Duke, Willie or Mickey?: New York's Old Debate
Mickey, Willie or The Duke: Which one was the best center fielder? Which one was the best all-around baseball player?
Each man had his avid defenders. Each man had strong evidence to support his case.
That is why the argument raged in most New York City neighborhood bars for the seven years (1951–1957) all three of them played there. No quiet, civil debate was this.
The battle of words was waged by youngsters at school and on playgrounds, by men and women gathered around the office water coolers, and by folks during bus and subway commuter rides. Arguments spread far and wide throughout the suburbs. Even families were divided over this issue, causing disruptions at mealtime.
It was much more serious stuff than those silly debates concerning Eisenhower vs. Stevenson and other political junk of the day. This was what really mattered in life.
Mickey Mantle was the man of the proud and prestigious New York Yankees, housed in the Bronx. Willie Mays was the star of the Manhattan-based New York Giants. And Duke Snider held forth in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn.
The divisive arguments, which were never settled, subsided in 1958 when the Dodgers and Giants hightailed it out of town and moved to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively, taking The Duke and Willie along with them.
One thing was then certain: Mantle was the best baseball player east of the Rockies for the next few years.
Now only one of those three great center fielders, the 79-year-old Willie Mays, remains alive because Duke Snider died a week ago today at the age of 84. Mickey Mantle died in 1995, when he was 63.
Each one of these MLB heroes was a spectacular athlete, an excellent slugging hitter and a fast outfielder capable of chasing down balls most men never reached. Mantle and Mays were often tested defensively in the most expansive center fields in MLB. Mickey chased around in the original, wide and deep Yankee Stadium center field. Mays had an extremely deep center to cover in the oddly shaped Polo Grounds, where he made “The Catch” of a ball hit by Cleveland’s Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series.
Snider had a much smaller bit of green pastureland in Ebbets Field, where he had to be quite wary of the unpadded center field bleacher wall and the high concrete wall going from right to right center along Bedford Avenue. His predecessor as Brooklyn’s center fielder, Pete Reiser, ran into that wall so many times that his career was shortened by numerous injuries that included a fractured skull.
Snider was the oldest of the three wunderkinds, as he was born in Los Angeles in 1926. Mantle was born in Oklahoma in 1931, the same year Mays was born in Alabama. Edwin Donald Snider’s father gave him the nickname Duke because the child strutted about like royalty.
Snider stepped onto the MLB stage for the first time as a pinch hitter in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ opening day game of 1947, when they beat the Boston Braves 5-3 before a full house at Ebbets Field.
But he was barely a footnote in the next day’s newspapers because on that opening day, April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play Major League Baseball when he started for the Dodgers.
The Duke did not nail down a regular role with the Dodgers until 1949. But from that time on, until the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, Snider was “The Duke of Flatbush,” the best player on an excellent team and the left-handed slugger who out-hit the switch-hitting Mantle and the right-handed batting Mays and everyone else in one prime category once those two came up to the majors in 1951.
Snider, who slammed so many high fly balls over that 40-foot high wall onto Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, hit 257 home runs during those seven years the trio played in New York. Mantle hit 207 homers, 1951–1957, and Mays, who missed half the 1952 season and all of 1953 for Army duty, hit 187 homers in that seven-year span. Snider hit 326 home runs during the 1950s, more than any other MLB player in that decade.
The Duke did his job very well, batting third and leading the Dodgers to four World Series in that seven-year period, all against the Yankees. He hit four home runs in the 1952 WS as the Dodgers lost to the Yankees once again. And he hit four more home runs in the 1955 WS when the Dodgers finally beat the Yankees in their sixth try against the Bronx Bombers. This was the only WS triumph in the Dodgers’ Brooklyn history. No other player has hit four home runs in each of two World Series.
Snider had a career total of 407 home runs in his 18-year MLB career, while Mantle had 536 home runs in his 18 MLB seasons, and Mays had 660 homers in 22 seasons. Mantle set the MLB record of 18 World Series home runs hit in a dozen series while Snider hit 11 homers in six WS appearances. Strangely, Mays never hit a single home run in his four World Series.
There was a rather general consensus among the baseball experts of the mid-20th century that Willie Mays was the best overall player of the three, with Mantle second and Duke third. But this judgment could be unfair.
Duke was a moody fellow, who even drew down a chorus of boos upon himself at Ebbets Field during the 1955 season when he was deep in a batting slump. He reacted angrily to those “Flatbush Faithful” by saying they did not deserve a World Series and that they were the worst baseball fans in the world.
This did not sit well in Brooklyn. But all was eventually forgiven as Snider snapped out of his hitting woes and continued on as leader of a strong team that included Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella and Carl Furillo.
The Duke had a big advantage in this lineup of excellent hitters because all of his heavy-hitting teammates were right-handed batters. Therefore, Snider was fortunate to face right-handed pitching much more often than the average left-handed slugger might expect to see.
The period from 1949 through 1957 has been labeled New York City’s “Golden Age of Baseball.” At least one of the three great MLB teams in the Big Apple at that time was in each World Series during those nine years, and two of the teams met in six of those World Series.
The Dodgers and Yanks met five times in those years: 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1956. The Giants and Yanks met in the 1951 World Series. The Yanks won five of those World Series and lost the 1955 WS when Duke led the Dodgers to victory.
It was a wonderful time to be a baseball fan in the metropolitan New York area. Joe DiMaggio was ending his career as those three other center fielders were just beginning their MLB lives. Casey Stengel was holding forth as a double-talking genius of baseball, managing the Yanks to five consecutive World Series titles, 1949–1953. Leo Durocher, who had played for and managed the Dodgers, was managing the archrival Giants to a wondrous comeback against the Dodgers in 1951, the year of Bobby Thomson’s home run.
Vic Raschi, Whitey Ford, Carl Erskine, Sal Maglie, Don Newcombe, Joe Black, Allie Reynolds, Hoyt Wilhelm, Clem Labine, Johnny Podres and others were the superb pitchers on those teams.
Many of the players on those three teams, including Mickey, Willie and The Duke, are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, where they belong.
It was a wonderful time for The Duke and all of those other members of baseball’s royalty.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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