The lefty came from California, just another face in a sea of baseball prospects bobbing here and there among the rolling tide of a vast and expansive farm system. The righty came from the south, plucked from playing fields of the Negro Leagues. The switch-hitter – named for a Hall-of-Fame catcher – came from the Midwest, an unpolished jewel full of jaw-dropping potential. Each would find himself inextricably connected to baseball’s story in his first season in the big leagues and emerged as a footnote in a larger and more dramatic essay. The switch-hitter would play alongside Joe DiMaggio in the Yankee Clipper’s final campaign in the Majors, a rookie quietly deferring to the icon and waiting for his chance to roam centerfield. The righty would be waiting in the on deck circle with a unique vantage point for Bobby Thomson’s home run that gave the Giants the pennant. The lefty would make his Major League debut just two days after his teammate Jackie Robinson trotted out toward first base for his first game in the Majors. Each would struggle in that first season, too. The switch-hitter famously considered leaving the game after failing in his first taste of the Majors. The lefty batted only 89 times in his debut season, and failed to hit a single home run while striking out in more than a quarter of his plate appearances. And the righty would start off hitless in his first 12 at-bats before homering off Warren Spahn for his first big league hit. Each would patrol centerfield in a ballpark in New York. Each would blast out home runs in prodigious quantity. Each would be held up by his fans as the best the town had to offer. And each would settle into a magnificent playing career whose chapters would find a permanent home in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.
In the nineteen-fifties, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider stood at the epicenter of the baseball world. In ballparks as famous and iconic as the players would someday become, they ran down long fly balls, hit searing line drives, and led their teams to pennants. Willie Mays flew around a playing field in Manhattan and exhibited a style, grace, and innate sense of baseball-ness that made it seem as if he were born to play the game. Over in the Bronx, Mickey Mantle turned his unique and unprecedented blend of power and speed into the focal point of a dynasty that placed his image atop a totem of greatness and dominance. And Duke Snider, overseeing his kingdom in Brooklyn, followed a path of quieter consistency and demeanor, issuing resounding thwacks with his sweet and powerful swing, offering counterpoints to the cowbells and ringing instruments; the Duke, the regal centerfielder always pushing to elevate his team to the golden promises of next year.
Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. In 1956, Mantle led the Majors in batting average (.353), home runs (52), and RBI (130). The triple crown season remains an apex and symbol of all that could be accomplished when this man was healthy and able to mesh his vast talents and abilities in a concentrated drive toward excellence. In 1957, Willie Mays became the first player in Major League history to steal 30 bases and hit 30 home runs in back-to-back seasons. The accomplishment represents the total package of Mays on the ballfield – the running and hitting, the power and the speed, the promise of any given moment flashing and resonating with wonder. As Leo Durocher once said, Mays could do it all. In the nineteen-fifties, Duke Snider hit more home runs (326) and drove in more runs (1031) than any other player in baseball. Day-in, day-out, year-in, year-out – the remarkable resume of a remarkable ballplayer fulfilling his responsibilities and making manifest the magical qualities that could turn a power-hitting centerfielder into a magnetic and smile-inducing paragon.
Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. The summers were their stage. And the autumns, their encore. Mickey Mantle hit more home runs than any other player in World Series history. Willie Mays used up every inch of his centerfield to run down a drive by Vic Wertz. Duke Snider remains the only player in World Series history to hit four home runs in two different series. In every year from 1951 – 1964, at least one was playing in the Fall Classic. Each brought a title to his team, and each became a little more special for that contribution.
Every ballplayer has his own unique story to tell. For Willie, Mickey, and the Duke, those stories resonate like few others, and sturdily stand on their own myths, facts, numbers, and anecdotes. Still, their juxtaposition to one another expands their legacies, and adds depth and color to their mythologies. Without the others, perhaps they don’t shine as far or with as much wattage. There are numerous combinations like this that texture the baseball timeline. When geography and timing exert their influence, certain pairs, trios, or quartets become so linked that they forever stand together. And when that does happen, we are left with a sum that stands above its parts. Tinker, Evers, and Chance. Ruth and Gehrig. Raschi, Reynolds, and Lopat. Trammell and Whitaker. Mathewson and McGraw. Garvey, Lopes, Russell and Cey. Smoltz, Maddux, and Glavine. And of course, Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.
Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. As the Hall of Fame writer Red Smith once quipped, Snider, Mantle and Mays. You could get a fat lip in any saloon by starting an argument as to which was best. Thanks in part to a song by Terry Cashman, the three names have become one – a rolling, effluent, harmonious combination that immediately speaks to a different era when three of the greatest to ever play the game shared the same city and magnetized the same baseball universe. A trio of ballplayers – forever linked, forever resonant, forever connected in a perpetually sparkling centerfield of their youth. Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.
To be continued…