"The players really love him," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said on Sunday after his club dropped a 4-3 decision to the D-backs at Salt River Fields. "They're in awe of Willie. He has a great way about him. He's such an icon. He knows so much about this team. When he played in Spring Training, he played just about every inning a couple of times. He does a lot to help make these guys special players."
The three were young men during the '50s as they built their reputation roaming center field, then baseball's most glamorous position. Mantle did so for the Yankees at the original Yankee Stadium in the south Bronx, following the great Joe DiMaggio. Snider played for the Dodgers at Ebbets Field, in Brooklyn's Flatbush section. Mays called the vast pastures of the Polo Grounds, in Manhattan's Harlem neighborhood, home.
There was always a professional tension there between each other as the three teams battled for the crown of New York, during a decade in which the World Series champion was crowned from that city every year except one from 1949-58. But there also was a begrudging respect.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame caught up with the "Say Hey Kid" on Sunday and posted this quote from him about Snider on its Facebook page:
"Duke was a fine man, a terrific hitter and a great friend -- even though he was a Dodger," Mays said. "It was great playing center field in New York in the 1950s along with Mickey and Duke. Today I feel that I have lost a dear friend. He was a hero to the fans in Brooklyn and a great ... Dodger."
Some animosities die hard. It was no wonder then that when the Dodgers tried to trade Jackie Robinson to the Giants after their 1956 World Series loss to the Yankees, he retired rather than finish his career at the Polo Grounds. Robinson made it publicly clear that he much preferred to do that than play for the hated Giants.
Snider played 16 of his 18 seasons with the Dodgers. So it is no small irony that eight years later Snider, the quintessential Dodger, finished his career playing alongside Mays in San Francisco long after the two National League teams had fled New York for the West Coast.
Snider was already a seasoned pro of 24 and Mays was a 21-year-old rookie when their paths first crossed in 1951. It is just a footnote to the historic events of that final playoff game on Oct. 3, but Snider was in center field at the Polo Grounds and Mays was in the on-deck circle as Bobby Thomson strode to the plate to face Ralph Branca with two runners on and the game -- and pennant -- on the line.
Mays disclosed later that he was a scared kid, praying that he didn't have to hit in that situation. No worries. Thomson drilled Branca's second pitch into the lower deck in left field, rocking New York and the baseball world. Snider began to break, but when he saw left fielder Andy Pafko stop in pursuit of the ball, Snider immediately turned and headed for the clubhouse, located up a flight of steps in dead center at the old ballpark.
The loss would smart for years, Snider once recalled, and was reprised in his last Dodgers season. In 1962, San Francisco came from behind to defeat Los Angeles in another three-game playoff for the pennant. In 1954, the Giants won the World Series by sweeping the Indians, with Mays making the Game 1 catch in the caverns of the Polo Grounds that is still called the best in postseason play. They'd lose to the Yankees in the '62 World Series, and wouldn't win it all again until last year, when Mays cast his long exuberant shadow over the postseason.
Snider's Dodgers finally vanquished the Yankees in their sixth chance in 1955, and would win again on the left coast, defeating the White Sox in 1959.
Meanwhile, the battle still rages. Who was better, Willie, Mickey or the Duke? In 1955, Sports Illustrated chose Snider.
"In every sense, the contemporary hero of Flatbush, prematurely gray at the temples in his 29th year, is a picture player with a classic stance that seldom develops a hitch," the magazine said. "Next to [Ted] Williams, Snider probably has the best hitting form in the game."
Bochy chose Mantle, who was the only one of the three to play his entire career with the same team, retiring from the Yankees after 18 seasons in 1968.
"I loved them all, but I was such a big Mantle fan because I grew up on the East Coast," Bochy said.
But just ask Willie who was the best. His answer always comes without doubt and never sounds like a boast: him.
Now only one of the legends is left. May the Duke rest in peace, and may Willie Mays long continue to chirp and laugh.