At his peak, the Duke was right there with Willie and Mickey
Duke Snider, the Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Famer who passed away on Sunday, will forever be remembered as part of New York's great center field triumvirate of the 1950s along with the Giants' Willie Mays and the Yankees' Mickey Mantle.
Being one third of Willie, Mickey and the Duke, as well as one of Brooklyn's iconic "Boys of Summer" has given Snider a place very near the heart of the game, a legacy his 407 career home runs and 2,116 career hits otherwise might not have. At the same time, being widely and correctly regarded as the least of that center field trio has caused some to forget just how great a player Snider was at his best.
During the peak of their rivalry, the gap between Snider and his crosstown counterparts was slight. Mantle and Mays were rookies in 1951, and because Mays lost all but 34 games of the 1952 and 1953 seasons to military duty and the Dodgers and Giants moved to California after the 1957 season, the era of Willie, Mickey and the Duke really only spanned the 1954 to 1957 seasons. Here are how those three Hall of Famer's performed during those four seasons (using their seasonal averages in counting stats):
Snider doesn't miss by much in the rate stats and is right there with Mays and Mantle in his counting numbers. He wasn't as fast as the other two (who was?) and had a hard time in the MVP voting thanks to a blown vote in 1956 (when he led the league in on-base percentage, slugging, OPS, OPS+, home runs, walks, and intentional walks but inexplicably finished 10th, behind four teammates), the presence of Mays and Hank Aaron, and the fact that he was teammates with a catcher in Roy Campanella who put up comparable numbers. Still, he finished second in the voting in 1955, fourth in 1954, and third in 1953. In 1955 he was named the Sporting News Player of the Year, an award then given to just one player in all of baseball. Mays won the award in 1954. Mantle won in 1956.
Snider's 1953 season, omitted above, was significantly better than his 1957 season. If we instead isolate the four years from '53 to '56 for Snider we get this line: .320/.415/.626 (165 OPS+), 42 HR, 123 RBI, 122 R, which puts him right there with Mays. Still, Mays has the edge in the park-adjusted OPS+. That points to the fact that Brooklyn's Ebbets Field was a great park in which to hit during those seasons, but Snider didn't just get fat on home cooking. Here are his road splits during that four year peak:
Bearing in mind that most hitters hit better at home, there's nothing there to support the criticism of Snider as a park-created phenomenon.
Snider was a great player, pure and simple. He didn't have the speed of Mays or Mantle, but he did everything else extremely well. He hit for average (.295 career, over .300 seven times, over .320 three times), had great power (he hit 40 home runs five years in a row from 1953 to 1957 -- only Babe Ruth, Alex Rodriguez, and Sammy Sosa have surpassed that streak -- and he slugged .600 three times and also led the league at .598 in 1956), got on base (.380 on-base percentage career with three full seasons over .400, another with a league-leading .399 OBP, and two shortened seasons over .400), and despite his modest speed, he was regarded as an outstanding center fielder. Snider never won a Gold Glove, but that was largely because the Gold Glove award wasn't introduced until 1957, his last great season, and for the first four years of its existence, the voters only selected one player from each outfield position, leaving Snider in Mays' shadow again.
Snider's position was every bit as significant as how well he played it. In 2010, the only positions to offer less offense than center field were shortstop, catcher, and second base. As SI.com's Joe Posnanski recently realized, the only center fielders to be voted into the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America since Snider in 1980 (Mays was elected in 1979) were Kirby Puckett and Andre Dawson, the latter of whom actually played more games in right field, and neither of whom could match Snider's all-around offensive game at his peak. In fact, the list of major league center fielders who hit like Snider at his peak is short: Mays, Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Ken Griffey Jr., Hack Wilson, and perhaps Jim Edmonds. You can throw in Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker from the dead-ball era if you wish. Still, that's at most nine men, including Snider, in the 140-year history of the major leagues.
Snider's ultimate shortcoming was his early decline, brought about by a combination of a bad knee and unfavorable West Coast ballparks. Snider was just 31 when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. In his final season in Brooklyn, he hit .274/.368/.587 with 42 home runs and 92 RBIs, below his usual standard, but still worthy of a few down-ballot MVP votes. In 1958, the Dodgers jerry-rigged Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for baseball, erecting a fence that was 390 feet from home in right field (picture Fenway Park's right field, but moreso). Snider hit .331/.407/.573 on the road that year, but just .294/.335/.441 at home and saw his overall home run total drop to just 15. The Dodgers brought the fences in nearly 60 feet in 1959, and Snider rebounded with a .308/.400/.535 performance, helping the Dodgers to a second world championship, but by then his knee had forced him to split his time between center and right fields and reduced his overall playing time.
Snider never had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title after the Dodgers left Brooklyn and would never reach 20 home runs again after 1959. Though for reasons less significant than Jackie Robinson's retirement or Campanella's car accident, Duke Snider left his best baseball in Brooklyn. That kept him from keeping pace with Mays and Mantle in the 1960s, but also stoked his legend as the Duke of Flatbush, the Silver Fox that helped lead Brooklyn to five pennants and their only ever world championship, who twice hit four home runs in a single World Series, twice hit two homers in a single World Series game, just missed a home run down the line in Don Larson's perfect game, a game in which he also made a tremendous catch in center field, and hit .324/.391/.686 in the 1952, '53, '55, and '56 World Series combined. Duke Snider was no third wheel in that famous Gotham triumvirate. At his best, which he was during those years, the Duke deserved to be included alongside Willie and Mickey, as he always will be.