02/28/2011 04:59 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Duke Snider -- Farewell, My Hero

They played more than half a century ago, so most of them are gone, the Brooklyn Dodgers that I knew. Gil Hodges and Jackie Robinson, so soon and only months apart. Jim Gilliam, Carl Furillo. After decades of brave endurance, Roy Campanella. The captain, Pee Wee Reese, and Johnny Podres. Just two weeks ago, Gino Cimoli, who performed so well in the elegiac twilight

This one hurts. For me and most of the kids of the 1950s, he was the one. Our hero. And therefore a hero for life.

It's corny, I know, but in Brooklyn the Dodgers were like family. My teenage sisters wished they could marry the handsomest ones, Duke or Gino or Don Drysdale, and I suppose I'd have liked them to teach me what my ailing father couldn't -- the way to play the game or how to swim. His decline and my adoption of the Duke exactly coincided. It was June 1956 -- I've looked it up -- and I was not quite seven. I lay on the red linoleum of our living-room floor watching a night game in St. Louis in which Duke hit two massive home-runs, one of which knocked out the electric lettering atop a clock on the right-field roof. It is my earliest memory of him. The game was still going when my father came home and asked what the score was. When I or someone else told him, he playfully followed up with a phrase -- he was an Irishman who liked the sound of words -- that I didn't understand: "In whose favor?"

He had been out that night to see a local doctor and would soon be conquered by a devastating paralysis.

There were legions of Brooklynites who earnestly supported their team but would never follow baseball after they left. My older brother Johnny is my readiest example. Two weeks after that wondrous display in St. Louis, he took me to a Sunday doubleheader at Ebbets Field. It was the first of two times I was ever there. In the first inning of the first game, Gilliam and Reese got on base for the Dodgers, and Duke, who always batted third, drove one of his signature homers over the tall right-field scoreboard.

My hero for life.

Duke Snider -- christened "Edwin" -- would admit when his career was over that he had been a temperamental, even cynical, young man. Around the time of which I've been writing, he co-wrote a magazine piece with Roger Kahn that was headed, "I Play Baseball for Money -- Not Fun." And once, amid the swirling rumors that the vile Walter O'Malley would transplant the Dodgers to richer soil, he groused that Brooklyn fans, who had booed him, "didn't deserve a pennant." But he was a better man than that, and he grew old with graciousness, always speaking fondly of the borough where he had starred, offering bouquets such as, "I was born in California, but I was re-born in Brooklyn."

It was an awful irony that a few months after O'Malley did take the team away, the great Campanella was crippled in an auto accident, and he would never catch a pitch in Los Angeles. A less vicious irony was that Snider, the Los Angelan, would not excel in his native place as he had in Brooklyn. Yes, the grotesque conformation of Memorial Coliseum was inhospitable to his skills, but he was also hobbled by a balky knee and had become a part-time player at 31. In mid-century New York, he had been compared every day in discussions and arguments on stoops and subway platforms to the city's other great centerfielders, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. I have never heard a fan of Duke contend that he was the equal of either one, but he was good enough, easily, to belong in the conversation. And his lifetime numbers, which were fine enough, would have compared better to theirs if he'd had more years in full health.

I have a favorite Duke Snider story, which I heard him tell the unforgiving Brooklyn fan Howard Cosell one evening on New York television.

My other great baseball hero was the brilliant left-handed Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax. (It is yet another irony that, while two of the best Brooklyn Dodgers of the '50s, Robinson and Snider, were Los Angelans, two of the best Los Angeles Dodgers of the '60s, Koufax and Tommy Davis, were Brooklynites.) Duke, a left-handed batter, remembered that he had, improbably, once faced the unmatchable Koufax. The old centerfielder was in his last year, offering what little service he could to the once-detested Giants, and he was idling on the bench one day when a teammate batting against Koufax fouled a ball off his foot and couldn't continue. On a 3-2 count.

The manager ordered Snider to grab a bat.

"What happened?" asked Cosell, fascinated, as I was.

"Fastball, way high and outside, ball four." He smiled.

He was looking back, as usual, with amusement and joy. I'll always remember him for that. But mostly I'll remember him for the sweet, powerful swing that exposed the number four on the broad back of my favorite Brooklyn Dodger. And right now I can only look back with sadness.