Opinion of Kingman's Performance

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Hero, Villian, Despised, Revered…Leo Durocher in Dodger History.

Over the next few posts, the impact of Leo Durocher on Dodger history is to be discussed.  It seems that the more I research this controversiaol figure, the more there is to tell.  He's probably one of the most colorful figures in baseball history

Leo Durocher as a rookie with the  World Champion Yankees, 1928. (photo by Chales M. Conlon)

In 1976, upon hearing that the Japanese Pacific League Saitama Seibu Lions had hired Leo Durocher to manage their ball club, Vin Scully said it best.  “It took the U.S. 35 years to get revenge for Pearl Harbor.”

Leo Ernest Durocher could be described with almost every adjective in the dictionary.  He was about as controversial as they come.  Colorful and outspoken.  Certainly not dull.  No person maintained as prominent a place in Dodger history during the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s 60’s and even 70’s as Leo Durocher.  As a player, manager, coach, hated rival, hero, and even saboteur, this man played all roles and never minced words.  Durocher could easily be labeled as a gambler, a great baseball strategist, a  womanizer, a philanthropist, a manipulator, a charmer, a motivator and a cheat.  And all in the space of 24 hours.  Leo and controversy went hand in hand, all the way back to the 1920’s when he was a young ballplayer fighting Ty Cobb up until the 1970s when Cesar Cedeño played for him.

He was a gold glove type infielder and weak hitting batter who in his best year hit .286.  Born and raised in tenement housing in West Springfield, Massachusetts.   He grew up on the streets with mobsters as friends.  As a teenager,  Leo learned to gamble, shoot pool and hustle with the best of them.  It is said he learned the tricks of the scamming trade from the experts in those tough streets.  By the time Durocher had broken into baseball, he was skilled at cheating in cards, hustling people and collecting debts.

In 1925 he was playing in the minors with the Hartford A league club when Hartford Manager Paddy O’Connor caught him red handed with marked bills that he suspected his young shortstop would steal.   Reports of missing money from other ball players pointed towards their young and brash shortstop.  With his teammates wanting to beat him to a pulp, O’Connor insisted the Durocher remain with the club until the pennant race was over, with the promise that he’d get rid of him once the season ended.

Hartford won and O’Connor kept his word, selling off Durocher to the Yankee organization for $12,000.

Durocher continued in his controversial ways.  He was up with the Yankees briefly in 1925 and to stay with the Championship team in1928.  There his arrogant style, living above his means, and his show-offish nature rubbed teammates the wrong way.  Nicknamed “Fifth Avenue” due to his flashy style and expensive tastes.  He had penchant for dressing to the nines, something that his rookie wages could not afford.   Durocher was always in debt and someone known for passing bad checks.  The only thing that kept Durocher with the ball club was Manager Miller Huggins, who took a liking to the loud mouthed youngster.

Ty Cobb, 1927 photo when he was player/manager of the Philadelphia Athletics

Leo was a gutsy player on the field.  Legend has it that he took on the great Ty Cobb during that 1928 rookie season.  Cobb, was player/manager of the Philadelphia Athletics and could still bring it on the field.  Thirty years after the fact, there were stories circulating that Durocher purposefully collided with Cobb as he rounded second heading for third, causing the Georgia Peach to stumble and fall, only to be thrown out at third base.  Cobb was said to have threatened to end the rookie's career then and there.  Cobb claims it never happened.  Frankie Frisch says that a gutsy Durocher yelled at Cobb, "that'll hold you, you old goat!"  Durocher claimed in his 1975 autobiography Nice Guys Finish Last, that  no such words were said and that it was an unintentional collision:

"Now, in those days, the Yankee dugout was behind third base - not first base as it is now and as I'm passing Cobb on the way in, he says to me, "You get in my way again, you fresh gusher, and I'll step on your face."  I hadn't said a word to Cobb, and I still didn't.  Hell, this is Ty Cobb.  But Ruth, who was coming in from left field, wanted to know what Cobb had said.  'Well kid,' Ruth said - he called  everybody kid - 'the next time he come to bat call him a penny pincher.'  I'd never heard that word before, but just from the way everybody on the bench started to laugh I had a pretty good idea what it meant. What I didn't know was that Cobb had a reputation for being a very tight man with a dollar and had been ready to fight at the drop of a 'penny pincher' for years.

Well, naturally, I can't wait for him to get up again so I can go to work on him and holy cow, he turns in the batter's box, pointing his finger, and the umpire has to restrain him.  Now, the game is over and the umpires don't have a care any more.  Both clubs have to use the third-base dugout to get to the locker room, and Cobb races over to cut me off.  He's out to kill me and I'm looking for a place to run because I am not about to tangle with Mr. Cobb.  Finally, Babe came running in and put his arm around Cobb, and he's kind of grinning at him and settling him down. 'Now what are you going to do? You don't want to hit the kid, do you?'  And while Babe has his attention - boom - I'm up the stairs like a halfback and into the locker room."

Durocher and Ruth, 1929 photo
Given the moniker “the All-American out” by Babe Ruth. Leo didn't take a liking to the ribbing by the Babe.  For the most part, the two had a stormy relationship in their years as teammates.  Stories float around to this day that Durocher stole the Babe’s watch, picked his pocket and took his money, etc.  There is the tale of Leo helping an inebriated Ruth to his hotel room, only to rob him blind before he left.  “Why would I take a few bucks from him,” said Durocher many years later when asked about the accusation, “If I was gonna steal from the fat guy, I would have stolen his Packard.” 

