Most dignified-looking Met: Duke Snider. That gray hair gets them. If he offered to sell you the Brooklyn bridge you’d be certain he owned it.
—Leonard Shecter, New York Post, 1963
“I think Casey was referring to the fact that when I was 29, I’d have 10 years in the league, but of course, he mangled the quote. Even he probably didn’t remember it.”
—Greg Goossen, Los Angeles Daily News, 2009
The confluence of events leads us to contemplate two former Mets who, at first glance, had nothing to do with one another. Duke Snider was one of those Hall of Famers whose “NEW YORK N.L.” notation can be viewed by those not afflicted by a Metsian mindset as a footnote to a brilliant career forged in another uniform. Greg Goossen, on the other hand, played most of his baseball in our favorite clothes but didn’t play it terribly long or with particular distinction. Yet we consider these two Mets at this moment because fate saw fit to bring their lives to an end on the same weekend.
Snider and Goossen were both born in Southern California and both died there, at ages 84 and 65, respectively. They were not contemporaries, having just missed each other in a manner of speaking. Snider’s long major league tenure ended in 1964, a year before Goossen’s began. Duke played until he was 38, though to look at him in his twilight, you would have guessed he edged closer to Hoyt Wilhelm/Jamie Moyer territory. Goossen came up in ’65 as the Mets’ fifth-ever teenager.
Age, though, may be where we find the common ground between the two men whom we mourn.
Duke Snider, post-Flatbush, was a 1963 Met just waiting to happen: he used to be an outstanding National Leaguer and he did most of his standing out in Brooklyn. First Mets president George Weiss constructed his initial roster with an eye on distracting the paying public. No way the ’62 club was going to be any good anyway, so why not stock it full of as many (faded) Senior Circuit stars as could be had, and if they happened to be old Bums, all the better. Thus, the first Metropolitan edition included Gil Hodges, Roger Craig, Clem Labine, Charlie Neal and Don Zimmer; the 1962 Mets could have been the 1956 Dodgers, save for the inevitable deterioration of the human condition.
Then came the Duke, the big bopper in Brooklyn through their incandescent ’50s stay, a lesser light as time (and the Los Angeles Coliseum’s dimensions) took their toll on him in L.A. The Duke Snider the Mets signed just ahead of the opening of the 1963 season was only in name and fame the same slugger who hit more home runs than any other individual in the 1950s. But these were the Mets, and name and fame was good enough.
So was Snider, actually. In modern terms, consider his 1963 a prototype for Gary Sheffield’s last-minute arrival in 2009 (except more fans were happy to see the Duke). Strapped for talent, Casey Stengel played him in the outfield too much — sort of like Jerry Manuel with Sheffield — but he produced a few certifiably memorable moments, including a milestone homer. Just as Sheff joined the 500 Club in Citi Field’s first week, Duke hit No. 400 as a Met, at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, though the shot that survives in memory and kinescope footage was the one before it. The Mets trailed the Cardinals 2-0 at the Polo Grounds in the bottom of the ninth on June 7. With one out, Rod Kanehl on third, Ron Hunt on second and Diomedes Olivo on the mound, the Duke swung and sent No. 399 soaring over the right field fence…same as he might have taken aim at Bedford Avenue once upon a time. The Mets prevailed 3-2 in their only Duke-off win.
Snider totaled 14 home runs as a Met and served as their lone All-Star representative in 1963. Unbeknownst to everybody 48 years ago, he also posted the second-best WAR on the club, behind only Hunt. Toward year’s end, the unthinkable occurred and the Duke of Flatbush was given a Night of his own at the Polo Grounds, replete with a car, a golf cart and trip for two anywhere he wanted in the world. The occasion was warm and fuzzy enough, but overall, his Manhattan “homecoming” wasn’t everything Duke could have wanted. The Mets were a 51-111 enterprise, Casey Stengel was grabbing a few winks on the bench and Snider wasn’t getting any younger. He wanted out and, on the cusp of the 1964 season, his wish to go to a contender was granted — Duke Snider was sold to the Giants.
Which was a lot weirder than a Brooklyn Dodger becoming a New York Met, but at 37 and with his skills clearly receding, even future Hall of Famers couldn’t be choosers.
As Snider was escaping the Queensbound Mets, the emphasis for the third-year franchise was changing from familiar veterans with little left to kids whose eventual limit may very well have been the sky. With the Mets 140 games under .500 after two years, there was no time like the present to find out how high those youngsters’ ceilings might rise. In the spring of 1964, Stengel stirred to proclaim the Youth of America was en route to beautiful new Shea Stadium.
Hardly anybody was more youthful than catcher Greg Goossen in Shea’s first seasons, though he was hardly alone among those barely old enough to enjoy an ice cold Rheingold after games (and not old enough to vote in anything but an All-Star election). Seven members of the 1965 Mets played big league ball before turning 21. Hardly any of them was truly battle-ready. Goossen wasn’t ripe yet, but he gave a decent enough accounting of himself upon his cup of September coffee, batting .290 and reaching Bo Belinsky at Connie Mack Stadium for his first homer.
