengthened by the fact that Snider was nowhere else on the ballot.
Tracy writes that the BBWAA “never could get a clarification of the voter’s intention,” which seems bizarre to me but I can only guess that’s where the hospital part comes in. Anyway, if the man’s ballot had been disqualified, as it probably should have been, Snider would have won by three points. If they had put Snider into the fifth spot instead of Campy, he would have won by one point. But the decision made instead was plain bizarre — they decided to accept a flawed ballot with Campanella getting a first place vote and a blank spot in fifth place. And that’s how Campy won his third MVP.
The story sounds a bit too pat, doesn’t it? They couldn’t find the voter’s intention? Why not? Why was he in the hospital? Did he die? And it just so happens that the writer had the second Campy FIFTH so that it would have given Snider a one-point victory? Like I say, it all sounds a bit too convenient, and I have learned from Rob Neyer that convenient stories are rarely entirely true.
BUT when I went back into the newspaper archives I found that it is indeed documented that there was one ballot that left off Snider entirely. That was mentioned in a Stars and Stripes story, not as an outrage but as a simple statement of fact. It’s also possible that someone left off Snider entirely out of spite — Snider was not a favorite of sportswriters.
Whatever happened — whether it was a sick writer or an angry one — one thing that is striking about the post-MVP stories is that there a bit of an outrage. Arthur Daley, in fact, wrote in the New York Times that Campanella was the right choice, others in smaller papers seemed to follow.
Nobody in the papers I saw stood up for Duke Snider. Nothing was ever easy with Duke Snider, except for the easy swing and the easy grace and the easy name. Few baseball player have ever been called Duke. Only one was The Duke.
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I should add one more thought here: I was talking to a friend on Monday who grew up in Chicago in the 1950s, and he told me that at Wrigley Field he once saw Duke Snider strike out swinging three times and then crush a grand slam home run that won the game. This too seemed like something make believe, like something someone might romantically remember but never really happened …
… except it did. On May 15, 1951, the Dodgers and Cubs played at Wrigley, and Bob Rush started for the Cubs and he struck out Snider swinging three times. The Duke wasn’t exactly a legend then — he was just 24 — but he had led the league in hits the year before, and he led the league in strikeouts in ’49 and he had a reputation.
“Look out,” my friend remembers his father saying when Pee Wee Reese walked to load the bases in the seventh. The Cubs led 4-3. Snider walked to the plate. “He had that way of walking,” my friend said. “Unforgettable.”
Rush had tired. Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish was pitching for the Cubs. Cal McLish said that his father had named him. He was known for many things, mostly his name, but also for the time when he was pitching for Cleveland against Boston in May ’57 and gave up a homer to Gene Mauch, followed by a homer to Ted Williams, followed by a walk to Jackie Jensen, followed by a homer to Dick Gernert, followed by a homer to Frank Malzone.
In any case, Duke Snider crushed a long home run against McLish, the grand slam, and what my friend remembers is watching Snider run around the bases while Chicago peoiple booed. What he remembers even more, though, is probably the most telling thing anyone could say about Duke Snider.
My friend remembers that in that moment he knew he would never forget.