The first time I met Duke Snider as a 19-year-old scared, punk kid statistician, my first season as an intern for the Expos in 1973, I was in awe. By the time Snider retired from the Expos as a broadcaster in 1986, it was different. I felt I was losing a friend. But still I remained in total awe, mentally genuflecting to the Duke Snider I would remember every time I shook his hand at major baseball events. He was baseball royalty and now 38 years later with the announcement of his death at 84, I remain in awe.
Sure, it's easy to find character flaws, areas of weakness to tear down legends, including Snider, the Dodgers' elegant hall-of-fame centre fielder. If you try hard enough you can do it with anyone. For instance, it's true that as the third of the big three centre fielders in New York in the '50s, he could seem jealous of the attention given Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. He at times seemed petty about his place in baseball history, especially when it took added time to reach the Hall-of-Fame. So what?
Even former Expos' manager and fellow hall-of-famer Dick Willliams, a teammate with those great '50s Dodgers, believed that when he was fired in 1981 as the team was headed to the post-season for the only time, Snider's constant criticism on radio played a part in his departure. But whatever you want to accuse Duke of, the fact is he was never anything but genuine in his friendship amd character.
I've worked with a lot of active and former superstar athletes that were accorded the trappings of fame. Many take the adulation and perks with a large dose of cynicism and divine right, but Snider was not like that. It wasn't something he worked on. It was something he was. I recall in the early '80s going as a threesome with this year's Frick Award winner Dave Van Horne and Duke to a fabulous Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was an old Broklyn Dodgers' haunt.
All the way to New York, all the way to the restaurant, Duke talked about the owners with genuine affection. As we walked through the door, Snider, who you should remember had been gone from the New York sports scene for over 25 years, was wined and dined, as were we, and greeted by reverent bocce ball players like he was still playing for a New York team. It was sweet and innocent.
For three hours the great Duke Snider was genuinely wrapped in the moment. No autographs, no ass-kissing, just laughing conversation and happy memories and when we left after a great meal to return to the Grand Hyatt, there was no change in Duke's attitude like, “Hey I'm glad to be out of there, boy what I have to do for a free meal.” Duke genuinely liked these people as friends and the perks were clearly secondary. It made an impression on me as a 30-year-old already in a position where you could go either way on how to respect people that love your game in the high profile world of pro sports.
Another time, as the Expos' P.R. guy, Duke one day patted me on the shoulder and gave me responsibilty for a special project. It seems there was a former Brooklyn Dodgers' fanatic named Israel Shapiro who had become for one reason or another, a street person. Israel had a sister on Long Island, but lived on the street. He had wild grey hair that stuck out in long greasy shocks, with about 12 of his original teeth in his head. He wore sneakers with holes and no socks. His only companion was a shopping bag from a book store that was weighed down by that year's current Green and Red Books and by an Expos' press guide that I gave him on every first trip to New York of the year.
Like clockwork, every time the team bus would pull up to the Grand Hyatt, Israel would be on the sidewalk peering through the glass door looking for the Duke of Flatbush. Hotel security was at a loss. He knew the schedule. He was crazy but he wasn't dumb. When the Duke would saunter elegantly down the steps of the bus with briefcase in hand, he would always, always stop and call Israel by name and chat with him for a couple of minutes until he calmed down. To me that tells a lot about the man.
The great Dave Van Horne is going to the Hall-of-Fame this year joining his former broadcast partner. It's a shame Duke won't be there to see it happen. From 1973 to 1978, my first years with the Expos, the period before I began traveling with the team as media director, I scored every road game off radio in order to compose stats that would later be used in arbitration. I learned more about baseball, about appreciating the game, about loving the players, about laughing at stories of horsehide bromance and camaraderie from listening to Dave and Duke tnhan I knew existed. It has led me to where I am today. Rest in Peace, my hall-of-fame friend Duke Snider.