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Leo Durocher

Leo Durocher

Position(s):
2B, SS, 3B
Nicknames:
Leo The Lip
Born:
July 27, 1905
Bats:
Right
Throws:
Right
Height:
5' 10"
Weight:
160 lbs
Major League Debut:
10-02-1925 with
Hall of Fame:
1994

Leo Durocher

Leo Durocher may best be remembered for uttering the famous phrase, "Nice guys finish last." Yet he was far more than a footnote person in baseball history. He roomed with Babe Ruth, won a World Series title with Dizzy Dean, tutored Pee Wee Reese, dated and married movie starlets, was suspended for a full year for consorting with gamblers, gave Roy Campanella the Dodgers' catching job, was friends with gangster Bugsy Siegel, managed the Giants to the famous playoff game that produced Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World", led the Giants to their last World Series title in New York City, nearly coaxed the Cubs to a pennant in 1969, and wore the orange and black of the Houston Astros. When the dust had settled on his controversial and colorful career, Durocher had played in more than 1,600 games and won 2,008 as a skipper. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1994.

Contents:

Playing Career

Born in West Springfield, Massachusetts in a french-canadian family, Durocher joined the New York Yankees briefly in 1925 before rejoining the club in 1928 as a regular, if unspectacular, player. Babe Ruth nicknamed him "The All-American Out."

Durocher was a favorite of Yankee manager Miller Huggins, who saw in him the seeds of a great manager – the competitiveness, the passion, the ego, the facility for remembering situations. Durocher's outspokenness did not endear him to Yankee ownership, however, and his habit of passing bad checks, to finance his expensive tastes in clothes and nightlife, annoyed Yankee general manager Ed Barrow.

Durocher helped the team win its second consecutive World Series title in 1928. He demanded a raise and was sold to the Cincinnati Reds in 1930.

Durocher spent the remainder of his professional career in the National League. After three years with the Cincinnati Reds, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in mid-1933. Upon joining the Cardinals he was assigned uniform number 2, which he wore for the rest of his career, as player, coach and manager. That team, whose famous nickname "Gashouse Gang" was supposedly inspired by Leo, were a far more appropriate match for him; in St. Louis, Durocher's characteristics as a fiery player and vicious bench jockey were given full rein. Durocher remained with the Cardinals through the 1937 season, captaining the team and winning the 1934 World Series (their third title in nine years) before being traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Primarily a shortstop, Durocher played through 1945 (excluding the 1942 and 1944 seasons), and was known as a solid fielder but a poor hitter. In 5,350 career at bats, he batted .247, hit 24 home runs and had 567 runs batted in. He was named to the NL's All-Star team three times—once with St. Louis, and twice with the Dodgers. In 1938 he made history of a sort by making the final out in Johnny Vander Meer's second no-hitter.

Managing Career:

After the 1938 season — Durocher's first year as Brooklyn's starting shortstop — he was appointed playing-manager by the Dodgers' new president and general manager, Larry MacPhail. The two were a successful and combustible combination. MacPhail spared no expense in purchasing and trading for useful players (and sometimes outright stars), such as Dolph Camilli, Billy Herman and Kirby Higbe; he purchased unknown shortstop Pee Wee Reese from the Boston Red Sox, and signed another young star, Pete Reiser, when he was ruled a free agent from the Cardinals' farm system; and found stalwarts such as American League veterans Dixie Walker and Whitlow Wyatt off the waiver wire.

In his first season as a manager, 1939, Durocher epitomized the position for which most would remember him. As a manager, his temperament came into its own, and the most enduring images of Durocher are of him standing toe-to-toe with an umpire, vehemently arguing his case until his inevitable ejection from the game. In assembling his teams, he valued the same characteristics in his players, his philosophy best expressed in the widely quoted – but misunderstood – phrase for which he is now best remembered: "Nice guys finish last." Also, in 1939, Leo Durocher was the starting shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers when they hosted the Cincinnati Reds in the first televised major league baseball game, August 26, 1939.

In a July 6, 1946, interview with Red Barber, Durocher had been commenting on the common belief at the time that if a team's players got along well, they would naturally play better than teams with difficult or irascible players; noting some of the players on the Giants who had reputations as personable individuals, notably Mel Ott, he observed that they were all "nice guys", but would nonetheless finish last (while his Dodgers were in first place), summing up his argument with, "Nice guys; finish last." Durocher later noted that the remark was quoted accurately in the published interview, but came to take on a different meaning when some incorrectly thought he meant that such a team would finish last because it included "nice guys", when in fact he had meant that there was no correlation (and in fact, saw it more as an ironic situation) between the personalities on a team and their level of play. (See 1966 Chicago Cubs, below.) Thus the quote "Nice guys finish last" has long been attributed to Durocher, including an entry in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. Many historians assert, however, that the famous four words never were actually uttered by Durocher; the quotation as it is remembered actually came from headline writers distilling Durocher's quote that "The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place, not in this dugout" into a pithy soundbite.

