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The Duke

The Duke

By Arnold Abrams

Let me tell you about one of the most memorable moments of my life.

It happened in September, 1956, when I was 17 and Sports Editor of the Lincoln Log, published monthly by Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. Although they hardly needed publicity, Brooklyn Dodger officials had approved my request to do a feature about the pre-game atmosphere of the team’s Ebbets Field clubhouse.

I went to the ballpark, where I had attended dozens of games in the centerfield bleachers or reserved infield seats, made my way to the clubhouse—which had a formidable  KEEP OUT sign—and showed my official letter to a security guard. He opened the door, I walked in, and there they were.

I didn’t need a score card. Their faces were as familiar to me as family members or longtime friends (which, in a way, they were). The first ones I saw were Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson; next were Carl Erskine and Gil Hodges. Then there were the rest, and I was among them.

For years I had watched them, prayed for them, cheered them and cried for them. Now, escorted by their clubhouse man, awed beyond words, I was surrounded by Dodgers wearing vanilla white uniforms with dark blue lettering. Anybody nowadays can walk into a sporting goods store and, for an outrageous sum, buy a uniform shirt with the team logo and player’s name and number; such things didn’t exist in the 1950s.

Many players were simply standing around smoking (which surprised me) or sitting on wooden stools in front of their lockers. But, as team captain, Pee Wee had a large wooden chair. He stood as I approached, introduced himself and said he was glad to meet me. Then he took me to a teammate, introduced me by name and, making it sound important, announced that I was a real fan, a high school sports editor and a Brooklyn resident.

So it was that I came to meet Duke Snider, my favorite. If the Dodger clubhouse was heaven, he was, to me, God.

Duke asked me where I lived. When I told him Brighton Beach, he said, “I know where that is – it’s near Coney Island.” He added: “I’m not too far from you. I live in Bay Ridge.” He really did. Major leaguers in those days actually lived or rented in local communities.

Then, suggesting that we take a picture together, he put his arm around me, holding my shoulder as if we were longtime buddies. The Duke and me. Maybe it gets better than that—but not for me, not as a teenager. I suspect he promptly forgot about that moment, but I remember it to this day.

A major question in the 1950’s—probably created by, and certainly fed by, the press—involved baseball’s best center fielder: Was it Snider, Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle? Some fans of a certain age still debate the matter. I’m simply glad all three were there and playing in New York.

In addition to being extraordinarily good looking, intelligent and articulate, Snider also was outspoken and straightforward. The former characteristic was never on better display than on a night in 1955, when he had been booed lustily after striking out. After the game, fuming, he snarled to some sports writers: “You want a story? I’ll give you one. Dodger fans are the lousiest in baseball.”

Not surprisingly, those remarks – which he insisted reporters write down – got big play. A crescendo of boos greeted him the next day, but he homered in his first at-bat and belted another afterward. As he rounded the bases the second time, fans were cheering as if nothing had happened.

His personal fortitude was exemplified 40 years later, when he returned to Brooklyn as a criminal defendant in federal court, not far from where Ebbets Field once stood. He and another former star pleaded guilty to tax fraud for not reporting thousands of dollars earned by signing autographs and attending sports memorabilia shows.

Afterward, the other guy ducked out a back door. But Snider chose to face a mob of reporters and television cameras. “We have choices to make in our lives,” he said. “I made the wrong choice.”

The next—and last—time I met Snider was at a charity luncheon in Brooklyn nearly nine years ago. Then 75 and living in his native California, he had returned for a Cyclones game (they are a Mets farm team) and the official opening of a memory-filled baseball gallery at that team’s Coney Island ballpark. I attended the luncheon with my wife because a thoughtful daughter made the required fund-raising pledge and gave the seats to her parents.

Duke did not remember me, of course, but laughed out loud at the 1956 clubhouse photo of us. “That was me 20 pounds ago,” he said. Looking good, still a presence but seemingly more mellow and reflective, he talked wistfully about the Dodgers. “We didn’t realize what we had,” he said. “That was a special time in a special place, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

He suggested taking another picture with me, and was careful to hold me the same way. Then he inscribed a personal message: “You are nearer my age now!”

Snider went to Los Angeles with the Dodgers in 1958. They sold him five years later to the Mets, who subsequently sent him to—of all teams—the Giants, the only club the 1950s Dodgers genuinely disliked. He subsequently managed in the Dodgers’ and San Diego Padres’ farm systems, then served as a broadcaster for the Padres and the Montreal Expos.

Yes, death is inevitable, but Duke’s devastated me. It came in February, when he was 84 and had spent several months in a California nursing home. His obituary received prominent play in New York newspapers, one of which (The Times) topped it with a six-column head aptly describing him as “A Prince of NY’s Golden Age of Baseball.”

He and most of his Brooklyn teammates now are gone.  One who is not, Ralph Branca, subsequently wrote a poignant op-ed piece for the Times. Learning that Snider was failing, he phoned his bedside from home. “I wanted to tell Duke just how much I admired him,” wrote Branca, who had remained close. “I wanted him to know what a privilege it was to call him my friend.”

But by then the once-powerful Snider, who had hit so hard, fielded so well and run so fast, was too weak to respond. In fact, Branca could not be sure the dying man had heard him. “All Bev [Snider’s wife] could do was put the phone to his ear,” he wrote.

After graduating from high school, I attended college and journalism school, then was hired by Newsday. I subsequently was awarded a Carnegie Foundation Fellowship, studied Chinese and spent eight years in Hong Kong with my family.  Most of that time was devoted to covering Vietnam and the war-torn countries adjacent to it as a free-lancer.

During those years, and the two decades I subsequently spent at Newsday after returning, I met and interviewed many prominent people (including an American president and several foreign prime ministers), witnessed several historic events and covered some memorable stories. But nothing ever matched the soaring sensation of that magical 1956 moment when Duke held my shoulder.

I was reminded of that in 1998, when historian Doris Kearns Goodwin published “Wait Till Next Year,” a memoir of her childhood and her fervor for the Dodgers.

She started a promotional tour for the book by visiting Rockville Centre, where she grew up. In the course of an hour-long presentation before a packed high school auditorium, she mentioned how, as an adult, she had essentially turned tongue-tied when meeting Pee Wee Reese.  I brought that up afterward in a question-and-answer session.

Pointing out that she was a well-known writer who had spent much time with President Lyndon Johnson as a White House intern and special assistant, I added that she had also interviewed and written extensively about the Kennedy family—and that she appeared regularly on television. She was, in short, a pro.

“So how come you were overwhelmed by meeting Pee Wee?” I asked.

She laughed, blushed and thought a seemingly long time before answering. “I guess there’s something special about meeting a childhood hero,” she said.

She nailed it.

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