BISHER: Farewell to the graceful Duke Snider

Furman Bisher 

Furman Bisher 

After seasons of watching Duke Snider turn playing center field into a work of art, I finally met him four years ago. He was 80 years old then and favoring a knee that had been surgically invaded a number of times.

We were serving on a Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee, and some of the other voting members included Phil Niekro, Bobby Doerr, Robin Roberts, Dick Williams and Don Sutton, all already safely ensconced.

Duke, who passed away Sunday, was a native Californian, but I think I’m safe in saying that when the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958, he didn’t lead a homecoming parade. He had to give up Ebbets Field’s friendly 340-foot right field fence — with those Abe Stark and Gem razor blade signs — for the Coliseum’s vast acreage, which was most of southern California. The Coliseum wasn’t built with baseball in mind.

Not only did Duke lose the friendly fence of Ebbets, but now he had a prairie to cover in center field, which led to more wear and tear on those aging knees.

Not only that, but that stretch of his history has been virtually wiped out by now is that his career came to an end with the Giants, who had gone west to San Francisco.

Duke — christened Edwin Donald — brought a kind of grace to the way you play center field. He put as much deft into chasing down line drives as he did hitting them. Five seasons in a row he hit 40 or more home runs as an Ebbets Field Dodger, long before there was any hint of any kind of injected stimulation. His membership into the Hall of Cooperstown was a foregone conclusion, and now, in that secreted chamber in the Bellagio Hotel, he would sit in judgement of veterans, long gone.

What impressed me was the forthright appraisal in which this band of old stars dealt with those who had gone before them.

I’ve never forgiven myself for not dealing with more clout in behalf of Wes Ferrell, the only pitcher who ever launched his major league career winning 20 games in each of his first four seasons. And some of those 196 games he won pitching with an arm that nowadays would have gone under the knife. Not only that, he still holds the record for the most career home runs hit by a pitcher.

My one influential vote followed something Bobby Doerr said, as we dealt with Joe Gordon’s candidacy. “A lot of times I wished I’d been as good as he was,” the old Red Socker said, he who was already installed. That, I confess, turned my vote Gordon’s way, and he has a place in Cooperstown.

And then, as we walked out of the room, I recall Phil Niekro saying, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t say enough about Wes Ferrell. With his record, he should have made it, bad arm and all.”

The Duke was a calm participant, and he had come to the meeting, not for a free lunch, but to deal fairly with a lot of old rivals.

Sad to say, he’s now gone, and so, too, is Robin Roberts. It’s the kind of memory that sticks with you, and Duke brings it to mind as he checks out.

Furman Bisher is one of the deans of American sports writing. The longtime Atlanta sports journalist is a member of the Georgia and Atlanta Sports Halls of Fame and in addition to his newspaper writing has authored multiple books on major figures like Hank Aaron and Arnold Palmer. He writes periodic columns for the Daily Post.