The Dodgers were coming off six straight losing seasons, but Durocher made a quick turnaround; apart from the war year of 1944, he would not have a losing campaign with the team. In 1941, just his third season of managing, he led the Dodgers to the National League pennant (their first in 21 years) with a 100-54 record. They lost the 1941 World Series to the Yankees in five games and just missed the 1942 NL pennant despite winning 104 games.

Yet despite all the success between 1939–42, Durocher and GM MacPhail had a tempestuous relationship. MacPhail was a notorious drinker and as hot-tempered as his manager, and often he would fire Durocher in the midst of a night of drinking. In the morning, however, MacPhail would always hire Durocher back. Finally, with World War II raging, the Dodger GM resigned to rejoin the United States Army at the end of the 1942 season. His replacement, former Cardinal boss Branch Rickey, retained Durocher as skipper. Durocher managed the Dodgers continuously until 1946, and led Brooklyn to the first postseason NL playoff series in history, losing to the Cardinals two games to none.

But Durocher also clashed regularly with Commissioner Albert "Happy" Chandler, who had been named to the post in 1945. Throughout his tenure Leo had been warned away from his friends, many of whom were gamblers, bookmakers or had mob connections, and who had a free rein at Ebbets Field (he was particularly close with actor George Raft, with whom he shared a Los Angeles house, and admitted to a nodding acquaintance with Bugsy Siegel).

Furthermore, Durocher encouraged and participated in card schools within the clubhouse, was something of a poolshark himself and a friend to many pool hustlers. He also followed horse racing closely. Matters came to a head when Durocher's affair with married actress Laraine Day became public knowledge, drawing criticism from Brooklyn's influential Catholic Youth Organization; the two later eloped and married in Mexico in 1947. They divorced in 1960. During happier times, in the 1950s, Day authored a book describing the life of a manager's wife, titled Day with the Giants.

Suspension

During spring training 1947, Durocher became involved in an unseemly feud with the new Yankee owner, Larry MacPhail. The Yankee boss had hired away two coaches from Durocher's 1946 staff (Chuck Dressen and Red Corriden) during the off-season, causing friction. Then matters got worse.

In person, Durocher and MacPhail exchanged a series of accusations and counter-accusations, with each suggesting the other invited gamblers into their clubhouses. In the press, a ghostwritten article appeared under Durocher's name in the Brooklyn Eagle, seeking to stir the rivalry between their respective clubs and accusing baseball of a double standard for Chandler's warning him against his associations but not MacPhail or other baseball executives.

Chandler was pressured by MacPhail, a close friend who was pivotal in having him appointed Commissioner, but the commissioner also discovered Durocher and Raft might have run a rigged crap game that took an active ballplayer for a large sum of money. (The player's identity was never confirmed officially, but a former Detroit Tiger pitcher, Elden Auker, wrote in his 2002 memoir that it was a then-current Tiger pitcher, Dizzy Trout.) Chandler suspended Durocher for the 1947 season for "association with known gamblers".

Before being suspended, however, Durocher played a noteworthy role in erasing baseball's color line. In the spring of 1947, he let it be known that he would not tolerate the dissent of those players on the team who opposed Jackie Robinson's joining the club saying: "I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin' zebra. I'm the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What's more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded."

He greatly admired Robinson for his hustle and aggression, calling him "a Durocher with talent." And Durocher liked to say of Eddie Stanky, the sparkplug on his 1951 pennant-winning Giants team,

"He can't hit, he can't field, he can't run—all he can do is beat you."

Meanwhile, as Durocher sat out his suspension, the Dodgers won the NL pennant under an interim skipper, scout Burt Shotton, then went on to lose the 1947 World Series to MacPhail's Yankees in seven games.

Move to New York Giants

He would return for the 1948 season, but his outspoken personality and poor results on the field that season (Brooklyn briefly fell into the basement) would again cause friction with Rickey, and on July 16 of that year, Durocher, Rickey and New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham negotiated a deal whereby Durocher was let out of his Brooklyn contract to take over the Dodgers' cross-town rivals. He enjoyed perhaps his greatest success with the Giants, and possibly a measure of sweet revenge against the Dodgers, as the Giants won the 1951 NL pennant in a playoff against Brooklyn, ultimately triumphing on Bobby Thomson's historic game-winning home run.

Later with the Giants in 1954, Durocher won his only World Series championship as a manager by sweeping the heavily favored Cleveland Indians, who had posted the best American League record of all time (111-43) in the regular season.

