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Monday, February 28, 2011

Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy channels Duke Snider

“Duke Snider, a Prince of New York’s Golden Age of Baseball, Dies at 84” reads the headline in today’s obituary in The New York Times and goes on to describe him as a “star among stars” during the eleven seasons he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s. “Snider was a colossus, one of three roaming the center fields of New York.” The others were Willie Mays of the New York Giants and Mickey Mantle of the Yankees, and each October at least one of the three teams played in the World Series during this era. “The three became symbols for their teams, as the fans argued over who was the best: Willie, Mickey or the Duke?”

Snider hit forty or more home runs in five consecutive seasons, something neither Mantle or Mays achieved. Impressive as he was the plate, Snider also inspired fans with his fielding. As the Times obit says, “He moved back on the ball brilliantly and unleashed powerful throws.” Fans watching him play at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field felt close to the action. As Roger Kahn wrote in The Boys of Summer, “In the intimacy of Ebbets Field it was a short trip from the grandstand to the fantasy that you were in the game.” No one has captured that fantasy—and Snider's starring role in it—better than Philip Roth in Portnoy’s Complaint as Alexander Portnoy describes his youthful prowess as an outfielder to his therapist:
. . . Or just standing nice and calm—nothing trembling, everything serene—standing there in the sunshine (as though in the middle of an empty field, or passing the time on the street corner) standing without a care in the world in the sunshine, like my king of kings, the Lord my God, The Duke Himself (Snider, Doctor, the name may come up again), standing there as loose and as easy, as happy as I will ever be, just waiting by myself under a high fly ball (a towering fly ball, I hear Red Barber say, as he watches from behind his microphone—hit out toward Portnoy; Alex under it, under it), just waiting there for the ball to fall into the glove I raise to it, and yup, there it is, plock, the third out of the inning (and Alex gathers it in for out number three, and folks, here’s old C.D. for P. Lorillard and Company), and then in one motion, while old Connie brings us a message from Old Golds, I start in toward the bench, holding the ball now with the five fingers of my bare left hand, and when I get to the infield—having come down hard with one foot on the bag at second base—I shoot it gently with just one flick of the wrist, at the opposing team’s shortstop as he comes trotting out onto the field, and still without breaking stride, go loping in all the way, shoulders shifting, head hanging, a touch pigeon-toed, my knees coming slowly up and down in an altogether brilliant imitation of The Duke. Oh, the unruffled nonchalance of that game!
Snider reflected on his career after being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Philip Roth: Novels 1967-1972 (includes Portnoy’s Complaint); Baseball: A Literary Anthology (includes this passage from Portnoy’s Complaint)

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