Opinion of Kingman's Performance

Friday, January 25, 2013

Hero, Villian, Despised,  Revered…Leo Durocher in Dodger History (Part Two)

This is a continuation of the previous post on the impact of Leo Durocher on Dodger history is to be discussed.  One of the most colorful figures in baseball history

Over the next few seasons, Durocher and the Dodgers were identified practically as one in the same.  Leo accepted a lessor role as a player as he approached age 40, but with his personality, “lessor” doesn’t adequately describe his role.   He inserted himself in the lineup a few times during the war years when teams were depleted of players, but for the most part, his playing days were over.  

Leo, the “Nice Guy”
Up from the minors arrived his successor at shortstop, Harold “Pee Wee” Reese who Larry MacPhail had acquired from the Red Sox organization.  Rather than feel threatened by the up and coming shortstop, Durocher took him under his wing and groomed him for the majors.

Pee Wee Reese (photo: Brooklyn Dodgers)

Many years later, Roger Kahn in The Boys of Summer addressed their relationship in Reese’s rookie year.   “Durocher became Reese’s champion.  He invited Reese to share his Brooklyn apartment and blanketed the rookie with advice and gifts.  ‘Leo was a sharp dresser,’ Reese says, ‘I was a kid with polo shirts.  If I liked one of his sweaters, he’d give it to me.  Year or so ago, he’s managing the Cubs and I saw him in Cincinnati.  He wore a nice orange sweater and I said I liked it.  Damn if not the same thing happened.  I’m getting to be fifty years old and he’s still giving me sweaters and I can’t tell him no without hurting him.’”

Acts of kindness on Leo’s part were common and there are those that loved the man with true loyalty.  Harold Parrott relates that Leo taught his sons the importance of grooming standards and how to properly tip on road trips.  Parrott was a prolific writer with the Brooklyn Eagle for several years before being hired by Branch Rickey to work as the Dodger’s Traveling Secretary in 1944.  He and Leo embarked on a great friendship, as Parrott ghost-wrote a bestseller about Durocher titled, The Dodgers and Me.  Additionally the column, “Nice Guys Finish Last” would be written by the two for a number of years.  Parrott spoke fondly about their relationship and appreciated how Leo looked after his sons:

“I roomed with Leo, off and on, for three years, and there are so many fine things about Leo that are unwritten.  His affection for children is genuine.  When my two oldest boys made a road trip with us, he’d say,‘Get lost, Dad.  The fellows are in with me in the drawing room.’

“He would no more think of sleeping in the upper berth that he would of flying.  But I knocked on the door one morning to see if I could take the youngsters to breakfast.  There he was in the upper.  He put them in the lower so they could look out the window in the morning.

“He used to take them on spring training trips.  He would talk their mother into letting them stay an extra week.  We were going through Arkansas and Tennessee.  We played games in the afternoon, and every night Leo would take them to see another Hopalong Cassidy movie.  I said, ‘Leo, how can you look at those things?’  

“‘I don’t look at the movie,’ he said.  ‘I just watch the kids faces.  They enjoy it so much.’”
(source: No Cheering In The Press Box, by Jerome Holtzman, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974, p. 233)

With two outs and a 4-3 lead in the ninth inning, Dodger catcher Mickey Owen mishandles a swinging strike three, allowing Yankee Tommy Heinrich to reach first base. This was game 4 of the 1941 World Series and the Yankees went on to a historic comeback and win the game 7-4.

Years earlier, Leo didn’t hesitate to make a public appearance supporting the war effort on what was only a few hours after a heart-breaking World Series defeat.  The Dodgers had just lost game four of the ’41 World Series to fall behind in the Series 3 games to 1. Hugh Casey’s knuckling strike three to Tommy Heinrich squirted past catcher Mickey Owen, starting a historical winning rally for the Yankees.  On that same night, Leo went before 17,000 fans at Madison Square Garden amongst numerous actors and celebrities to campaign for the U.S. war effort.  “We don’t want Hitlerism,” he said before a cheering crowd.  “We want Americanism.  And the Yankees are a great ball club.  Even if we lose, we’ll be losing in a free country.” (Source:http://www.wymaninstitute.org/articles/2003-02-durocher.php)

With Durocher’s managerial position, the teams emerging success and World Series appearance came the celebrity acquaintances.  Leo befriended Jack Benny, Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle and Dean Martin.   He frequented radio programs of the day, as other Gotham city field generals, (Yankees manager Joe McCarthy and Giants’ skipper Mel Ott) had no interest is such public attention.  Durocher loved the national stage and as a result he became a household name.  This didnt’ hurt the Dodgers’ popularity in the least either. 

Leo reveled in taking acting roles, always playing himself in staged arguments with umpires in prepared dialog.  The money was good and it allowed Leo to live in high style by supplementing his baseball income.  He had the best luxury apartment, top of the line clothes, ate in the best restaurants.  It was complete extravagance for "the Lip."  Durocher dated starlets and was living the high life in the most important city in the world.

Due to the War, 1944 Spring Training was not held in Florida as virtually every industry in the nation, including baseball, was pinching expenses to assist the nation with the war effort.  The Dodgers had their training in nearby Bear Mountain, a mere 40 miles away from Broadway.  Durocher couldn’t resist getting back to the big city each night to indulge in the nightlife.  On one of his night’s of retreat back to the Big Apple, Durocher was recording a radio show with Milton Berle and Jack Benny.  Branch Rickey was questioned about it by the local scribes.  “That young man,” he said referring to his manager, “will have to make an election of professions!”  