The Ruth-Durocher feud would re-surface years later when they were both with the Dodgers, but in 1929, when Miller Huggins passed away, Durocher’s playing career looked to be over.  The Yankees placed him on waivers and no American League club wanted to touch the arrogant, slap hitting shortstop that had an unsavory reputation.  This was quite the story because though Durocher wasn't much of a hitter, he was already known as probably the slickest fielding shortstop in the league.

Hall of fame manager, Miller Huggins

The National League’s Cincinnati ball club claimed him and he was told to be on good behavior by Red’s Manger Dan Howley.  Durocher played well in Cincinnati, but continued to get in trouble by passing bad checks, getting knee deep in a paternity law suit and alienating those that came in contact with him.  Three years later, the Cardinals Branch Rickey traded for him when his shortstop, Charley Gelbert, nearly shot off his foot in a hunting accident.

Durocher thrived with the Cardinals and played a key role in their World Championship in 1934.  Red Barber called him the “best shortstop of his era.”  His best playing years were as a red bird.  Leo also gets credit for naming the 30’s Cardinals the “Gashouse Gang.”  The story goes that sports writer Frank Graham overheard Durocher telling Dizzy Dean that the rag tag Cardinals with their rough demeanor, dirty uniforms, a blue collar reputation that tended to get in a lot of on and off-field trouble wouldn't be accepted in the other league (American) because they looked like a bunch of “gas house ballplayers.”

The "Gas House Gang," poses before game 2 of the 1934 World Series in Detroit.  Durocher is 2nd from the left.    Dizzy Dean, is first player on the left.

Rickey was concerned with Leo’s debts.  He continued to live above his means, writing post dated checks and making enemies both outside and inside the lines.  Commissioner Landis got involved this time around and Rickey assisted getting Durocher an off-season managing gig with the U.S. Naval Academy to help him pay off some of his debt.   It was there that Durocher got a taste for managing and he liked it.

By 1937, Durocher was convinced that he could do a better job managing the Cardinals than current skipper Frankie Frisch and he was very vocal in expressing his opinion.  The Red birds had fallen into fourth place.  Branch Rickey, in an attempt to release club tension, traded Leo away to Brooklyn in 1938.   This didn’t stop Durocher in his quest to become an on-field player/manager.   It was over this spat, while with the Dodgers, that Durocher and Babe Ruth went head to head.

Ruth and Durocher go head to head in Brooklyn

After two years at the helm of the Dodgers, Burleigh Grimes was on the way out after two sub 70 win seasons.  Ruth had come over to Brooklyn in June of 1938 with aspirations of becoming the on field Manager to replace Grimes.  Brooklyn President/General Manager Larry MacPhail had brought on Ruth as a first base coach as a possible gate attraction with a latent promise that he would be considered for a future managerial position.  Truth was that the Babe was a gate attraction, but the fans mainly loved watching him take batting practice periodically.  MacPhail was prepared to shatter the Babe's dream of managing.  Unfortunately for Ruth, a determined Leo Durocher wanted the managerial job just as much.  The two men already had a stormy relationship over the years with each each other.  This was a conflict that was to be of “Ruthian” proportions (pun intended).  
Burleigh Grimes, Babe Ruth and Leo Durocher.  1938, Brooklyn bench.

If there was one thing that Leo had as a personal trait, it was an uncanny ability to achieve his goals, no matter what the cost.  As despised as he was by his teammates, team management and the administration of major League Baseball, Durocher's stubborn nature seldom failed to get him what he wanted.  A determined Leo Durocher more often than not would reach his goals.  

Discrediting the Babe would work in his favor to get the Dodgers managerial job.  He claimed that Ruth missed relaying a “hit and run” sign that cost the Dodgers a game.  (This was confirmed in Claire Ruth’s writings at a later date, who confirmed that the Babe's poor memory was at fault for the mental error).  The two went to fisticuffs in the club house.   Michael D’Antonio in his book on Forever Blue, described the tense spectacle of Ruth and Durocher’s feud in this way:  “Durocher took every chance to humiliate the aging star (Ruth), right down to slapping him and calling him a baboon during a clubhouse confrontation.  He gradually destroyed the Babe’s chance to become manager and got the job for himself.”  Larry MacPhail, who had his own controversial nature, (was known to have serious problems with associations with gamblers and alcoholism), eventually selected Durocher as Grimes' successor.  Ruth departed the organization an extremely disappointed and disheartened man, never to be seriously considered for a field manager job again.

The selection of Durocher turned out to probably be the best move MacPhail could have made as Leo was able to improve the Dodgers by 15 games in the standings in 1939, finishing in 3rd place.   It was the Dodgers first winning season in seven years.  Leo then led Brooklyn to its first pennant in 21 years in 1941, finishing with a 100-54 record.  Amazingly, the ’42 Dodgers won 104 games, but failed to take the National League crown as St. Louis finished with 106 wins.

Durocher and Larry MacPhail in Life Magazine photo.

The MacPhail/Durocher relationship was rocky from the start.  MacPhail was known to have drunken temper tantrums in which he’d fire Durocher, only to rehire him the next morning after sobering up.  It was reported that this occurred about a dozen times during their stormy years together with the Dodgers, but in 1942, MacPhail left the team to serve his country in World War II, and once again, Durocher found himself working for his old nemesis, Branch Rickey.  In the next half a dozen years, both Rickey and Durocher found themselves and loyal allies, and men that would impact the baseball world (and the country) in a major way.

(to be continued)

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