The Duke of Montreal

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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Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.

16 Responses to “The Duke of Montreal”

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  1. Dave says:

    As much of a cheerleader as he was, Ron Santo was that guy for my childhood, and this winter was so sad. :(

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  2. Faceyman says:

    Excellent post…I could not have written it any differently, well done. RIP Duke.

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  3. Ftrooper22 says:

    I wasn’t born till 1982, but the Brooklyn Dodgers have been my passion. They epitomize what I love in sports. It’s hard to believe Duke was the third best outfielder in NY. I can only imagine what great stories Vin will tell during Dodger broadcasts this year about this great man. Great read.

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  4. Scout Finch says:

    very nice.

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  5. Johnny Carson says:

    I did not know that…

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  6. AJS says:

    I know you’re a Montreal guy, but no specific mention of the impact Tom Cheek had on a generation of Jays fans? I’d put him up there with Caray, Kalas, Harwell and Niehaus.

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  7. Jonah Keri says:

    Tom Cheek was great, sure. Of course listing great anything is always going to end somewhere. He wasn’t intentionally omitted.

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  8. Gina says:

    Thank you for posting such a wonderful tribute to the “Duke of Flatbush”. I was so happy to hear that he continued to be loved and appreciated when he went to Montreal. He was the “hero” of my youth.

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  9. Tom Dakers says:

    I have the same memories of Duke. He was terrific on the TV broadcasts. One of a handful of people that helped inspire my love for baseball.

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  10. Ian G. says:

    “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.”

    Yup. Bob Murphy was the “voice of summer” (as my father put it) for all those Mets games on the radio when I was a kid. I still remember little quirks like how it was always “Len Dykstra”, not “Lenny Dykstra” to Bob. I imagine anyone who listened to games on the radio as a kid, no matter the team, knows what you’re talking about, Jonah.

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  11. Isaac Lin says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your memories. Duke had a great voice; I can still hear him ending a sentence of praise with “… and that’s not too shabby.” Duke and Dave knew how to let a broadcast breathe, letting the listeners hear the sounds of the crowd and the game. I enjoyed every moment listening to Duke, and I’m glad there are many who will remember him fondly.

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  12. Eric Bernstein says:

    RIP Duke. I am 43 and was around for all of Duke’s radio and TV time in Mtl. I dare say that he was better than Dave Van Horne and like the poster here I spent many a great nite listening to Dave and Duke paint a picture of the greatest game. Too bad we never won anything real for him but it was great fun trying.

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  13. manuscript says:

    another great piece, jonah.

    i wouldn’t trade anything for having grown up listening to bob uecker. it’s great that he’s back on the mic and i hope that ticker of his holds out for another few years. living out of the country makes me really miss his game calling. yeah, i know he lapses into stories, but his atmosphere and gamecalling absolutely belong to my childhood as heard in crackling mono – that’s one speaker, young bucks) in the back of my dad’s vw vanagon – sitting at the drive-up a&w.

    this one (2008 playoff clincher) gives me goosebumps every time and on sappier days a tear…

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  14. wicketmen says:

    I too grew up in Montreal, listening to Duke ‘n Dave. They were an amazing team. Last night I dug out my copy of “The Year The Expos Finally Won Something” (autographed by Duke at a signing at Chenoy’s). It made for a wonderful read (save Blue Monday).

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