Duke Snider is gone, slipping away at age 84. Most fans today never saw him play. How could they? He retired all the way back in 1964, and even that was after a pair of lost final seasons: first with the Mets, which was a joke, and then with the Giants, which, for a Dodger, is almost a sacrilege. Especially for a Brooklyn Dodger.
But he stands out in the literary baseball fan’s memory, in a way that he probably shouldn’t. I mean, first Joe DiMaggio, then Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays: New York had brighter lights in those days—men who were better ballplayers and bigger personalities. Of course, a kind of generous reaction sets in, as soon as one says that. Snider was good. He hit more homeruns in the 1950s than any other player. He was a good fielder, in the days when a centerfielder had to be.
Roy Campanella won MVP awards in 1953 and 1955, mainly because the sportswriters loved him and he was the best catcher in baseball, while Snider was only the third-best centerfielder in New York. But the simple truth is that Snider was the better player both those years—and 1953, remember, may have been the year the Dodgers put on the field the greatest lineup ever: Their pitching was weak, but from top to bottom, the eight-man lineup was as good as it gets. And Duke Snider’s statistics that year outshone the rest.
And yet, even while defending him—and he was a great, great player, a left-handed hitter in a lineup that needed him—we know that Mantle was better. And so was Mays. But the Duke stands clear for us, or for me, at least, because a man named Roger Kahn once wrote a book about the Brooklyn Dodgers in the early 1950s. A book called The Boys of Summer.
If you were a boy reader, if you lay on the long grass in the late summer afternoon with a book, then The Boys of Summer was the kind of thing you read. Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson. Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo. Kahn didn’t bring them to life on the page. He did better than that. He made them icons of talent and training, of success and failure, of ambition and despair. He made them mythic, in the way that Homer made men mythic: not ideal people—Ajax went violently mad, Duke Snider was happy every time he was walked and didn’t have to face up to a swing—but nonetheless universal. Real men who were also types of men. People we knew, writ large.
What you read as a child, you remember forever. The Duke was from California, and he wanted to be an avocado farmer, of all things. Bankrupted himself doing it, too. Years later, he was convicted of failing to pay taxes on the money he made from autograph signings and personal appearances, and that, too, was predictable from the man Kahn sketched.
The title came from a poem by Dylan Thomas:
I see the boys of summer in their ruin
Lay the gold tithings barren,
Setting no store by harvest, freeze the soils;
There in their heat the winter floods
Of frozen loves they fetch their girls,
And drown the cargoed apples in their tides.
And that, too, was just right for the young reader. The cargoed apples, the winter store—I was just old enough to think I got the metaphor—was lost in the flood of all that talent the Duke had, the high tide of his greatness as a player. And when you’re young, it seems romantic not to make plans for the future: to set no store by the harvest.
Ah, well, the Duke is gone, now. But he remains real, and more than real. The mythic man, who played baseball so well.