One of the best players in baseball history died Sunday, as Edwin Donald "Duke" Snider passed away at the age of 84.
Strangely, his baseball legacy seems to be constantly downgraded, with various attacks on his record a common occurrence. Maybe this is simply the passed-down rivalry of Mantle-Mays-Snider dating back to the 1950s, a battle that Mantle and Mays clearly won.
But Snider's bronze finish in that derby masks a greater truth- the third-best center fielder in New York during the 1950s was better than nearly any other center fielder in major league history. Let's tackle the myths, one by one.
MYTH: Duke Snider was merely a very good player, whose legacy is buttressed by Mantle and Mays.
False. Snider lags behind Mantle and Mays, to be sure. Mantle's career OPS+ was 172, Mays checks in at 155, Snider at 140. That also places Snider behind, among center fielders with at least 7,000 plate appearances, Ty Cobb,Tris Speaker, and Joe DiMaggio. And that's it. Sixth-best all-time at the position, with five inner-circle Hall of Famers ahead of him. That's an all-time great. And remember: OPS+ adjusts for era and ballpark, reminding us of myth number two...
MYTH: Duke Snider was a product of Ebbets Field.
False. Snider hit extremely well at Ebbets Field, posting a career OPS of .999 in Flatbush. Dropped in the Los Angeles Coliseum in in 1958, a park ill-suited to his left-handed swing, he managed a paltry OPS there of... .925. And on the road, away from Ebbets Field, his OPS drops all the way to... .880. That includes his entire decline phase, one filled with injuries and lesser production. In his five-year peak stretch from 1953-1957, here are his OPS numbers on the road by season: .975, 1.135, .933, .950, .821. Keep in mind, he did this while playing a tremendous defensive center field, bringing us to myth number three...
MYTH: Duke Snider wasn't in Mays' or Mantle's class as a center fielder.
False. Read this tremendous Sport article by Al Stump from 1955 to get a sense of how Snider was viewed as a defender in his prime. Snider suffers from the same problem that Gil Hodges does- his best defensive seasons came just before the Gold Glove was introduced in 1957. Mays, remember, played until 1973, Mantle until 1968. Snider's last full season came in 1957, and even that year, he played in only 139 games.
MYTH: Duke Snider wasn't an October star like Mays or Mantle.
False. Sure, Mantle's teams won all those World Series, and Mays will forever have that catch of Vic Wertz's epic fly ball. But Snider's .945 OPS in the World Series over 149 plate appearances trumps Mantle's .908 in 273 plate appearances, and leaves Willie Mays and his .589 in 78 plate appearances in the dust. Add in Mays' NLCS efforts, and his October OPS is still a paltry .660. I don't happen to believe these small samples tell us much- but they certainly don't argue against Snider.
MYTH: Outside of his five best seasons, Duke Snider was not an elite player.
False. Obviously, his 161 OPS+ from 1953-1957 ranks as one of the best five-year periods any center fielder ever had. But Snider, from 1958-1964, put up an OPS+ of 127. From 1947-1952, Snider's OPS+ was 124. Let's put that in context: only 17 center fielders in MLB history have posted, best years included, a career OPS+ of 124 or better. Injuries may have limited his playing time in later years, and battles with managers probably cost him some time early, but as a player Snider was elite from start to finish.
If anything, playing next to Mays and Mantle diminished his accomplishments. Snider should be remembered as one of the finest to ever play the game in his own right.