The Duke is gone
The Duke is gone... though he remains enshrined on the wall of my den, where with every stroke on the keyboard I can look up and see him leaping high in the air at Yankee Stadium reaching for a fly ball, Carl Furillo (#6) running toward him, the score ominously showing "Brklyn 3, Yanks 4."
The Brooklyn Dodgers were my team. I chased after them to the borough of churches in 1956 only to have them spurn my affection the next year, flying off to sunny California. Duke Snider, whose long fly balls often landed over the right field screen on to Bedford Avenue, comes in a close second to Jackie in my personal hall of fame. Many a summer evening I sparred verbally with teenage friends on Hillside Avenue arguing the relative excellence of Duke, Willie, and Mickey. We went at it long after the incandescent street lamps lit and the Good Humor man jingled by.
Contemporary conversations about sports stars turn often toward the subject of "role models." Nonsense, my generation replies. Stan the Man Musial may have been my model when I stood at the plate to lash out at a pitched ball; but taking my cues for conduct from anyone so unconnected with my reality would be a joke. My pastor, my parents, a few teachers, yes, but center fielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers as my role model? You gotta be kidding. Not that he wasn't admirable. (See the testimony below from one of you.) The obits describe him as down-to-earth and slightly flawed, like the rest of us.
I suspect the present crop of teenagers would agree with me about superstars as role models. I know one who sported a warm-up jacket with the Atlanta Falcons logo and the name of a convicted felon stitched to the back. The jacket somehow disappeared, but without much weeping and gnashing of teeth. Athletic prowess is admired; but few of the coming generation I have met tie their morality or aspirations to the big names on sports pages.
But, of course, I am royally biased on this score, having spent all of my working years persuading, with only modest success, children and others to take a Jewish carpenter as their role model. He could have made bats, but to the best of my knowledge he never swung one.
Which brings me to a rueful observation about the declining importance of religious institutions and the ascendancy of athletic enterprises. A family member, aware of my summer pilgrimages to baseball stadiums across the nation (preferably those about to close and be replaced), presented me with a picture book entitled "Green Cathedrals," baseball arenas then and now. Aptly named. The only thing missing at Citi Field is stained glass and a pipe organ. Entering the main gate with its vaulted ceiling a baseball fan feels like a worshipper in a Romanesque cathedral. St. John's (you know him by his nickname, Jackie) holy numbers stand proud and tall. Icons of St. Roy and St. Gilbert line the wall. Duke's photographic image will, I suspect, soon join them. Talk about tradition and reverence: no way a local church can compete.
Years ago the interfaith council I belonged to fought valiantly against the Sabbath incursions of youth soccer, football, and roller hockey. We managed once or twice to get the leagues to schedule games for Sunday afternoons, the better for young athletes to attend church school. We won a battle or two, but we lost the war. Let me put it this way, were God to drop the final curtain on the universe on the second Sunday in February around 7 o'clock in the evening, most American Christians and lots of others would hardly notice, except to complain as loudly as once we did when the television of the Jets game with Oakland was turned off late in the fourth quarter to air the film "Heidi."
A field box ticket at Yankee Stadium costs twice as much as the average annual gift to the local church. The price of two hot dogs and French fries at the House that George Built would buy a gold plate special for two at the local diner.
Do I sound a trifle testy? In fact, I am not ready to return to the Puritan remedy of 16th Century Plymouth, when games on the Sabbath were outlawed. Like I counseled a mom thirty years ago, when she presented me with the quandary of a son who wanted to play football around the time of Sunday School: why can't he do both? He did, and he was a sight to behold sitting in the classroom in his football uniform, shoulder pads and knickers. Nowadays, however, it's more likely to be the coach who is asked to give permission to double dip, not the pastor.
Duke Snider toward the end of his career wondered in print where all of the slow pitchers had gone. Everyone, he complained, throws ninety miles an hour. My hero looked forward in his pennant championship games to hitting against the likes of Hoyt Wilhelm (translated into the present moment: Tim Wakefield). I can relate to that. In my "yute" (phonetic spelling, Brooklyn pronunciation) were you to throw me a sixty mile an hour baseball, I guarantee you that one time out of a hundred I could hit it out of Ebbets Field... at least, crack it off the Abe Stark sign.
Duke, it was good to know you and see you and agonize over you and my Dodgers, every year except 1955, repeating the Brooklyn promise, "Wait'll next year!" Cherished memories.
While in the midst of writing this essay another article, other than an obit, appeared in The New York Times, a "color" piece on Duke and his days in Brooklyn. The reporter scouted out the home the Sniders rented in Bay Ridge, on Marine Avenue, and found a family, there in the 1950's and still there in the new millennium, who remembered the Dodger's center fielder. On a hunch I Emailed that article to a member of "my electronic congregation," once of Marine Avenue in Brooklyn, now living near Atlanta. Jackie Hansen (Ken's widow) replied within a couple hours a couple of times. Here is my question to her and her messages to me, plus a photo of the Duke and his lady in recent years.
The Dietz residence was nearby, if I remember correctly. Did you ever meet the Duke? I'll have an essay about him coming soon.
N.Y. / REGION | March 01, 2011
When Players Like Duke Snider Were Also Neighbors
By MANNY FERNANDEZ
To Brooklyn fans, Duke Snider was a great baseball player; to some longtime Bay Ridge residents, he was a neighborhood friend.
Yes, I certainly did. I was their exclusive babysitter for many years until they left Brooklyn. They lived two doors away from me. They had 3 children at the time, their fourth was born after leaving Brooklyn for California.
I also occasionally babysat for Pee Wee Reese and Carl Erskine.
All of the Dodgers I knew and I knew many, were wonderful people and great family men. The youngsters back then could certainly look up to them as role models.
I was recently in touch with them. Duke had hip replacement surgery and I thought he was recuperating well. Not sure if this illness was related to the surgery.
I am attaching a recent photo of Duke and Beverly. He looked pretty healthy when this photo was taken. They were very devoted to one another - high school sweethearts.
I look forward to your article.
I responded to your email before I actually read the article. I attended those block parties and have a photo of everyone including the Barwood's mentioned in the article, as well as Duke and family. Those were fun times! Thanks for sending the article along.