Harold Parrott related what happened in his work The Lords of Baseball, stating that there was a lot of buzz with Rickeys quote:  

“The writers loved it.  Bad Boy Durocher was in trouble again.  That night, the Mirror and the News had it in their early editions, which hit Times Square a little after ten, so Leo had read all about the new rhubarb before he started back across the George Washington Bridge and up Highway 9W at midnight.

“The next morning he was resplendent as usual when he came down to breakfast.  The silk shirt bore no traces of a wrinkle, and you could have suffered a severe cut on the crease of his perfectly tailored slacks.  Just a trace of Chanel  No. 5 wafted along with him and his grin was ear-to-ear as he sought out Rickey’s table.

“The Old Man looked up from his morning paper like a startled owl.  ‘Who won the election, Mr. Rickey,’ said Leo mysteriously.‘What election?’ Rickey seemed puzzled. ‘You were running against Milton Berle, and I voted for you, that’s all,’ said ‘Lippy’ with some bravado.

“Rickey snorted,  But before the Old Man could say any more, his gabby manager added, ‘What I mean is, I like this job, and I won’t leave camp anymore without your permission.’  He had beaten Rickey to the punch, taken away his ammunition.”

Leo Durocher and George Raft at the 1946 World Series, (photo by Chicago Sun Times)

It was Leo’s association with gamblers (and reportedly ties to mobsters), that would get him eventually in trouble.  Always one to engage in card games and billiard wagers, Durocher hadn’t backed off from these activities that dated back to his days on the hard streets of West Springfield, Mass.  He'd spend the off season's in Los Angeles at the home of actor George Raft. Raft had ties to gansters and it reported that Durocher was even in the company of Bugsy Seigel while in Los Angeles. 

Upon Larry MacPhail’s return from the war, he obtained a 1/3 interest in the New York Yankees.  MacPhail lured two of Durocher’s coaches over the the Yankees, (Charley Dressen and Red Corriden).  Leo wasn’t happy about what his former boss had done and spoke negatively of MacPhail.  MacPhail returned the favor.  Accusations from each side hinted that they each had associations with gamblers that had invaded their clubhouses.  

Leo’s friendship with George Raft was mentioned.  Larry’s issues with the bottle were made public.  MacPhail was insistent that his friend, Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler do something about Durocher.  Allegations existed that Durocher and Raft had taken a large sum of money from another ball player in a rigged crap game.

Leo Durocher and Laraine Day
There was also a scandal with Durocher (twice divorced) involving his quick marriage to divorcee, actress Laraine Day.  The Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), a large booster of the Dodgers Knothole Gang organization, dropped out of it on moral grounds due to the Durocher domestic situation.  

Happy Chandler held an impromptu investigation and interviewed MacPhail, Rickey, Durocher, Dressen, Parrott and others.  It was a witch hunt from the word go, as MaPhail was insistent that the Commish put the hammer down on Leo.  What resulted was a one year suspension for Durocher.

Rickey was livid with the decision, but in the end, there was nothing he could do to stop it.  Leo accepted his punishment and sat out the year with Laraine supportive by his side.  The suspension was officially made public for “association with known gamblers.”  There are those that believe that it had to do with the alienation of the CYO, a strong portion of the Dodger fan base.  Whatever the reasons Chandler had, he probably knew coming in that something had to be done to Durocher to show he was an enforcer.

Leo had alienated virtually all of the national League umpires too, often going to the press with his insults and complaints of their performances.  He was still hated around the league and know for dirty tactics.  To top that off, he was a popular figure who was often in the public eye.  Club hopping, radio shows, advertisements, friendships with celebrities...Durocher was a well known face nationwide.  There were a lot of jealous people in the game and many simply wanted to see Durocher out of it.

Branch Rickey later reported that Larraine Day was just what Durocher needed to settle him down.  She was his exact opposite and her influence soothed Leo. He followed her to become interested in things other that gambling, clubs and being seen in the public eye.  Antiques, the arts, classical music and literature soon became a part of his life due to her influence.  Laraine didn’t drink, smoke, or swear.  She was a mormon and about the opposite of Leo in virtually every facet in life.  Yet, they were an inseparable pair that dedicated themselves to their relationship.  As the years went by, she became an enthusiastic baseball fan and his most avid supporter. 
1947 photo of Leo and Jackie in Havana, Cuba, Spring Training

Before the suspension went down, Leo was still in the manager’s seat preparing for the 1947 season in Havana, Cuba when he received word that Dodger players had collected signatures on a petition to oppose the placement on the roster of Jackie Robinson.  It was the early morning, and Durocher immediately called a meeting with his team.  Many arrived at their hotel suite in underwear and pajamas to hear their manager out.  Leo reacted with passionate anger and immediately set the tone in the Dodger clubhouse to those that opposed having  Robinson on the team.  He told them that their petition could essentially be used as toilet paper and that he'd personally deliver anyone on the team that wanted Robinson off directly to Rickey so they could be released from the club. He was reported to say:

“I don’t care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a (expletive) zebra.  I’m the manager of this team and I say he plays.  He’s on the team boys.  He’s on the team because he's going to put money in all our pockets.  And remember this boys, He’s only the first.  There’s more coming and they’re hungry.”

Unfortunately for Leo, his days as Jackie’s manager would be short lived.   The suspension hit shortly after his tirade with the players in 1947 and by mid season, 1948, he was on his way out and would soon be the Dodger’s nemesis for the next decade.  It was an interesting turn of events, and one that would forever change the history of the game.

(to be continued) 

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