Duke Snider, the Hall of Fame center fielder for the charmed "Boys of Summer" who helped the Dodgers bring their elusive and only World Series crown to Brooklyn, died early Sunday of what his family called natural causes. He was 84.
Snider died at the Valle Vista Convalescent Hospital in Escondido, Calif., according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, which announced the death on behalf of the family.
"The Duke of Flatbush" hit .295 with 407 career home runs, played in the World Series six times and won two titles. But the eight-time All-Star was defined by much more than his stats he was, after all, part of the love affair between the borough of Brooklyn and "Dem Bums" who lived in the local neighborhoods.
Ebbets Field was filled with stars such as Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella and Gil Hodges during that 1955 championship season. Yet it is Snider's name that refrains in the ballpark favorite "Talkin' Baseball."
"Willie, Mickey, and the Duke," the popular song goes.
Snider wore No. 4 in Dodger blue, and was often regarded as the third-best center fielder in New York behind Willie Mays of the Giants and Mickey Mantle of the Yankees during what many fans considered the city's golden era of baseball.
"The newspapers compared Willie, Mickey and I, and that was their thing," Snider said several years ago. "As a team, we competed with the Giants, and we faced the Yankees in the World Series. So we had a rivalry as a team, that was it. It was an honor to be compared to them, they were both great players."
Mantle died in 1995 at age 63. Mays, now 79, threw out a ceremonial ball last fall before a playoff game in San Francisco.
Snider hit at least 40 home runs in five straight seasons and led the NL in total bases three times. He never won an MVP award, although a voting error may have cost him the prize in 1955. He lost to Campanella by a very narrow margin it later turned out an ill voter left Snider off the ballot, supposedly by mistake.
Snider hit .309 with 42 home runs and a career-high 136 RBIs in 1955. That October, he hit four homers, drove in seven runs and hit .320 as the Dodgers beat the Yankees in a seven-game World Series.
For a team that kept preaching "Wait till next year" after Series losses to the Yankees in 1953, 1952, 1949, 1947 and 1941, it had indeed become next year. A generation later, long after they'd all grown old, those Dodgers were lauded as the "Boys of Summer" in Roger Kahn's book.
Born Edwin Donald Snider, he got his nickname at an early age. Noticing his son return home from a game with somewhat of a strut, Snider's dad said, "Here comes the Duke."
The name stuck. So did Snider, once he played his first game in the majors in 1947, two days after Jackie Robinson's historic debut.
A durable slugger with a strong arm, good instincts on the bases and a regal style, Snider hit the last home run at Ebbets Field in 1957.
Snider's swing gave the Dodgers a lefty presence on a team of mostly righties. He often launched shots over the short right-field wall at the Brooklyn bandbox, rewarding a waiting throng that gathered on Bedford Avenue.
"The Duke's up," fans in the upper deck would shout to those on the street.
A wild swinger, Snider was harnessed by Branch Rickey, who made him practice standing at home plate with a bat on his shoulder calling balls and strikes but forbidden to swing.
Snider stayed with the Dodgers when they moved to Los Angeles in 1958 and won another World Series ring the next year. Prematurely gray, "The Silver Fox" returned to New York with the bumbling Mets in 1963 and finished his career in 1964 with the San Francisco Giants, the Dodgers' longtime rivals.
"There was no one classier or more easy going than Duke Snider," Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson said Sunday. "Above it all, he was a fan favorite for his style of play, personality, accessibility, and fondness for playing stickball with kids in the street of Brooklyn."
Snider was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1980 on his 11th try. He was a broadcaster for the Montreal Expos for several seasons he played in the city as a minor leaguer in the Brooklyn farm system and later was an announcer with the Dodgers.
In 1995, Snider pleaded guilty to federal tax charges and was sentenced to two years' probation and fined $5,000. He admitted not reporting more than $97,000 in cash from autograph signings, card shows and memorabilia sales.
Snider was sentenced at the Brooklyn federal courthouse, a few miles from where he had starred. The judge said Snider had been "publicly disgraced and humiliated ... here in Brooklyn, where you were idolized by a generation ... of which I was one."
Snider apologized for his actions. He said he began making autograph appearances because he had little in savings and had made several bad business decisions. The judge said Snider paid nearly $30,000 in back taxes and noted he had diabetes, hypertension and other illnesses.
A native Californian, Snider became part of Brooklyn's fabric during his playing days.
"I was born in Los Angeles," he once said. "Baseball-wise, I was born in Brooklyn. We lived with Brooklyn. We died with Brooklyn."
The Duke, however, had some early problems with the boisterous Brooklyn fans.
Once, in the early 1950s, he was quoted as calling them the worst in the game. He came to the park after the quote was published and was greeted with a chorus of boos. But he enjoyed one of his better nights, and silenced the fans for good.
"The fans were something." Snider said. "They were so close to you. You got to know them, some of them by name."
During his playing career, Snider became an avocado farmer. He lived many years in Fallbrook, Calif., which calls itself "the avocado capital of the world."
He is survived by his wife, Beverly, whom he married in 1947.