About Utah: Dodger great left impression

Published: Friday, March 4 2011 1:42 a.m. MST

The last place I expected to go this past Monday was 1956.

But I opened the morning newspaper and there in the sports section, on page 2, was the headline: "Baseball Great Duke Snider Dies at 84."

Just like that I was 8 years old again, rooting for the Dodgers and No. 4, their cleanup hitter, Edwin Donald "Duke" Snider.

Precisely when I identified Duke Snider as my favorite player is lost in the hazy history of my early years on Earth. But I know my twin brother, Dee, had something to do with it, as he had something to do with everything back then. One thing about being a twin, no matter what the rooting interest he takes, you take the other one.

My problem was my brother always seemed to plug into things — what today would be called trending — first. He selected favorites faster than I did.

He said his favorite TV cowboy was Roy Rogers. That left me scrambling for another TV cowboy, so I chose Gene Autry by default.

The same thing happened with rock 'n' roll, only much worse.

One day Dee said his favorite rock singer was Elvis Presley. Searching for a worthy counter I came up with — I cringe writing this even 54 years later — Pat Boone.

Baseball was THE sport back then — bigger than the NBA, NFL and NASCAR combined — and the New York Yankees were the biggest name in baseball.

Around the age of I'd say 7 or 8, Dee latched onto the Yankees as his favorite team and their star catcher, Yogi Berra, as his favorite player.

That left me with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Duke Snider.

I latched onto the Duke like a life raft. My lucky number became No. 4, my favorite color became Dodger blue — both persist to this day. My earliest newspaper habit was opening the evening Deseret News to the box scores and seeing how Snider did.

I was content with my choice. It's true, the Dodgers kept losing every year to the Yankees, but Duke Snider hit more home runs than Yogi Berra (And not just Yogi. In the 1950s, as was pointed out this week in the hundreds of tributes paid to him by sports journalists about my age, Duke Snider hit more home runs than anybody in baseball, in either league, more than Mays, more than Mantle, more than anyone).

The Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958 and there was a lot of controversy about the move, but from my vantage point I couldn't understand why. Wasn't Los Angeles a better place to live than New York? Didn't it get the Dodgers from out of the shadow of the Yankees? And don't forget Duke Snider was a native of L.A., born and raised in Compton?

Little did I know that it would prove to be the ruin of my favorite player. As a left-handed power hitter, Snider had feasted for years on the relatively short 340-foot right field fence in Brooklyn's Ebbets Field. But in Los Angeles, as construction started on the Dodger Stadium we're familiar with today, he was forced to deal with a right field fence in the makeshift L.A. Coliseum field that was 40 feet farther away.

He helped the Dodgers win the World Series in 1959 but a bad knee and that cow pasture outfield conspired to turn him into a role player who was traded in 1963 to, ironically enough, the Mets — the Dodgers' pseudo replacement in New York.

Overall, it had been some run. In 18 big league seasons, Snider hit .295 and had 407 home runs — still the 46th best of all time (Albert Pujols passed Snider on the career list just this past season). He was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1980.

And while it's true that Yogi Berra went into the Hall of Fame eight years earlier, in 1972, in 19 seasons Berra's career batting average was .285, 10 points lower, and he hit 358 home runs, 49 behind the Duke.

By way of eulogy, I'd just like to point that out.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. E-mail: benson@desnews.com

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