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Duke Snider, Hall of Fame centerfielder, dies

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Duke Snider, a Hall of Fame centerfielder who was the leading home run hitter for the fabled Brooklyn Dodger teams of the 1950s, died on Sunday. He was 84.

Snider was a graceful outfielder with a picture-perfect left-handed swing. He batted third for the Dodger teams that ruled the National League from 1947 to 1956 and were lionized in Roger Kahn's book "The Boys of Summer."

He died from natural causes at the Valle Vista Convalescent Hospital in Escondido, California, the National Baseball Hall of Fame said on its website.

Snider was a Dodger fan's answer to the question, who's the best centerfielder in New York -- a debate involving fellow greats Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle that long outlasted their rivalry of the 1950s.

After they retired, this holy trinity of New York centerfielders -- all in the Hall of Fame -- appeared together on sports talk shows to discuss the rivalry among their World Series-winning teams, their fondest moments on the field, and to kid one another about their enduring association.

A popular song "Talkin' Baseball" by Terry Cashman in 1981 made the exploits of "Willie, Mickey and the Duke" even more legendary.

All three would cash in on the notoriety. As an autograph craze unfolded in 1980s and 90s, they signed baseballs, bats, and lithographs that were sold or auctioned off to fans who never saw them play but wanted a piece of baseball history.

"Duke was a fine man, a terrific hitter and a great friend, even though he was a Dodger," said Mays. "It was great playing centerfield in New York in the 1950s, along with Mickey and Duke. I have wonderful memories of that."

Snider played 18 seasons in the Major Leagues, spending partial seasons with the Dodgers in 1947 and 1948 before becoming a full-time star the next year. He also played for the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants, retiring in 1964.

A BOY OF SUMMER

"The Duke of Flatbush," as he was called, patrolled center in Ebbets Field in Brooklyn's Flatbush neighborhood when New York was the capital of the baseball universe.

The Dodgers' lineup included eventual Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella, along with sluggers Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo. Snider was the trigger who hit 40 or more homers in five consecutive years.

In their heyday the Dodgers won six National League pennants and lost two in the final game of the season, including the famous playoff loss to Mays' New York Giants in 1951.

In all, during the 1950s, Snider led all league batters in total homers and runs batted in.

During the four overlapping years when Mays, Mantle and Snider played full time, from 1954 to 1957, the Duke had the most homers and runs batted in.

Edwin Donald Snider was born September 19, 1926, in Los Angeles. His dad gave him the name Duke when he was a toddler, and he was a standout athlete at Compton High School in baseball football, basketball and track.

Branch Rickey, the Dodger executive who picked Jackie Robinson to be the first black to play in the Major Leagues, said of a young, raw Snider that he had "steel springs" in his powerful legs. Snider could hit for average, hit for power, run, throw and field very well.

Snider hit four homers in two different World Series, in 1952 and '55, and for many years held the record for most Series homers with 11.

He hit the last home run at Ebbets Field on September 22, 1957. In 1962 he had the first hit at Dodger Stadium, the team's now-iconic home in Los Angeles.

He owned an avocado farm in California for many years and was a respected announcer for the Montreal Expos.

The autograph craze was lucrative for Snider, but in 1995 he pleaded guilty for failing to pay taxes on earnings from his appearances at baseball card shows.

(Writing by Philip Barbara; editing by Eric Beech)