The first home run account I ever heard on radio was called by legendary Dodger announcer Vin Scully and was hit by another Dodger legend, Duke Snider. That’s how easy it was to become a lifetime Dodger fan. I sometimes wonder what the outcome would have been for me if a member of the opposing team had hit a home run first that night. I cannot recall who the opponents were. Perhaps the Phillies.
During most of my younger years Duke was an important part of it but almost an invisible part. Starting in 1954 I did have access to baseball cards for the first time and found that getting a Duke Snider card was nearly impossible. His 1954 Topps card acquisition was worth more than gold to me. I acquired it by trade and expect I took a fleecing to obtain it. I did buy “Sport” magazine after a quick perusal to determine if there was an article about Duke in the magazine. I can recall one article that still resonates with me – “Duke Snider: The Dodgers Elder Statesman at 29”. I can remember carrying the magazine to school with me and worrying Duke was getting old. He did appear on the sport magazines covers quite often, oddly enough on “Sport” magazine on the September issues in 1954, 1955 and 1957.
I grew up as a Duke Snider fan and in the main never did have the opportunity to see him play. We didn’t have a television when I lived in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, so I listened to the 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1956 World Series games on radio. Perhaps that is why I still love listening to games on radio. I was able to watch the 1959 World Series on television as we did have a TV when we moved to Edmonton in 1957. It is unfortunate that Duke was traded to the Mets following the 1962 season and missed the opportunity to participate in the 1963 World Series with the Dodgers. Duke retired after the 1964 season and for some time I was unaware of his activities although I had read about his venture with avocado farming.
You can imagine my excitement when I turned on a Montreal Expo game in 1973 and Duke was teamed with Dave Van Horne on the Expo telecasts. Van Horne excelled as an announcer and Duke supported him well as a color commentator. Duke spoke in a quiet tone and didn’t try to dominate the telecast as some color commentators tend to do. He didn’t over analyze every play or interrupt Van Horne. Most importantly he was very humble about his own achievements and spoke of them only when asked about them.
When asked how he thought he compared to Mickey and Willie, Duke replied that for about eight years he was right there with them but they both had longer careers with more productive years than he had. He apparently loved defense and I could recall hearing Vin describe Duke scaling the walls at Ebbets Field or climbing the vines at Wrigley Field. Duke seemed to be a bit surprised when reminded he had hit the most home runs in the 1950’s.
Besides his humility I was impressed by Duke’s gratitude to the game of baseball for all it had given him. He always put himself in the context of the game. When asked how he felt about the big contracts players were getting into the eighties, Duke replied he was well paid and he played in the Golden Age of baseball. He said he wouldn’t trade that for anything. His biggest contract was $44,000. He compared himself to his father who was working for about one tenth of that a year. He also expressed gratitude to the opportunities baseball had given to him after he retired. I got the feeling he wanted to retire after the 1962 season but two more years with as a total of $70,000 in income was important to his future plans.
After the 1986 season Duke retired from the Expo telecasts. I apparently didn’t see the last game as I was surprised when the 1987 Expo season began and Duke was not on board. Needless to say I was more than disappointed. However, before 1987 I had an opportunity to share a personal moment with Duke. He was making a personal appearance at a Dodge-Chrysler dealership in Dartmouth, about an hour and a half drive from Lunenburg. I got away from school early, drove to Dartmouth and walked into the showroom. There was Duke sitting behind a desk with his wife Bev a bit further back. Bev was knitting and Duke was absolutely alone. What a moment. Me, along with Duke Snider. I brought “The Boys Of Summer” which he signed on page 374. I thanked him and the unthinkable happened. I was tongue tied, absolutely tongue tied. Duke said, “Don’t believe all you read.” I managed to get out “I won’t,” and left. I agonized all the way home. I didn’t shake his hand. I didn’t thank him for the enjoyment he had brought to my life. I felt like I had let him down. I didn’t give back.
What do you do when you mess up as I did? I certainly agonized over it for a long time and then simply chalked it up to an opportunity lost. Then another opportunity came along. In the early eighties I was reading a copy of “Dodger Blue” (I loved that publication) and noted that Duke would be at Spring Training in Vero Beach. Again the unthinkable happened. One evening during Spring Training I picked up the phone, dialed Dodgertown, and asked for Duke. The call when through immediately and Duke answered. I could tell he had been asleep. However, I proceeded with the call trying not to have a shaky voice. I introduced myself, told him from where I was calling, and said, “I called to thank you.” He replied, “For what”? As coherently as I could, I told him for the enjoyment he had brought into my life as a youngster and that he still did. I didn’t mention the Dartmouth incident but told him I wanted him to know how important he was in my life. He replied twice,”That’s very nice.” I didn’t press for more time, thanked him again,and we said, ‘Good night.” Imagine that, Duke Snider wishing me a good night. I had redeemed myself. I gave back what I had to give.
I miss Duke.