Baseball comparisons are as inevitable as they are apt to be invidious, especially where those archrivals, the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, are concerned. No one knows this better than Edwin Donald (Duke) Snider (see cover), Brooklyn's great center fielder, who many have come to consider the most dangerous hitter in the National League.
All the press-agentry that has developed in the last year over whether Snider or Willie Mays (opposite) could carry each other's bat and glove is strictly for the birds in the bleachers, Snider feels. Ordinarily a noncombative, even overmodest, person, the Duke this spring was needled into declaring, "It's just plain silly, comparing us. I think the real fans know who's the better ballplayer." With a cogent, blue-eyed stare, he subsequently added, "I make more money, don't I?"
Snider does—about $35,000 to Mays's $25,000—but he's been around a lot longer than Willie. And in spite of Mays's great 1954 performance, Snider's current larger paycheck would seem but a proper tribute to his eight-year record, his .307 lifetime average (Mays's is .304), his sensational slugging and his tremendous fielding. Not as dashing as Willie is in center, or as flamboyant, and more confined by the fences of Ebbets Field than Mays is in the Polo Grounds, Snider reminds one of the careful, easy, loping grace of Joe DiMaggio; and because he's more of a veteran than Mays, he has better knowledge of the league's hitters.
Most significantly, perhaps, Snider's response, to the Mays mania is a sign that he has finally achieved the full quota of self-confidence and competitive drive he has heretofore been accused of lacking. This season he may achieve at least two, and perhaps all three, of his objectives.
These are, in order of importance to him, collecting 200 hits or more (he's had 199 twice and 198 once); winning the batting championship; and taking the runs-batted-in title. He also might well be the home run champion. Only six players in major league history—most recently Ted Williams in 1942 and 1947 and Joe Medwick in 1937—have won the so-called triple crown: tops in batting, runs-batted-in and homers in a single year.
As of now, occupying the top half of baseball's biggest one-two punch—the rejuvenated Roy Campanella is the other half—Snider is off-and-bat-ting. His solid .321 last week made him the league's fifth man in the averages; he already had 69 hits, including 20 home runs, and was leading teammate Campanella with 63 to 58 for most runs batted in.
A left-handed power slugger with a big, sweeping swing, Snider has never done as well against southpaws as against right-handers. As of the end of 1954, he had gone to bat 3,729 times as a National Leaguer and had hit only .264 against left-handers while batting .319 against righties (he had seen the latter four times as often). But in 1954 for the first time he hit over .300 against portsiders, collecting 20 hits in 65 at bats for .308; this year, to date, he's hitting .375, third best on the club and at one point had six straight blows, including a home run, against them. Like some other great free-swinging sluggers, Snider has always struck out a lot, and he admits that he doesn't ever expect to average less than 75 to 85 whiffs per season.
Such statistics tell more about Snider the man than the usual set of figures does about a ballplayer. They point up, chiefly, that he has learned to relax, let the bad pitches go by and not worry as much as he once did about a brief slump or even a bad day.
Snider's roommate and closest friend on the Dodgers, stylish Pitcher Carl Erskine, says of him, "He has got to know himself better than anybody else possibly can. The moody spells have disappeared. Maybe they used to affect his fielding and base-running too, but now if he doesn't beat you at bat he'll do it with a great catch or with some heady work on the paths." Snider often takes tips on a brief batting lapse from Erskine and other continued on page 4-8 pitchers; he believes they see things a hitter is doing wrong that other batters miss.
In every sense, the contemporary hero of Flatbush, prematurely gray at the temples in his 29th year, is a picture player with a classic stance that seldom develops a hitch. Next to Williams, Snider probably has the best hitting form in the game. And, like Williams, he has amazing eyes—large, clear, calm and probing. With each oncoming pitch, Snider tenses and then throws his full 195 pounds into it, if he swings, with a smooth, lashing motion. For a big man, he uses a relatively light, 34-ounce bat.
"I get more wood on the ball quicker that way," he says. "I get the bat to where I know the pitch is coming."
