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Duke Snider, a classic Dodger, dies

February 27, 2011 |  1:41 pm

Snider1_325 We never got to see the best of him. Not really, not on the field, anyway. Not in Los Angeles.

Duke Snider was a legendary player before the Dodgers came to L.A. prior to the 1958 season. Put up numbers that now seem almost unfathomable.

In the five years with the Brooklyn Dodgers before they moved west, Snider averaged 41 home runs, 117 RBI and 116 runs per season.

The great debate was which New York team had the greatest center fielder -- the Giants with Willie Mays, the Yankees with Mickey Mantle or the Dodgers with Snider.

He was graceful on the field, clutch at the plate and, in my experience, a gentleman off the field. The last surviving regular member of the Boys of Summer, he died Sunday in a convalescent hospital in Escondido at age 84 after battling diabetes.

"He was an extremely gifted talent, and his defensive abilities were often overlooked because of playing in a small ballpark, Ebbets Field," veteran Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully said in a statement.

"When he had a chance to run and move defensively, he had the grace and the abilities of DiMaggio and Mays, and of course, he was a World Series hero that will forever be remembered in the borough of Brooklyn. Although it’s ironic to say it, we have lost a giant."

Snider was "The Duke of Flatbush," one of baseball’s all-time great nicknames, although he graduated from Compton High School.

In Brooklyn, he helped lead the Dodgers to six pennants and finally helped push them past the Yankees to their historic first World Series title in 1955. Though he was never voted MVP -- he hit .309 with 42 homers, 136 RBI and 126 runs in 1955 but finished second to teammate Roy Campanella -- he went on to the Hall of Fame.

Duke3_300 In Los Angeles, the cavernous Coliseum, a bum knee and perhaps age affected his production. His best season here was in 1959, when he hit .308 and had 23 home runs and 88 RBI in 370 at-bats on the Dodgers’ first World Series championship in L.A.

As with the rest of us, there were down moments in his career -- run-ins with fans and management, getting caught up in a memorabilia scandal in 1995.

But the silver-haired Snider later seemed to take to his elder-statesman position, though never shy about offering an honest opinion.

Those were great Dodgers teams he was part of -- Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Jim Gilliam, Carl Furillo and Campanella. Teams that so captured the imagination of Brooklyn that their move to Los Angeles still tears at the borough today.

At their center was the Silver Fox, batting third in the order, always rising to the moment in the World Series.

His legend only swelled in Terry Cashman’s iconic baseball song, "Talkin’ Baseball -- Willie, Mickey and the Duke," and in Roger Kahn’s classic sports book, "The Boys of Summer."

Though he would finish his career with seasons with the Mets and Giants, he seemed an eternal Dodger. A part of their classic past, even if it came before Los Angeles.

"Duke was not only a great player but he was a great person too," said Tommy Lasorda, his former teammate, in a statement. "He loved his family and loved the Dodgers. He was the true Dodger and represented the Dodgers to the highest degree of class, dignity and character. He was my teammate and friend, and I will really miss him."

-- Steve Dilbeck

Photos: (Top) Duke Snider rounds the bases after hitting one of four home runs for Brooklyn in the 1956 World Series. (Bottom) Duke Snider with Los Angeles on the road, circa 1962. Credits: Getty Images and Associated Press

For the record: An earlier photo caption accompanying a photo with this post said Duke Snider was celebrating the 1954 World Series championship with teammate Larry Sherry. The two were actually celebrating the 1959 World Series championship.

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