Posts Tagged ‘Duke Snider’

Musings on Musial

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

By Michael Kaufman

Gerald Eskenazi described the stance perfectly in the Wall Street Journal. “When Stan Musial stepped into the batter’s box, he was unforgettable: He stood at the plate using a peculiar, corkscrewed stance, untwisting as the ball approached, rifling singles, doubles, triples and home runs in numbers few others ever reached. When this most amiable of men held a bat, he reeked of danger.”

When I was a kid I often tried copying Musial’s unique batting stance. Let’s just say I did not reek of danger. I fared somewhat better when copying the stance of my hero, Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers. So what was a kid who rooted for the Dodgers doing copying Musial’s batting stance in the first place? Musial, who died last month at 92, played for the St. Louis Cardinals.

“Yes, he was St. Louis’s own—there are two statues of him at their ballpark—and he brought fame to his coal-country birthplace in Donora, Pa.,” wrote Eskenazi. “It was in Brooklyn, though, where he was tagged by fans as ‘the Man’ in honor of the way he regularly demolished the Dodgers. How many visiting ballplayers are regarded as a beloved foe?”   Eskenazi noted a certain irony in Musial’s appeal to Dodger fans, known for being emotional and rowdy.  “He was not flashy, or big or particularly fast. He greeted fans at the park with a low-keyed ‘Whattayasay, whattayasay.’” Unless my mind is playing tricks on me that is exactly what he said when he gave me his autograph on Stan Musial Day at the Polo Grounds in 1962. I think he homered in that game too. Musial was 41 at the time but he did the same thing to the Mets that he used to do to the Dodgers. The only difference was that most hitters on the opposing teams also clobbered Mets pitching that first season. (That year the Mets hitters also made most of the opposing pitchers look like Sandy Koufax.) Musial finished the 1962 season with a batting average of .330. He hit so well against the Mets he even decided not to retire for another year.

In 1964 I went with a group of friends to see the Mayor’s Trophy Game—a pre-season exhibition game between the Mets and New York Yankees—at the new Shea Stadium. But the start was delayed by rain and the game was canceled. Just as we left the ballpark to head for the subway a door opened and the entire Yankee team came out and began walking toward a team bus parked nearby. We stopped in our tracks and joined other Mets fans in booing. My friend Mike Saperstein looked Mickey Mantle in the eye and said, “You couldn’t tie Stan Musial’s shoelaces!” Mantle’s jaw dropped and we all laughed and slapped palms with Sap, as he was known to us all except one knucklehead who shall remain nameless who insisted on calling him Max. When finally asked why, he said, “Isn’t his name Max? Max Applestein.” (Ironically, both Mantle and Musial outlived Sap.)

I had no friends who were Yankee fans. Before the Mets came to town we had all rooted for the Dodgers or New York Giants, fierce rivals in the National League. But when it came to the Yankees, we had a united front that even Georgi Dimitrov would have envied. Only later did I come to appreciate Mantle for the great player he was.

But there was no one quite like Stan the Man.

Michael can be reached at


Goodbye to the Duke of Flatbush

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

By Michael Kaufman

Duke Snider won almost every game he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers with a home run in the bottom of the 9th inning. Those games, all against the Giants and Yankees, were played at an imaginary Ebbets Field in the driveway of my Aunt Sadye and Uncle Joe’s house on Reads Lane in Far Rockaway. Grandma Kaufman lived upstairs.

Duke Snider (1926-2011)

The brick wall on the side of the house was the perfect target for the pink rubber “spaldeen” that served as the baseball. The neighbor’s hedge on the other side of the driveway was the outfield wall. Those were all I needed to be pitcher, catcher, umpire, batter, fielder—and even the announcer–for those epic contests against the Dodgers’ arch rivals. “Runners on first and third, one out….The infield is at double-play death.” (I hadn’t learned the word “depth” yet.)

For a ground ball I would throw the spaldeen near the bottom of the wall, field it, and throw it back to the wall so I could catch it as the first baseman. “Top of the fourth, two outs, nobody on…. Alvin Dark the batter for the Giants…. Here’s the pitch from Erskine…. grounder to second… .Gilliam up with it, throws to first…. side retired.” Ground balls that got past me were hits. Fly balls that went over the hedge (“on to Bedford Avenue”) were home runs. The neighbor never complained.

The 1919 Chicago White Sox had nothing on me. My games were all unabashedly fixed, although I had an occasional slipup….like the time I tried to have Snider make a great catch to rob Mickey Mantle of a home run but I threw the spaldeen too hard and too high up on the wall so it sailed into the neighbor’s yard.  Or the time I tried to get Willie Mays to hit in to a double play with the bases loaded but the usually dependable Pee Wee Reese bobbled the ball and then made a bad throw to first.  Of course the good thing about having all the games at Ebbets Field was that no matter what happened I could still arrange it for the Dodgers to win….and for the Duke to be the hero.

Jackie Robinson was my father’s hero, for reasons I would understand better later on. But for me, no one came close to the Duke. My parents bought me a little Dodgers’ uniform with the number 4 sewn on the back, Duke’s number. I copied his batting stance, his stylish uppercut swing that looked good even when he struck out. Even now I can make the case that during the years that he, Mantle, and Mays played in New York (1951-1957), he was every bit as good with the bat and glove as those two all-time greats (although he was never the base runner they were). But someone looking only at their lifetime career statistics would have no clue. The Duke ended his career with a total of 404 home runs. Mantle had 536, Mays 660.

Duke’s home-run total would have been a lot closer to Mantle’s were it not for Walter O’Malley. When O’Malley, the Dodgers’ owner,  broke Brooklyn’s heart and took the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958, he also took the home runs out of Duke’s bat.  The Dodgers played their first four seasons in La La Land in the cavernous Los Angeles Coliseum, where the right-field fence measured 440 feet from home plate. Snider, who had hit 40 or more home runs every season from 1953 through 1957, hit only 15 in 1958 and would never hit more than 23 again.

Legend has it that Don Drysdale, the Hall of Fame Dodgers pitcher and Snider’s roommate, wept when the team sold Snider to the Mets in 1963. But for old Dodgers fans it was a chance to come out and cheer for our hero again. At first it was a thrill to see him standing in center field at the Polo Grounds in a Mets uniform, to shout at the top of our lungs when he came to bat, “Come on DOOK!” But soon it became clear that for Duke the thrill was gone. He scowled and shivered uncomfortably in the outfield during the cold-weather games in April. He didn’t run out ground balls, which angered some of his younger teammates who had illusions about the team’s chances of success that year. (Duke knew they were none to none.) He ended the season with 14 home runs, 45 runs batted in and a .243 batting average in 354 at-bats (his most at-bats since 1957).

That was his penultimate season and it was not without its good moments. There was the time the Dodgers were in town and Snider came up to bat against Drysdale. Drysdale grooved a fastball down the middle of the plate and Snider timed his signature swing perfectly to hit a home run. After the game Drysdale said with a wink, “I just wanted to see if he could still hit the fastball.”

For those who were there it was a glimpse of the Snider of old, the great hitter who had once explained in an interview with The Sporting News, “In the split second from the time the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand until it reaches the plate you have to think about your stride, your hip action, your wrist action, determine how much, if any, the ball is going to break, and then decide whether to swing at it.”

There was one last forgettable season in 1964 with the San Francisco Giants. He hit only .210 with four home runs and 17 RBI in 91 at-bats.  But no one will remember him as a player for the Giants or the Mets—and only the Californians will think of him as a player for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was and will forever be the Duke of Flatbush.

Michael can be reached at