Thanks to a steady improvement in timing, Snider now drives many balls safely to right field that he used to loft or line to center. His great power still sees him occasionally drill a home run into the center or left field stands, but his fairly regular pull hitting has, on occasion, led to a Williams like "Snider shift" being set against him between first and second base. He never consciously tries to place a ball.
Unlike Mays, a gay, stickball-playing bachelor on the streets of Harlem after hours, Snider has long been a quiet and sedate family man. He married his high school sweetheart, Beverly Null, when he was scarcely 21; they have two children, Pamela, 4, and Kevin, 6, and a large avocado farm in California to retire to some day.
Snider already has Kevin playing ball, just as his own father, Ward Snider, had him learning to bat left-handed and shag flies as soon as he could run. It was Ward who tagged his son "Duke" at the age of 4, and he had much to do with making his only child one of the best athletes in southern California high school history. Born and bred in Los Angeles, Duke starred at football (he regularly threw 65-yard passes), basketball and track as well as baseball, and won 20 letters in all.
Several major league scouts soon had their collective eye on him, but Snider favored the Dodgers because of their drive to the pennant in 1941 after a two-decade drought. "I gave Red Barber a lot of the credit," he says. "He made it sound terrific on the radio. Also, I had a special admiration for Pee Wee Reese and Pete Reiser." Snider was to take Reiser's place in time.
A Brooklyn scout got the young Duke for a paltry $750 during the war, when other scouts were being overly cautious. In 1944, he reported to the Dodger camp. Only 17, he was as fresh as he was wild. He refused to run during a practice session one day and was reprimanded. "I was wrong," he says, "but I was also in better shape than anyone up there. Furthermore, I knew I wasn't ready for Brooklyn yet and just wanted to be told where I'd be sent."
He went to Newport News, Class B, where Jake Pitler, now a Dodger coach, fined him $25 one day for popping up on a three-and-one pitch he had been ordered to take. In 1945 Snider did a hitch in the Navy. When he came out of uniform in June, 1946, he donned a Dodger farm suit at Fort Worth. Although he hit only .250, Branch Rickey called him "potentially the greatest hitter I have ever seen" and bought up his contract.
At St. Paul in the '47 season the results started showing when Snider hit .316, although he hit only .241 when he was brought back to Brooklyn at the tail end of the year. Again, he batted .327 with Montreal in 1948 but slumped at Ebbets Field in September. The turning point came in 1949, his first full season as a Dodger, when he batted .292 and smashed 23 homers. This wasn't bad, but one day, when he suggested to Manager Burt Shotton that he ought to be briefly benched for not hitting—the right-handed Carl Furillo had suggested the same thing coincidentally—Shotton blew his usually mild top. "Here's two fellows who have a chance to become great major league hitters and they want to alternate," he said. "They'll never make any real money until they want to play regularly."
FLOP TO HERO
Shotton's fire was just what Snider needed. While he slipped to .277 in 1951, he stopped mooning, and he has always hit .300 since. A fanning flop in the 1949 World Series (three hits in 21 times at bat, against eight strikeouts), he was a hero in the great 1952 classic. He tied the record held by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig with four home runs and set his own records of 24 total bases and 14 extra bases on hits, batting .345. He also made some great far-wandering and rolling catches.
On two occasions, once this year and once in 1950, Snider has hit three homers in a game, and in each case he missed a record-tying fourth with a hit off the Ebbets Field screen. "I've come so close, I'd like to do it some day," he says.
If Snider hits the ball solidly his first time at bat—watch out! says teammate Jackie Robinson. "He's apt to keep slugging till midnight," Robinson adds. "His timing seems to mount up. He sets his own fire under him."
Snider remains philosophic about his hitting accomplishments. Like Musial, he has developed more and more as a team player even while establishing himself in the first five of batting—slugging, runs batted in, runs scored, doubles, triples and homers. "As long as I'm up there with the leaders in enough departments, I'm satisfied," he says. "Sure I like to set records, but mostly I want the team to win."
THE DUKE ASCENDS in quest of a long fly hit by Willie—not Mays, but Jones.
"I had the most awful nightmare last night."