BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) — Don Zimmer stood in front of the dugout, remembering longtime pal and one-time Dodgers teammate Duke Snider.
A smile spread across the 80-year-old’s face when he was asked about the friendship he and others such as Johnny Podres, Pee Wee Reese and Gil Hodges had with the late Hall of Famer off the field.
“Duke of Flatbush, that’s something I’ll never forget,” Zimmer, a senior adviser with the Tampa Bay Rays, said Sunday after learning that Snider, who helped the Dodgers win World Series titles in 1955 and 1959, had died in Escondido, Calif., at age 84.
“As a friend,” Zimmer added, hesitating before his smile grew wider, “I had a lot of good times with him. Podres and I, and Duke, we spent many hours at night over a beer or something.”
Zimmer, who was in uniform with the Rays for Sunday’s exhibition game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, played five years with Snider.
The former Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox manager called his ex-teammate an outstanding hitter who never got his just due as a center fielder while playing the position in New York at the same time as Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.
“They were great players in one city, one town,” said Zimmer, who’s in his 63rd season of professional baseball — 53 as a major league player, coach and manager. He dresses with the Rays during spring training and for pregame workouts during the regular season.
“Duke never got the credit of being the outfielder that Mays and Mantle were. First of all, it was a small ballpark, Ebbets Field. But Duke was a great outfielder. He was a great player,” Zimmer said.
Zimmer signed with Brooklyn in 1949, two years after Snider made his debut. He has six World Series rings, two as a player with the Dodgers and four as a coach with the New York Yankees.
He cited Snider’s passion for horse racing: “Duke liked the horse like I did,” Zimmer said. He also recalled a big party Snider hosted for the entire team after the club relocated from Brooklyn to California.
“He had a lemon and avocado farm down between San Diego and L.A.,” Zimmer said, recalling the trip to Fallbrook. “We had a heck of a time.”
There are other fond memories, too.
Like watching Snider learning to harness a wild swing.
“I remember when Branch Rickey would have him down in the batting cages and had strings put up for strikes and balls because he didn’t know the strike zone,” Zimmer said. “They’d throw the pitch, then Duke would say ‘strike’ or ‘ball.’ That’s the way they went at it.”
And Snider’s sometime fickle relationship with Brooklyn fans.
Zimmer recalled how the Dodgers would honor players on certain nights, with sponsors presenting gifts.
“Pee Wee got a new car, Hodges got a new car. The people who put on the night would give them the cars, and Duke wouldn’t accept one,” Zimmer said, smiling again.
“At that time, I think he got a little frustrated with the fans, and he said, ‘I don’t want nobody to give me a car.’ He didn’t have a night, but I remember all the other nights.”