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The Duke Returns to Brooklyn

by Bob Ahrens
A A

From the WFUV Sports Archives, 2002

July 24, 2002: Duke Snider returns to a Brooklyn ballfield for the first time in 45 years.  How did it happen? Who was responsible for getting him there?  That's another story, but I'll give you a hint.  WFUV was involved.

Right now we're going to take a look at the day he returned.  The Duke gave WFUV permission to document the day and that prize assignment went to Joe Buono and Frank Mentesana who wrote and produced an award winning piece narrated by Frank. It was a great day as you'll see in the stories below by Joe an Frank and hear in their documentary about the day.

Everyone had a great time. Duke, the fans, the Cyclones, Joe and Frank...but most especially those who had a chance to see their hero one more time. Duke, however, did have one problem: It was with the ballpark.  And it wouldn't have bothered most people, but it did bother Duke.  Leave it to the left handed hitting Snider to note that while he thought it was a great ballpark, "the wind blew in from right."

 

My Day with Duke

By Joe Buono

Growing up the son of a Brooklyn Dodgers fan in Brooklyn, I sometimes felt I knew the starting lineup for the “Boys of Summer” better than I knew the present day Mets and Yankees. Summer after Summer my father and uncle reminisced about Pee Wee, Jackie, Campy, “Oisk”, Carl, Gil and of course Duke.

They made the glory days of baseball seem so glorious that I found myself watching every documentary, reading every book and collecting every piece of memorabilia simply to feel linked to baseball’s golden age.

On Wednesday, July 24th, 2002 I had the privilege to create my own memories with Brooklyn’s most beloved team when Duke Snider returned to a ball field in Brooklyn for the first time since 1957. Instead of Ebbets Field, long ago replaced by apartment buildings, the scene was Keyspan Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones where Duke would throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

However, my day with Duke didn’t start at the ball park. It started at Lundy’s Restaurant in Sheepshead Bay where WFUV hosted a members’ only luncheon with the Hall of Famer. Duke shared his memories of living and playing in Brooklyn with the WFUV listeners who attended the event. Many of them were old Dodgers fans, now all grown up, just like my Dad but just as awe struck of the 75 year old with silver hair as they were of the man who patrolled center field and drove majestic shots over the RF wall and onto Beford Avenue.

After lunch, it was on to the opening of the Brooklyn Baseball Gallery at Keyspan Park where Duke was joined by former Dodgers Ralph Branca, Al Gionfriddo, Gene Hermanski, Tommy Holmes and Johnny Podres as well as Joan Hodges and Rachel Robinson.  Soaking up the nostalgia with everyone else, Snider was presented with a #4 Cyclones’ jersey by Mets COO Jeff Wilpon. I recall thinking to myself when all the cameras were flashing that he probably didn’t see this much media attention after a World Series game in the 50’s against the Yankees. It was a result of times changing, but legends only growing bigger.

As a media member I was forbidden from asking for an autograph, even if it was for my father who would be in the stands later that evening. I needed to find a loop hole and did. I asked Tim McNab, a relief pitcher with the Cyclones and one of the most personable players I covered that summer to see if he could ask Duke to sign a ball for him, right in the sweet spot. Sure enough, after Duke had met with the players, Tim gave me a ball, signed by Snider, which I in turn gave to dad. It still rests in a case in our family basement.

Instead of jogging out of the dugout and racing to his spot in center, Duke walked slowly to the pitcher’s mound for the ceremonial first pitch. The sellout crowd welcomed him with a standing ovation. Some fans had last seen him when they were just starry eyed children. Tonight, they had their children in the stands with them telling them how this old man was better than Mickey and Willie.

I am thankful that my colleague Frank Mentesana and I were able to capture our day with Duke in a short feature that remains one of my most fond memories created at WFUV. It was a day where generations of baseball fans were able to take a look back and reflect. I continue to do the same.

 

We Lived and Died in Brooklyn

By Frank Mentesana

I was just thinking of Duke Snider a couple of weeks ago.

Albert Pujols was holding a press conference before starting his spring training, and what was the best player in baseball discussing? His contract negotiations, naturally. The slugger’s self-imposed deadline to reach an agreement with the Cardinals for a contract extension had come and gone. The time for negotiating was apparently over, and Pujols would play out the last year of his deal and then resume talks with the Cards after the season. Having watched much of the coverage of the Pujols saga, I was reminded of a story I heard Duke tell, and I wondered what he thought of this whole scenario between the Cardinals and their superstar.

You see, Duke was in a similar spot approximately 60 years before Albert. And had ESPN existed in the 1950s, its executives would have been awfully upset not to have such a juicy story exist between Brooklyn Dodgers management and the club’s star center fielder. Here’s how the “saga” played out for Snider, in his own words:

Money wasn’t important…One winter, Pee Wee (Reese) and I were the last two to agree to terms with Buzzie Bavasi (GM of the Dodgers). We didn’t know what we were going to make, but we knew just about what we were going to make. Buzzie said, “I’ll bring the contracts down to Vero Beach, and you’ve got to sign the contract before you can participate in the first day of spring training.” I didn’t know that Pee Wee was involved in not signing yet…I knew that he agreed to terms, and I had agreed to terms, but we didn’t know what the terms were. So we went in, put our uniforms on, and came out, and Buzzie Bavasi’s secretary -- her name was Edna -- was standing outside of the clubhouse with two blank contracts and she said, “Pee Wee and Duke, you need to sign these contracts or you can’t work out today.”  I said, “well there’s no figure down here.” And she said, “Don’t worry about it, Buzzie will meet with you and put a figure in.” So Pee Wee and I were riding to the ball park together -- we both lived in Bay Ridge -- on Opening Day, and Pee Wee said, “boy, I’ll be glad when pay day comes, so I’ll find out what I’m making this year.” And I said “me too, I don’t know what I’m making, but I’m happy I’m in that lineup today.”    

