I became a baseball--and Dodger--fan just in time to see the end of Duke Snider's distinguished career.
Almost ironically, Snider, and a lot of other very good players--Richie Ashburn and Gil Hodges, for example--wound up as expansion fodder for the Mets, something that reminds that indeed time plus tragedy equals comedy. At least Snider escaped the 1962 Mets iconic season, for he did not find himself back in the Apple till the eve of the 1963 season, when the Dodgers sold the flychaser to the Metropolitans.
By then, though, a speedy kid name Willie Davis was earning his stripes in center field at Dodger Stadium, and that Davis, who was for many years my favorite player, is whose name I associate with the position.
But, for a time, in the mid-fifties, when the mighty franchises of the Giants, Yankees, and Dodgers all called the boroughs of New York their home, there were three center fielders who graced the town pretty much unlike any other such troika in the history of the game.
The Yankees, of course, had the power hitting, slick fielding, and sadly beat up so young Mickey Mantle. As a kid I hated Mantle and his Yankee team, for the Bronx Bombers were always in the post season. However, as a crazed baseball card collector, there were few things more exciting than opening a pack of cards and finding Mantle's mug staring back at me through the white powdery sugar that clung to the bottom of the wax pack.
The Giants had the great Willie Mays, probably the greatest all around player I ever saw. But, of course, I did not see him until the early 60's, around the time the Duke was patrolling the grounds in Flushing.
Of course one difference among the troika is that Mays and Mantle were still young men before the Giants and Dodgers made their exodus to the west coast, while Snider, challenged at first with the spacious Coliseum, was on the tail end of his fine career.
The Duke, however, silver haired prematurely, was a Dodger, and as I became familiar with the names of the players who inhabited the rosters of both my beloved Bums, and those teams who stood in the way of a championship for them, a player who seemed to have earned my respect simply in his name (although truth be told, Edwin Donald was Snider's given name).
Through my first few years of Dodger love, I did indeed prefer Snider to Mays and Mantle for no other reason than he was on my team. By the time I was truly in the throes of baseball, though, Snider was 36 and had only one more season left, one that strangely was spent in San Francisco. For there was nothing to me more inconcievable as a kid to see a Dodger in Giants black and orange, just as it was a Giant in Dodger blue.
Snider did make the HOF in 1980--meaning that all three of the New York center field trio of the 50's made it to Cooperstown--with at the time more than respectable career totals of .295-407-1333, though again, these days it would be a tough row to hoe for Snider to make it on those numbers alone.
But, he did, and we are all the better for it, and the pleasure of watching the stylish Duke Snider patrol major league outfields.