Sunday, February 27, 2011

Hats off to the Duke

His death was announced by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In the 1950s, the golden age of New York baseball, the World Series almost always meant red, white and blue bunting at Ebbets Field, Yankee Stadium or the Polo Grounds. October afternoons provided a national showcase for baseball’s premier center fielders — Snider of the Dodgers, Mickey Mantle of the Yankees and Willie Mays of the Giants.

“They used to run a box in the New York papers comparing me to Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays,” Snider recalled on the eve of his 1980 induction into the Hall of Fame. “It was a great time for baseball.”

Snider starred at the plate and in the field on teams that won six National League pennants — and finished second on the final day twice — in his 11 seasons with Brooklyn. He also hit the last home run at Ebbets Field before the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles after the 1957 season.

But he could be moody when unable to achieve the perfection he expected of himself.

“I had to learn that every day wasn’t a bed of roses, and that took some time,” he said. “I would sulk. I’d have a pity party for myself.”

As pitcher Carl Erskine, his Dodgers roommate, recalled in “Bums” (Putnam, 1984) by Peter Golenbock: “Every place he went, no matter how good he was, they’d say, ‘His potential is so great, he can do even better.’ And this was a real frustration for Duke. He saw himself as not measuring up.”

Usually the only left-handed batter and the prime slugger in a lineup also boasting Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson, the silver-haired Snider propelled deliveries from all those right-handed pitchers high over the right-field screen at Ebbets Field and onto Bedford Avenue.

Snider hit at least 40 homers in five consecutive seasons, 1953 to 1957, matching a National League record held by Ralph Kiner. He was the only player to hit four homers twice in a World Series — against the Yankees in 1952 and in 1955, when Brooklyn won its only World Series championship. And he captured the National League home run title in 1956, hitting 43 homers.

Playing for 18 seasons, he had 407 home runs, 2,116 hits, batted at least .300 seven times, had a lifetime batting average of .295 and was generally among the league leaders in runs batted in and runs scored.

Snider shined in center field, although Ebbets Field denied him the outfield expanse enjoyed by Mays at the Polo Grounds and Mantle at Yankee Stadium. He moved back on the ball brilliantly, unleashed powerful throws and never — to his recollection — collided with right fielder Carl Furillo.

Edwin Donald Snider was born on Sept. 19, 1926, in Los Angeles and was brought up in nearby Compton. His father, Ward, seeing him return proudly from his first day at school, at age 5, called him the Duke.

Snider signed with the Dodgers’ minor league system out of Compton Junior College in 1944 for a $750 bonus and debuted in Brooklyn on opening day 1947 with a pinch-hit single against the Boston Braves. But his arrival was hardly noticed. That was the day Robinson broke the major league color barrier.

Snider was envisioned as the successor in center field to Pete Reiser, but he was overanxious at the plate and frustrated by the curveball. Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ general manager, and his aide George Sisler, once a great hitter with the St. Louis Browns, worked with Snider in spring training in 1948 to teach him the strike zone. Snider credited Rickey’s guidance for making him a Hall of Famer.

Snider flourished in 1949, his first full season with the Dodgers, when he batted .292 with 23 home runs and 92 R.B.I. The following year, a Duke Snider Fan Club was born.

But Snider’s moodiness affected his relationship with the fans. When he was booed by Dodgers fans in midsummer 1955 after a prolonged slump, he fumed. As he recalled in “The Duke of Flatbush” (Zebra Books, 1988), written with Bill Gilbert, he told the sportswriters: “The Brooklyn fans are the worst in the league. They don’t deserve a pennant.” The complaint made headlines.

Pee Wee Reese, the Dodgers’ captain and Hall of Fame shortstop, teased Snider over his outbursts, and Snider later reflected how “Pee Wee taught me to control my emotions more.”

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Going ... going ... gone?

While millions of ordinary Americans are struggling with unemployment and declining standards of living, the levers of real power have been all but completely commandeered by the financial and corporate elite. It doesn’t really matter what ordinary people want. The wealthy call the tune, and the politicians dance.

So what we get in this democracy of ours are astounding and increasingly obscene tax breaks and other windfall benefits for the wealthiest, while the bought-and-paid-for politicians hack away at essential public services and the social safety net, saying we can’t afford them. One state after another is reporting that it cannot pay its bills. Public employees across the country are walking the plank by the tens of thousands. Camden, N.J., a stricken city with a serious crime problem, laid off nearly half of its police force. Medicaid, the program that provides health benefits to the poor, is under savage assault from nearly all quarters.

The poor, who are suffering from an all-out depression, are never heard from. In terms of their clout, they might as well not exist. The Obama forces reportedly want to raise a billion dollars or more for the president’s re-election bid. Politicians in search of that kind of cash won’t be talking much about the wants and needs of the poor. They’ll be genuflecting before the very rich.

In an Op-Ed article in The Times at the end of January, Senator John Kerry said that the Egyptian people “have made clear they will settle for nothing less than greater democracy and more economic opportunities.” Americans are being asked to swallow exactly the opposite. In the mad rush to privatization over the past few decades, democracy itself was put up for sale, and the rich were the only ones who could afford it.

The corporate and financial elites threw astounding sums of money into campaign contributions and high-priced lobbyists and think tanks and media buys and anything else they could think of. They wined and dined powerful leaders of both parties. They flew them on private jets and wooed them with golf outings and lavish vacations and gave them high-paying jobs as lobbyists the moment they left the government. All that money was well spent. The investments paid off big time.

As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson wrote in their book, “Winner-Take-All Politics”: “Step by step and debate by debate, America’s public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefited the few at the expense of the many.”

As if the corporate stranglehold on American democracy were not tight enough, the Supreme Court strengthened it immeasurably with its Citizens United decision, which greatly enhanced the already overwhelming power of corporate money in politics. Ordinary Americans have no real access to the corridors of power, but you can bet your last Lotto ticket that your elected officials are listening when the corporate money speaks.

When the game is rigged in your favor, you win. So despite the worst economic downturn since the Depression, the big corporations are sitting on mountains of cash, the stock markets are up and all is well among the plutocrats. The endlessly egregious Koch brothers, David and Charles, are worth an estimated $35 billion. Yet they seem to feel as though society has treated them unfairly.

As Jane Mayer pointed out in her celebrated New Yorker article, “The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry — especially environmental regulation.” (A good hard look at their air-pollution record would make you sick.)

It’s a perversion of democracy, indeed, when individuals like the Kochs have so much clout while the many millions of ordinary Americans have so little. What the Kochs want is coming to pass. Extend the tax cuts for the rich? No problem. Cut services to the poor, the sick, the young and the disabled? Check. Can we get you anything else, gentlemen?

The Egyptians want to establish a viable democracy, and that’s a long, hard road. Americans are in the mind-bogglingly self-destructive process of letting a real democracy slip away.

I had lunch with the historian Howard Zinn just a few weeks before he died in January 2010. He was chagrined about the state of affairs in the U.S. but not at all daunted. “If there is going to be change,” he said, “real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves.”

I thought of that as I watched the coverage of the ecstatic celebrations in the streets of Cairo.