I never forgot that story, maybe because I was lucky enough to watch and hear Duke tell it in person, at a special WFUV luncheon on July 24, 2002. On that day, Duke was set to throw out the first pitch at the Brooklyn Cyclones game, stepping onto a Brooklyn ball field for the first time since the final game at Ebbets Field on September 24, 1957.

Bob Ahrens, WFUV’s Executive Sports Producer and my boss at the time, was instrumental in arranging the day’s events, so as a Cyclones beat reporter that summer (along with Joe Buono), I had the enviable job of covering Duke’s big return.

Even though I was practically his shadow that entire sizzling July day, I always lament that, for one reason or another, I never actually got to shake Duke’s hand. However, hearing him tell stories like the one above more than made up for it, and I wasn’t the only one awestruck by the Hall of Famer’s tales. About a dozen WFUV members -- all of them Brooklyn Dodger fans in their youth -- were also guests at the luncheon at Lundy’s Restaurant in Sheepshead Bay. They all awaited Duke’s arrival in a private dining room in the back of the restaurant, and at the precise moment when Duke walked in, it was “as if they dipped themselves in magic waters” to borrow a line from Field of Dreams.

For one afternoon, those men were boys in Brooklyn again, fawning over their hero from yester-year. For a few hours, each one of those men -- now fathers themselves -- was holding daddy’s hand as he walked into Ebbets Field, getting his first glimpse of the magnificent green grass, listening to the infamous “Sym-phony,” and spotting the “Hit Sign, Win Suit” advertisement just beneath the giant scoreboard…he was settling into his seat (on the edge of course) with eyes wide open, watching his favorites play catch: Jackie, Pee Wee, Oisk, Campy, Gil, and the list goes on and on. And on that afternoon in July of 2002, “4 Snider CF ” was penciled into his scorecard for one more game.

I remember myself being awestruck at Duke as well, even though I was only 18 at the time and hadn’t so much as even seen footage of him in his playing days. However, I am Brooklyn born and raised, and that in itself means you at least recognize the names of many of the Dodger greats from the ‘40s and ‘50s. Additionally, as a baseball fan, and with the Cyclones coming into existence one year earlier, I had done some research about “Dem Bums,” and I started to feel my own connection to the lovable losers (with the exception of 1955 of course!). I was even more fascinated by those men at the luncheon, and how they were transformed in front of my very eyes, as they gathered around Duke for an impromptu question-and-answer session, hanging on every word coming out of the mouth of their childhood hero.

Throughout the entire day (which undoubtedly was a long one for the 75-year-old at the time), Duke always had the biggest presence in any room he stood in because of all the history, accomplishments, and admiration he carried with him. He was always in charge, a commanding figure without having to speak a word, but never overbearing -- traits of the quintessential captain of the outfield. I recall the eloquence, humility, and grace with which he handled himself.

After serving as a WFUV luncheon guest, as well as a speaker and honoree at the Brooklyn Baseball Gallery, I think Duke’s happiest time of the day was when he was able to step onto the diamond at Keyspan Park (now known as MCU Park) in Coney Island. As he marveled at the gorgeous views the ball park provides, maybe he himself was transformed to another time. Maybe for that instant, “Dodgers” was scripted in blue across his chest. Maybe he went back to the 1952 World Series, when he hit four home runs. Or maybe he daydreamed about the ‘55 Series, when he accomplished the feat again, leading Brooklyn to its only World Championship. Maybe he was envisioning his rivals, Willie and Mickey, and how he truly measured up to the other two legends. Or just maybe Duke was looking at the faces of the people in the stands, and recalling how when he played, he was just as much a part of the community as the butcher down the street, the schoolteacher in her classroom, or the barber in the shop on the corner. There was a sense of family in Brooklyn, so it’s no wonder he often referred to it as “home,” though he was from California. “I was born in Los Angeles," he once said. "Baseball-wise, I was born in Brooklyn. We lived with Brooklyn. We died with Brooklyn."

After hearing countless people talk about the “good old days,” I often wondered how the every day Brooklynite could have such personal relationships with these almighty ballplaying gods. It seems impossible in today’s age for a fan to get so close to a famous athlete. But maybe what bonded the players and fans more than anything, was the understanding that they are all human, and all capable of failing. None of them, no matter their profession, was immune to going through hard times. And all of them, no matter their profession, were equally important to the community.  

Darryl Strawberry was my favorite player as a child; when I grew a little older, it was Mike Piazza. But in 40 or 50 years, I don’t know if I’ll have the same emotions toward either of those players that the men in Lundy’s Restaurant felt that day about Duke Snider.

“I think the memories are so great, I wouldn’t trade playing today…I wouldn’t trade the money these guys are making, because those days were the special days of baseball as far as I’m concerned. And I was fortunate enough to be a member of one of the greatest teams -- I’m not saying the greatest team -- but one of the greatest teams that ever took a ball field.”

Albert Pujols might disagree, but I think Duke was right -- those were the glory days. And with the passing of the regal “Duke of Flatbush,” both the beloved borough of Brooklyn and the great game of baseball lost an invaluable source of that glory.

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