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Baseball legend Duke Snider dies at age 84

PHOENIX — In the Dodgers clubhouse Sunday afternoon, a rectangular bulletin board posted information on report times, lineups and workout schedules. Standard stuff for a baseball team in spring training.

But one sheet of paper was anything but standard. It read, simply, "Duke 4."

Edwin Donald "Duke" Snider, a Brooklyn Dodgers icon who contributed mightily to the "Golden Age" of New York baseball — while wearing uniform No. 4 — died Sunday at the Valle Vista Convalescent Hospital in Escondido, Calif. He was 84.

"He was a winner," former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda said at Camelback Ranch after a Dodgers Cactus League game. "It's a tremendous loss for our Dodgers and for his family, and I'm proud to say that I was a teammate and a friend of his."

Added longtime Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, in a statement: "When he had a chance to run and move defensively, he had the grace and the abilities of (Joe) DiMaggio and (Willie) 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."

In the early to mid 1950s, New York fans were consumed by a debate for the ages: Who was the best centerfielder in town? Was it Mays, who played for the rival Giants (hence Scully's "irony")? The Yankees' Mickey Mantle? Or Mr. Snider, also known as "The Duke of Flatbush"? Opinions will vary eternally, yet the three — all members of the Baseball Hall of Fame — enhanced their fame by being part of "Willie, Mickey and the Duke."

"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."

Mr. Snider, the last of the trio to be inducted into the Hall, in 1980, put up statistics that were not the equal of his contemporaries, yet that didn't diminish his status among Dodgers faithful. He leads the Dodgers all-time in home runs (389) and RBIs (1,271), and he hit four home runs in the 1955 World Series, when the Dodgers finally defeated the hated Yankees to win their first championship.

"Mickey, Duke and Mays, they were great players in one town," former Dodgers teammate and Rays special adviser Don Zimmer said. "Duke never got the credit for being the outfielder that Mays and Mantle were. …

"As a friend, I had a lot of good times with him. (Johnny) Podres and I and Duke, we spent many hours at night over a beer or something. Duke liked the horses like I did. … He was a great guy."

Mr. Snider's father, Ward, seeing him return proudly from his first day at school at age 5, called him the Duke.

Mr. Snider played for the Dodgers from 1947 through 1962. His swing provided a lefty presence on a team of mostly righties. He often launched shots over the short rightfield wall at Ebbets Field, rewarding a throng that gathered on Bedford Avenue. "The Duke's up," fans in the upper deck would shout to those on the street.

He had a wild swing that 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.

Mr. 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 Giants. In all, he hit 407 homers.

After his retirement, Mr. Snider managed in the minors for the Dodgers and Padres and worked for the Montreal Expos as a hitting coach and broadcaster, spending 15 years in the booth with current Marlins broadcaster Dave Van Horne.

He spent his final years as a Dodgers dignitary, appearing at events, until an unspecified illness struck, according to Lasorda. The team didn't announce a cause of death.

"Today, I feel that I have lost a dear friend," Mays said. "He was a hero to the fans in Brooklyn and a great Dodger."

Baseball legend Duke Snider dies at age 84 02/27/11 [Last modified: Monday, February 28, 2011 7:04am]
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