After leaving the Giants following the 1955 season, Durocher worked at NBC, where he was a color commentator on the Major League Baseball on NBC and host of The NBC Comedy Hour and Jackpot Bowling. He later served as a coach for the Dodgers, by then relocated to Los Angeles, from 1961 to 1964.

During this period, Durocher, who had made his screen debut in the 1943 Red Skelton comedy Whistling in Brooklyn, played himself in several television shows. In an (4/10/63) airing of The Beverly Hillbillies, Durocher plays golf with Jed Clampett (Buddy Ebsen) and Jethro Bodine (Max Baer, Jr.), and he tries to sign Jethro to a baseball contract after discovering Jethro has a strong pitching arm. In a memorable episode of The Munsters, entitled "Herman the Rookie" (4/8/65), Durocher believes Herman (Fred Gwynne) is the next Mickey Mantle when he sees the towering Munster hit long home runs. Football great Elroy Hirsch also appeared with Durocher. Three years earlier, he also appeared as himself in an episode of Mr. Ed, when the talking horse sought a tryout with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He also appeared on television in the early 1970s on the syndicated What's My Line? as a mystery guest.

Chicago Cubs

Durocher returned to the managerial ranks in 1966 with the Chicago Cubs. For the past four seasons, the Cubs had tried an experiment called the "College of Coaches," in which they were led by a "head coach" rather than a manager. However, at his first press conference, Durocher formally announced an end to the experiment by saying:“ If no announcement has been made about what my title is, I'm making it here and now. I'm the manager. I'm not a head coach. I'm the manager.”

At the same press conference, Durocher declared, "I am not the manager of an eighth place team." He was right: the Cubs finished 10th and became the first team to finish behind the previously hapless New York Mets. Three years later, Durocher suffered one of his most remembered failures. The 1969 Chicago Cubs season started well: the team led the newly created National League East for 105 days, and by mid-August they had a seemingly insurmountable 8½-game cushion and appeared to be a shoo-in for their first postseason appearance in 25 years. However, they foundered down the stretch, and finished eight games behind the "Miracle Mets" (who had been 9½ games back in mid-August).

"Are these the real Cubs?" a reporter asked Durocher after his team lost one against the New York upstarts during the pennant drive.

"I don't know," Durocher answered, "but these are the real Mets."

While with the Cubs, Durocher encountered a difficult dilemma in regards to the Cubs aging superstar, Ernie Banks, whose injured knees made him a liability but whose legendary status made benching him impossible. Durocher also nearly came to blows with Cubs star Ron Santo during an infamous clubhouse near-riot. The problems would be symbolic of Durocher's difficulty in managing the new breed of wealthier, more outspoken players who had come up during his long career. He was fired midway through the 1972 season, later stating that his greatest regret in baseball was not being able to win a pennant for longtime Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley.

Houston Astros and beyond

He then managed the Houston Astros for the final 31 games of the 1972 season and the entire 1973 season before retiring. Durocher made a brief comeback in 1976 in the Japanese Pacific League with the Taiheiyo Club Lions, but retired due to illness before the beginning of the season.

Retirement

Durocher finished his managerial career with a 2008-1709 record for a .540 winning percentage. He posted a winning record with each of the four teams he led, and was the first manager to win 500 games with three different clubs.

Durocher, with Ed Linn, wrote a memoir titled Nice Guys Finish Last, a book that was recently re-published by the University of Chicago Press.

Best Season: 1935

A mediocre hitter at best, Durocher hit .265 with a career-high 78 RBI and eight home runs. In the field he was especially valuable, posting a 5.16 range factor at shortstop, one of the best marks in the league. However, the Cardinals failed to repeat as NL champs.

Durocher vs. Stengel

Durocher had an ongoing feud with Casey Stengel. In May of 1936, the two reportedly agreed to meet beneath the stands at Ebbets Field to solve their differences. Apparently, Durocher emerged with a cut lip and Stengel with a bruised eye.

Hall Of Fame:

He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994 by Veterans Committee

Obituary:

Leo Durocher died in Palm Springs, California at the age of 86,A spokesman at Desert Hospital, Randy Bevilacqua, said Durocher died of natural causes. He is buried in Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Personal life

In addition to his aforementioned marriage to Laraine Day, Leo was also married to Grace Dozier in 1934 and Lynne Walker Goldblatt in 1969. All of his marriages ended in divorce.

Resources:

Wikipedia, Baseball Hall of Fame, Baseball Reference

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Tagged:
1927 World Series, 1928 World Series, 1934 World Series, 1954 World Series, 1994 Hall of Fame, All-Star, Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Gas House Gang, Houston Astros, Leo Durocher, Manager, New York Giants, New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals

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