Goossen would be back in the minors most of 1966 until September, when he cracked one more homer but hit a scant .188. Wes Westrum kept him on the roster the first month of 1967, and brought him back from the minors in July, but Greg’s progress was moving in reverse: .159 BA/.216 OBP/.174 SLG in 74 plate appearances. He lasted three months under Gil Hodges in 1968 and didn’t impress. Just before the 1969 Mets began to coalesce in St. Petersburg, Goossen, 23, was traded to the expansion Seattle Pilots for Jim Gosger.
This may be the longest anyone has ever written about Greg Goossen’s Mets career without mentioning the one thing it seems everybody remembers, so let’s mention it. It comes in slightly different shapes and flavors, with the ages sometimes fudged for fluidity’s or accuracy’s sake and sometimes without the proper setup — namely that in the spring of 1965, Casey Stengel was touting the potential of his many youngsters, including bonus baby Ed Kranepool, who, Casey declared, was 20 but had a chance, ten years hence, to grow into a star.
Let Jack Lang, via New York Mets: Twenty-Five Years of Baseball Magic, pick it up from there.
“‘And we have this fine young catcher named Goossen who is only 20 years old, who in ten years has a chance…’ Stengel stopped. For a split second he was stumped. Then he continued in classic Stengelese, “‘in ten years he has a chance to be 30.’”
Greg Goossen had more in store for himself beyond simply aging. He was one of the few Seattle Pilots there ever were (joining most of the rest of them in Jim Bouton’s Ball Four) and then, after following them to Milwaukee (and finishing up as a Washington Senator) in 1970, he went Hollywood. Goossen enjoyed a lengthy career as Gene Hackman’s stand-in, nabbing more than a dozen screen credits for himself along the way.
Still, Casey wasn’t altogether wrong. Greg Goossen did turn 30 ten years after he was 20 (even if he was only 19 when Stengel offered the most oft-told version of his forecast). The kid had a future…it’s just that baseball wasn’t much a part of it. The Youth of America, however, yielded a few tasty plums, per the Ol’ Perfesser’s prognostications. Three of his sub-21 Mets from ’65, his final season as skipper, were Kranepool, Ron Swoboda and Tug McGraw, all of whom would become world champions the year Greg Goossen was a Pilot. Then again, the rest of that era’s kiddie corps didn’t necessarily have it so good — witness the long and winding road to obscurity for 1964 teen dream Jerry Hinsley — leading one to wonder how much better off the most callow mid-‘60s Mets might have been had they not been rushed onto a perennial cellar-dweller.
Greg Goossen was probably too young to be a Met when he was called to active duty, though, to be fair, he wasn’t going to be a baseball star at any age. Snider, conversely, was one of the absolute greats of his era, a period that, unfortunately for us, preceded by several years the existence of our Mets and the season he played for them.
But that’s OK, too, I suppose. In his baseball prime, Duke Snider’s job was to hit home runs and catch fly balls for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Afterwards, as best as I can tell, it was his role to have been Duke Snider.
There was something quintessentially nostalgic about the existence of Duke Snider once he quit playing. It was comforting just to hear his name, even for those of us who never saw him as a Dodger or a Met or a Giant. Whenever Duke’s name came up, particularly if it was brought up by his contemporary Ralph Kiner (or, better yet, when Duke joined Ralph for a chat when he was working as an Expos announcer in the ’70s and ’80s), it reminded you of what had been. Here was evidence that there were Brooklyn Dodgers, that there was Ebbets Field, that The Boys of Summer wasn’t just an apropos book title, that the 1950s were more than the setting for Happy Days.
Duke Snider somehow reassured me that the whole thing wasn’t just something my Brooklyn-born mother made up.
As much as I read about those Dodgers, there was a certain unreality to them in my mind, no matter how beautifully Roger Kahn brought them to life, no matter how many of their National League pennants were stitched into the permanent record. Intellectually, I got that there was a Pee Wee, a Jackie, a Campy, an Oisk and so on. I understood that the Los Angeles Dodgers were a transferred (stolen) entity. But somehow it never quite registered as real, probably because the Brooklyn I saw from the back seat of the family Chrysler on visits to relatives or doctors evoked a number of images for me, but home to a major league baseball team wasn’t one of them.
Thanks, then, to Edwin Snider, for serving as “the Duke” long after the Dodgers left Brooklyn. Thanks to Duke for showing up here and there over the decades and telling his stories, feeding our nostalgia and constituting one-third of an immortal trio not just for Terry Cashman but for the rest of us as we wrapped our heads around the way it really was. That there were Brooklyn Dodgers. That there was an Ebbets Field. That Willie, Mickey and the Duke each roamed the earth in geographic proximity to where we’d come along later. Being Duke Snider had genuine value for so many of us who are proud to call ourselves baseball fans and New Yorkers.
And being Greg Goossen? You mean to be young and a Met? Even a little too young and a Met? Who among us, no matter how allegedly mature, wouldn’t sign for that at any stage of our lives?
Two great preseason publications are out, each with contributions from Faith and Fear and other Mets writers you know and love. Get your hands on Amazin’ Avenue Annual here and Maple Street Press Mets Annual here.