Of course, Edwin D. Snider is "the Duke" the Hall of Fame center fielder of the Boys of Summer. How can the blond, handsome, blue eyed Californian be 82? It was only yesterday he was hitting 40 or more homers for five years in a row.
It might have been five or six or seven if Brooklyn hadn't moved to LA when Snider was only 31 years old and in his major league prime. But while Walter O'Malley was building Dodgers Stadium in Chavez Ravine, Snider and the Dodgers were forced to play in the LA Coliseum, with the short(est) left field wall in history BUT the longest right field fence in baseball. Snider's home run blasts were turned into routine fly balls. It's was as if Popeye had lost his spinach.
To be sure, LA never saw the same Duke Snider the Brooklyn fans did.
Now the Duke played center at the very same time as Willy Mays played the same position for the Giants and one Mickey Mantle in center for the Yankees. Three Hall of Famers all at once in one city. They wrote songs about it. Beyond that, baseball fans argued long into the night as to who was better. Willy was the most flamboyant for sure. Mickey would peddle his hurting legs such long distances but still get to every ball. And then there was the Duke, silky smooth, elegant in his fashion, catching everything in sight without miracles or without fanfare.
Duke Snider is one of those Dodgers who've seen everything Dodgers from early World War II until today. He was signed as a free agent in 1941 and broke into the big leagues in 1947 at 19, the same year as Jackie Robinson.
Duke was the number three hitter, where you put your best guy. For the five year span Duke hit 40 or more homers, he averaged 80 plus extra base hits a year - more than Mantle or Mays. He saved a bunch of his homers for the world series too. And to tell you what baseball was like then, Snider had to fight like hell to get his salary up over $30,000 a year. Even as a sure fire Hall of Famer, the Duke never finished higher than 2nd in the MVP balloting, partially due to the fact that his disposition wasn't always as sunshiney as his California looks.
We wonder what the Duke is thinking in his private moments in Dodgertown in Vero Beach this week, in what probably will be the last fantasy camp the team ever holds in Florida. So many memories, so many years. So many people gone now. So many ghosts in a magical place enjoying its last weeks and months as a Dodgers centerpiece.
Surely the Duke remembers just after the war when Branch Rickey brought Hall of Fame lefty hitter George Sisler, who once hit over .400 into Vero to teach the free swinging Snider some sense of the strike zone, a major step for the Duke making it big. And he's probably laughing over Johnny Podres, gone only weeks now. The Duke probably remembers Stan Wasiak as a kid - before Wasiak became minor league baseballs all time leader in games managed.
Or Ike Ikuhara, Peter O'Malleys long time sidekick. Or many of the other Dodgers immortals.
82 ... 82 ... Where did it go?
Odds and Ends
Willy Aybar, the once promising Dodgers infielder, seems not to have stopped his downward spiral. Swapped for Braves infielder Wilson Betemit, Aybar was sidelined by personal problems, then swapped over the winter to the hapless Tampa Bay whatevers, and now has been sitting a week in some island jail for domestic abuse, read that wife beating.
They say he might be in the calaboose until May, months after spring training ends and maybe killing his chances to make the big leagues this year. But then, Tampa Bay took wife beater Julio Lugo from Houston, resurrected him, swapped him TO the Dodgers and then on to the World Champion Red Sox.
Lefty Mark Hendrickson, like Luis Gonzalez, found work in Florida with the Marlins. His rate went down and the Marlins' lowest in the big leagues payroll wasn't threatened. Still, Hendrickson is dong better than Odalis Perez and Jeff Weaver who are unemployed with less than a month to go before pitchers and catchers report. Like Jorge Julio, the pitcher who did sign a deal, both Perez and Weaver have million dollar arms and penny ante heads.
One baseball pundit was ranking the worst players at every national league position. Juan Pierre won the nod for left fielders, with Paul Lo Duca coming in second worst among catchers. Oh how the mighty have fallen. Then again, they are still working, and one time and maybe still future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza still has not found work even as a DH.
Ex-Dodgers still out there looking for something include ex-manager Jim Tracy, pitching coach Jim Colburn and others. With all the out of work Dodgers out of work so soon from their so called "salad days" in Los Angeles, one wonders if perchance they might have been overvalued or overhyped while they were there. Certainly, it looks like they were overpaid.
The Florida papers are regularly writing that the Baltimore Orioles will be the team to move into Dodgertown as soon as the Dodgers give the city fathers the final exit date. If so, Vero Beach will be doing better than other Florida cities which are losing their teams to Arizona. One wonders if Joe Torre, coming off surgery, will be up to the travel to and from Florida, to China and back.
Minor league manager John Shoemaker might be the last Dodgers minor league employee who was in harness during the O'Malley years. The Dodgers, once renowned throughout the sport for their security and loyalty to and from employees, have switched gears.
In less than a month, we have lost two pals, Johnny Podres and now Billy Shelley. Back in 1988, none of us would ever imagine that 20 years would pass and the Dodgers would still be waiting for another championship. At least they will have really good seats for the next time around.
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