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A Brooklynite's fond memories of Duke Snider and the Dodgers

My father's family was from Brooklyn. Flatbush. Church Avenue. The Dodgers were the nexus that connected the brothers and sisters, the aunts and uncles. There supposedly is a picture of my grandmother kissing Gil Hodges outside of Ebbets Field that ran on the front page of the Brooklyn Eagle after the Dodgers had clinched one of their pennants in the early 1950s, but I never have seen it.

The first time my mother was invited to their apartment -- she might have been 19 or 20 -- she was sorely miffed because she assumed her future husband had not properly informed his family that this girl was "not just some chippy," a conclusion she reached because she was ignored all afternoon. The reason: a Dodgers game was on. On what? She always insisted it was on television, but this was 1947 or 1948, and I doubt Fanny Lesber, a secretary, if I recall correctly, owned a TV. My best guess is radio.

Goodness, how they worshipped Duke Snider.

The Willie-Mickey-Duke debate might have been the tavern talk of New York in the 1950s, but ours wasn't a drinking family. And there could be no argument, really. My guess is Uncle Nat and Aunt Shirley and the others tacitly understood that Snider was not the greatest of the great center fielders, but that was solidly beside the point. He was the best because he was theirs. He belonged to them, to their borough. The heart -- not a decimal point -- ruled in the 1950s. Snider wasn't perfect -- apparently his generous strike zone was a regular supper-table discussion -- but Brooklyn wasn't perfect, either.

The story: in June 1953, my father went to a game at Ebbets Field. He came home feeling ill. He died that night, age 29. Heart. A few years ago a cousin told me that he suffered from hypercholesterolemia. My mother was widowed with a son not yet two. In the 1950s, they didn't have either statin drugs or sabremetrics.

I was privileged to get to know Snider a little more than a quarter century later. In 1979 I moved to Montreal (Brooklyn's International League farm club in the 1950s) where Snider was working as the color man on Expos broadcasts. He was paired with the Dave Van Horne, a splendid team, men whom you would welcome into your home each summer night because they were such fine company. Dave 'n Duke. If statistical nuance did not much interest Snider, who cared? He knew how to spin a story. Almost every year in spring training Snider would casually analyze the Expos (off air) this way: "They need a left-handed hitter with hair on his ass." When the Expos traded for Al Oliver at the end of the 1982 spring, they finally had found Snider's hitter. The Oliver trade didn't lead to anything in the end for the franchise that became Bridesmaid Revisited, but I assume Duke was happy.

He was a sometimes diffident but unfailingly gracious man, someone -- without his knowing -- who kept my family history alive. I guess baseball didn't matter much to my disenfranchised mother once the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles -- in the 1970s she would joke that the name Vida Blue "sounded like a racehorse" and that the Cincinnati catcher shouldn't have "Bench" on his uniform if he were in the lineup -- but a chance to meet Snider certainly excited her.

This was 1981, in Philadelphia. The strike year. My mother and her husband, her third, drove down from New Jersey for an Expos-Phillies playoff game, stopping first at the City Center hotel where the Expos were staying. Standing in the bustling lobby was Snider, silvery and svelte, a stunningly handsome man then in his early 50s. I took my mother by the arm and walked her over to say hello.

Me: "Duke, I'd like you to meet my mother, Phyllis -- an old Brooklyn Dodgers fan."

Duke: "Pleasure."

Phyllis: "If you hadn't swung at all those bad pitches, my first husband might still be alive today."

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