Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Duke

Duke Snider has died, he was 84. Edwin Donald "Duke" Snider was the center fielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers when I met him in a chance encounter that I will always remember.

I played a lot of sand lot and Little League baseball growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the fifties. My home was three houses away from the nearest baseball diamond located on the northwest corner of Deerfield Grammar School's play yard. During the summer my friends and I regularly played baseball as pre-teens most of the day.

Because I could run fairly fast, I played left or right field where my speed came in handy cutting off balls hit into the gap. Most of the time the summer air was warm and the grass was fairly long. I was a very good contact hitter, frequently driving the ball up through the middle of the infield. What I lacked in power I made up for with enthusiasm.

When I was not playing baseball I would be home watching the Chicago Cubs on television playing at Wrigley Field, their home stadium on Chicago's north side. Wrigley Field did not have lights so all of the Cubs home games were played in the afternoon. Regretfully, the Cubs were pretty bad. They had only two star players, Hank Sauer and Ernie Banks. But I loved them.

One day a couple of us decided to go attend a Cubs game. We were about thirteen years old when one early morning we hopped on the North Shore electric train from Highland Park to Chicago's Ravenswood station. There we switched to the El and rode down to the Addison Street station, across from Wrigley Field. We got to the stadium early so we could see BP (batting practice) and shag a few balls hit into the stands.

As we arrived and were about to enter a bus pulled up. The door opened and the Brooklyn Dodgers poured off the bus. We ran over and started to collect autographs. I met Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Roseboro, Sandy Koufax. Don Drysdale, Gil Hodges and a bunch of other Dodgers. I was in awe, and they were so nice.

We then watched batting practice. Because there were so few fans in the stadium we were able to go anywhere a foul ball was hit. Our group collected nine baseballs. We then settled in to watch the game. We were pulling for the hapless Cubs. They lost, as I recall, but it still was an amazing afternoon.

Baseball then was not a big business; it was America's sport. I was an impressionable young boy enjoying an afternoon in Wrigley Field, with ivy-covered walls and a stiff breeze blowing out over right field toward Lake Michigan, watching my heroes. It was a field of dreams.

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