NEW YORK (
) -- Carl Erskine, among the last living members of the iconic Brooklyn Dodger teams of the 1950s, remembers Duke Snider as "a player who brought royalty to Brooklyn" and also as "a brother."
Snider and Erskine were born three months apart in 1926. Snider joined the Dodgers in 1947, and Erskine joined in 1948. Both bounced between the majors and the minors in their earliest years. On the Dodgers, they were roommates for ten years.
Snider "had this class about him, just like Joe DiMaggio did," Erskine recalled on Sunday, the day Snider died at 84. "He had a grace, whether he was hitting or making a catch. And he had the greatest name for Brooklyn, 'Duke.' It was Mickey Mantle uptown with the Yankees, Willie Mays at the Polo Grounds and Duke at Ebbets Field." Snider was often referred to as "the Duke of Flatbush."
"Ebbets Field was small, so Duke didn't have the space to run down hard-hit balls, and he didn't get a lot of credit for his fielding," Erskine said. "He made some fantastic catches, but he got overshadowed, at least during his playing days. As time passed, people saw that he played on a half dozen National League championship teams, and they recognized that he had a tremendous career."
, with the famous line about "Willie, Mickey and The Duke," was released in 1981 and underscored the similar merits of the three New York center fielders. Snider was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1981.
Of the six key regular players on the Brooklyn Dodger teams of the 1950s, Snider was the last to die. Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and Carl Furillo all preceded him in death. Two of the most famous pitchers from the team, Erskine and Don Newcombe, survive. Together, the players won six of 10 National League pennants from 1947 to 1956. Moreover, they went to the last day of the season in both 1950 and 1951, losing pennant-deciding games to the Phillies and Giants, respectively.
In 1949, Furillo was considered the best young center fielder in the National League, but manager Burt Shotton moved him to right to make room for Snider. There, Furillo would gain fame for his strong right arm, but the move might have taken some of the shine off his reputation. "They had Mantle and Mays and Snider all playing center field and hitting home runs, and they were always comparing them and saying that one or the other was the best and everything else," Furillo recalled in a 1970 interview. "And then they would come out and say that I was underrated."
Erskine stayed in touch with Snider after their playing days. The two attended the funeral of Pee Wee Reese together in Louisville, Ky. in 1991. Reese had mentored Snider in the early years, when Snider struggled. At the funeral, "Duke said to the press that Pee Wee was the greatest Dodger of all," Erskine said. "Pee Wee helped Duke to see himself, and to mature into a class person."
Erskine said he last talked to Snider several weeks ago, but kept in touch by email and letter after that, and got updates from Snider's wife Bev.
"We got very close, on and off the field, and we were like brothers," Erskine recalled. "Duke was an only child. I had two brothers, but both were much older than me, so I grew up like an only child.
"We went through the fires in the early years, trying to make the club. Duke had strikeout problems and I had arm trouble. When we first started going to spring training, you had to lease a house to stay in, and we couldn't afford to do it separately, so we split a house. The club didn't pay for that. We paid for that. Later, we both got married and started having kids, and we would still split a house, with our families.
"Duke always worried that he would die young," Erskine said. "His mother died of a heart attack in her early 50s, and her brother did too. Duke said 'I may go early,' He used to mention that in the room. But he had bypass surgery and he outlived what might have happened."
-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte. He is the author of Carl Furillo: Brooklyn Dodgers A-Star, the first Furillo biography, which was published in November.
>To contact the writer of this article, click here: