One of the most iconic and beloved players of the 1960s passed away Sunday. Duke Snider, elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980 following an 18-year major league career in which he hit 407 home runs, died following an undisclosed illness at the Valle Vista Convalescent Hospital in Escondido, Calif. He was 84.
‘The Duke of Flatbush’ was a favorite of Brooklyn fans who compared him to fellow New York stars Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. The three were the subject of Terry Cashman’s baseball ballad “Willie, Mickey and the Duke”. Now, only the 79-year-old Mays survives.
“Duke was a fine man, a terrific hitter and a great friend, even though he was a Dodger,” said Mays, the lifelong Giant who enjoyed a friendly rivalry with Snider and Mantle. “It was great playing centerfield in New York in the 1950s, along with Mickey and Duke. I have wonderful memories of that. Duke and I played on some All-Star teams together and even on the same Giants team the last year he played (1964). Today, I feel that I have lost a dear friend. He was a hero to the fans in Brooklyn and a great Dodger.”
When all three were living, they cashed in on opportunities to sign autographs for pay, a concept that didn’t arrive in earnest until the mid-1980s. Snider, in fact, found himself in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service in 1995 when they discovered he had failed to report $97,000 in income from paid signings and appearances at card shows. He admitted his mistakes to a federal court and his nice-guy reputation was barely tarnished. Snider’s flowing penmanship is still instantly recognizable to most autograph collectors.
Snider was sentenced to two years probation over the tax evasion case and paid a $5,000 fine. He also paid the nearly $30,000 in back taxes. Ironically, he was sentenced at the Brooklyn federal courthouse, not far from where Ebbets Field once stood. 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 claimed he started signing for pay because he had virtually no money in savings, partly because of some poor business decisions.
Later, he made several appearances on behalf of TRI-STAR Productions. The company posted a note about his passing on its Facebook page Sunday evening. “Duke was a frequent guest signer at TRISTAR shows and always made everyone he met feel special,” it read in part.
Born September 19, 1926 in Los Angeles, Snider made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Once he assumed duties as the club’s every day center fielder, Snider totaled 20 home runs in nine straight seasons, from 1949-1957, hitting a league-best 43 in 1956, and finishing as the National League Most Valuable Player runner-up in 1955, helping to lead the Dodgers to their only World Series victory.
Snider’s 1949 Bowman rookie card sells for about $900 in near mint condition. Mint, graded copies have sold for over $10,000.
Said Jeff Idelson, President of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “There was no one classier or more easy going than Duke Snider. He was nationally renowned for his smooth fielding and powerful bat—as evidenced by hitting more home runs in the 1950s than anyone else. He is still today revered by Brooklynites everywhere for patrolling center field in Ebbets Field with grace and dignity, leading the underdog Dodgers to five pennants and their only World Series title in New York, in 1955. 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.”
A graceful fielder with a picture-perfect swing, Snider anchored six pennant-winning teams and clouted 11 World Series home runs, including four in 1952 and 1955, while driving in 26 runs in the Fall Classic. An eight-time All-Star, Snider led the league in runs scored in three straight seasons, 1953-55.
Snider’s Dodgers tenure spanned 11 seasons in Brooklyn (1947-1957), followed by five seasons in Los Angeles (1958-1962) following the team’s move West for the 1958 campaign. Snider played one season each with the Mets (1963) and Giants (1964).
“The sport to which I owe so much has undergone profound changes, but it’s still baseball,” Snider once said. “Kids still imitate their heroes on playgrounds. Fans still ruin expensive suits going after foul balls that cost five dollars. Hitting streaks still make the network news and hot dogs still taste better at the ballpark than at home.”
There has been no shortage of Snider cards and memorabilia produced over the years. Over 4,800 items are listed on eBay including over 2700 cards and 1600 autographs. You can see them here.