You’ll read plenty of great tributes to Duke Snider‘s playing days today, both here at FanGraphs and by friends of ours around the Web. But while Dodgers fans rightfully mourn their Duke of Flatbush, Expos fans like myself mourn the Duke of Montreal.
When Snider’s eulogy gets written, don’t expect more than a passing mention — if that — of his work as a color commentator for Montreal Expos games. But the Duke’s time behind the mic shouldn’t be considered an afterthought. For 14 seasons, Snider called games alongside Dave Van Horne, the 2010 Ford Frick winner, voice of the Expos for the first 32 years of their existence, and the current radio voice of the Florida Marlins. I’ve often referred to Van Horne as the voice of my childhood, growing up in Montreal. But really, that’s only half true. Van Horne was the co-voice of my childhood, along with the Duke.
Snider’s baseball career in Montreal started as a player, with the Triple-A Montreal Royals. The same Montreal minor league club that produced great players like Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson (whose Montreal apartment will soon be honored by the U.S.’s ambassador to Canada), the Duke also cut his teeth as a prospect in la belle province. He returned to Montreal in 1974, serving as a hitting instructor on manager Gene Mauch‘s staff. When the Expos offered Snider the choice of continuing as a coach or trying the broadcast booth, he chose to give announcing a shot. There, he combined a great set of pipes with extensive knowledge of the game.
“Duke was a great storyteller,” Van Horne told the Associated Press. “He had a great memory from his Hall of Fame playing career. He had great insights into the game. His ability to analyze hitting and pitching was tremendous. We worked well together, but Duke was the expert.”
I was born in 1974, so I missed a big chunk of Snider’s broadcasting career. But even at an early age, I can remember having very specific taste in how a game should be called. The Duke wielded the wisdom he’d accumulated over a lifetime in baseball, but he didn’t overwhelm you with it. Not every occasion calls for a long-winded story about the good old days. But when the time was right, he’d regale you with tales of the Polo Grounds, the rivalry with the Giants, playing with Jackie. It never felt forced. It always felt right.
On a more visceral level, I remember Van Horne and Snider as the two voices that rocked me to sleep on summer nights. The Expos would be out in L.A. or San Diego or San Francisco, and I’d stay up way past my bedtime listening to Dave and the Duke describing Tim Raines‘ basestealing, Bill Gullickson working out of a big jam, Andre Dawson chasing down a ball in the gap.
Funny thing about the people who call your favorite team’s games: They have a way of lingering in your memory long past even the most spectacular plays by the most amazing players. My colleague Dave Cameron posted what would normally be a routine lineup thread at his excellent Mariners blog, USSMariner. This wasn’t just any spring training contest, though. It was the first M’s game, exhibition or otherwise, after the death of Mariners broadcasting legend Dave Niehaus. As Dave put it:
I’m going to my father-in-law’s 60th birthday party, so I won’t be around to listen to the game, but that’s probably for the best anyway. I’m not ready to listen to a Mariners game that isn’t voiced by Dave Niehaus yet. I wish good luck to those of you who have to try to get through today’s broadcast without openly weeping.
It’s been more than 20 years since the Duke ended his career as a broadcaster for my beloved Expos. But I’m still gripped by that same sadness that Mariners fans are feeling now, that Tigers fans felt when Ernie Harwell died, that Cubs and Phillies fans felt when Harry Caray and Harry Kalas left us, that fans of any baseball team feel when the voice that tucked them in at night passes into the ether.
Merci, Duke. Bonne chance.
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