“He’s gross, obscene, deceitful, and devious…a wonderful guy to write about.”
So wrote Chicago Tribune sports writer Robert Marcus about, who else: Leo Ernest Leo Durocher, who was more commonly referred to as “Leo the Lip.”
Durocher wouldn’t be slapped with the “Leo the Lip’’ nickname until he was with the Brooklyn Dodgers after a March 26, 1938 John Lardner column, the same year he became the scrappy captain of the Dodgers.
Thanks to Paul Dickson, author of the “Dickson Baseball Dictionary” and “Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick,” comes his newest deconstruction of arguably baseball’s most troublesome, quarrelsome, and lippiest manager of them all, but one who knew how to win: “Leo Durocher: Baseball's Prodigal Son.”
Dickson takes readers on bumpy if entertaining ride through Durocher’s playing career from his early days as a pool hustler with the New York Yankees to his association with disreputable gamblers as a manager through his tumultuous marriages (four in all, including actress Laraine Day), while nearly coming to blows with baseball’s most celebrated icons, namely, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub.
Babe Ruth most likely went to his grave convinced that Durocher stole his watch one blurry evening when the Babe was in one of his drunken stupors, and Durocher helped him off with this clothes before flopping him into bed.
Who actually stole the Bambino’s watch was never determined, but guilty or not, Durocher throughout his career never shook the whisper he was solely responsible for the heist.
“What time is it Leo?” became the familiar refrain, shouted from opposing benches, every time Durocher stepped to the plate.
Ruth liked to refer to Durocher as the “All-American out’’ for his weak bat. Durocher ended his playing career with a lifetime batting average of .247.
Though Durocher didn’t pack much of a punch at the plate, he was a spectacular shortstop. His fielding skills wouldn’t be fully appreciated until he became part of the St Louis Cardinals Gas House Gang (a term coined by Durocher himself), a glitzy band of characters which consisted of Dizzy Dean, " Pepper Martin, Frankie Frisch, Paul "Daffy" (or "Harpo") Dean, and Joe "Ducky" Medwick that advanced to the World Series in 1934, beating the Detroit Tigers in seven games.
A common theme running through Dickson’s splendidly written and meticulously researched book centers on how Durocher was always pushing the envelope, first with managers, later with franchise owners, then in his domestic affairs with multiple spouses.
Larry MacPhail, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, once said that he must have fired Durocher at least a dozen times before changing his mind.
Dickson traces a number of gambling allegations directed at Durocher, including his association with actor George Raft, a notorious gambler, and Bugsy Siegel, one of the most “infamous and feared gangsters” of the early 20th century, and even charges that the problematic manager was involved in a crooked dice game.
As Brooklyn manager, rumors ran wild that the Dodger clubhouse was being consumed with bookies and gamblers with Durocher often turning a blind eye.
Eventually, “The Lip’s” sordid reputation, whether accurate or not, caught up with him.
Prior to the 1947 season, Durocher was suspended by Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler for the entire season for “actions detrimental to baseball”; that is, for consorting with gamblers.
After bickering with Dodger coaches and ridiculing Jackie Robinson for being too fat during spring training of 1948, Brooklyn and Durocher amicably parted ways, allowing Durocher to hitch his wagon to the New York Giants, the Dodgers chief rival from uptown Manhattan.
And it was with the Giants that the Durocher would be best remembered, first in 1951 in managing the third and deciding game of a three-game playoff against the Brooklyn Dodgers, his former team, when Bobby Thomson smacked a dramatic three-run home run to win the pennant for the Giants at the Polo Grounds in the ``Shot Heard Round’ the World.”
Three years later, “The Lip” and Giants would stun the Cleveland Indians in a four game sweep in the 1954 World Series. It would be Durocher’s only World Series title as a manager.
But as Dickson deftly reports, even Durocher’s two crowning achievements, Thomson’s dramatic home run in 1951 and the Giants 1954 World Series win would eventually come under a cloud of suspicion that would continue to haunt him.
Durocher was accused by a number of players and members of the press of stealing signs from pitchers, with many convinced (but never proven) that Bobby Thomson was tipped off on what pitch Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca was going to throw him from Giant coach Herman Franks stationed in center field.
Sign stealing allegations later swirled around “The Lip’’ like a huge dark tornado over his stunning 1954 sweep of the Cleveland Indians. Durocher, and others, however, were quick to shout back that if there was any sign stealing going on, the Giants weren’t the only culprits.
Strong suggestions that the Cleveland Indians were stealing signs as well, using Bob Feller’s telescope from the U.S. Navy, were alleged.
“The Lip’s” last real tour of duty as manager came with the Chicago Cubs, who he managed with limited success from 1966 through 1972.
His chance to lead a team to a World Series was dashed in the simmering hot summer of 1969, when the Cubs were in first place for 155 days; that is, until mid-September, when they went on to lose 17 out of 25 games, to finish the season eight games behind the New York Mets in the National League East.
The Cubs, as it turned out, was yet another bad marriage for Durocher. He was constantly badgering Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, and came to blows with pitcher Ken Holtzman who demanded to be traded.
“The Lip” was axed during the 1972 All-Star game.
Durocher would go on to have brief managerial stints with the Houston Astros (1972-73) and the Saitama Seibu Lions (1976) in Japan before calling it quits.
In his 24 years of managing, the legendary skipper compiled 2,008 victories and 1,709 losses for a .540 winning percentage, ranking him sixth in career victories.
He was finally, at long last, inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994.
Though undoubtedly an ill-tempered rabble rouser, who at times struggled in his dealings with players and umpires, other times consorted with shady characters, and always seemed deeply in debt, while ending up being either fired or sued for divorce, that was hardly the entire picture of Leo Durocher.
And it’s hardly the picture that Paul Dickson paints of one of the most cantankerous and successful baseball managers of all time.
Mr. Dickson does a superb job in his wonderfully written biography of Durocher to underscore how he was also one of the most progressive managers of his era.
It was Durocher who attended an anti-Hitler rally in the U.S in 1940., as Dickson points out, well before it became fashionable to fear Nazi Germany.
And it was Durocher, who, when he first laid eyes on Jackie Robinson, knew he would be a big leaguer. It was Durocher, too, who shot down a petition going around among Dodger players that they wouldn’t suit up if any African American players were signed. The Dodger manager angrily informed the team that integration is the future of baseball and they had better get used to it.
Away from the diamond, Durocher could be as well liked and affable as the best of them. In between stints as manager, for example, “The Lip” was often performing with the likes of Danny Kaye, Jack Benny, and good friend, Frank Sinatra. He had brief tours of duty as a baseball TV analyst as well.
So as Opening Day draws near and you’re looking for some literature to whet your appetite for the upcoming season, look no further than “Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son.”
Along with the nitty-gritty details of Durocher’s turbulent life, it’s a book which harks back to the glory days of the game, when print reporters held sway, and before the mammoth multi-million contracts of free agency, when teams had to make due with the players they had, which, more often than not, relied on hard work, team chemistry, and a deep abiding love for the game.
March 3, 2017