“Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son” (Bloomsbury USA) by Paul Dickson takes a look back at the pennant winning manager of the Dodgers and Giants as well as mid-20th century celebrity.
“It’s probably the only baseball book with Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, Spencer Tracy and Mr. Ed in the index,” Dickson said.
“I grew up in New York at a time when everything was baseball,” the 77-year-old Dickson said. Dickson’s great-grandfather was a business partner with Charlie Ebbets and Dickson also got free tickets to Yankee Stadium thanks to Bill Dickey’s nephew. “I always had a tremendous love of New York baseball.”
“It was in the middle of prohibition,” Dickson said. “It was the year The Great Gatsby was written. It’s way, way back there. There were speakeasies up and down Broadway. Go from that era all the way up through Chicago and the Chicago convention and the anti-war stuff. Then he managed in Houston a few years after the moon landing. He bridges these generations.”
Durocher is remembered for his managing but was a three-time All-Star as a player in a career that started in 1925 and ended 20 years later. He had worked in a factory but a black coworker encouraged him to try out for the Hartford Senators. Durocher would make spectacular plays at shortstop and the Cubs, Cardinals and Yankees all wanted him to sign. Durocher would later send his friend World Series tickets and was also a supporter of integration in baseball.
Durocher led the Dodgers to the 1941 World Series where they would lose to the Yankees. In 1947, Durocher stood up for Jackie Robinson as Robinson was poised to break the color barrier. But Durocher wouldn’t be his first manager. He was suspended for his ties to gambling and had to watch as Burt Shotton led Brooklyn to the pennant.
He returned in 1948 but had an uneasy relationship with Dodger management. There were still bookies all around the clubhouse. Pitchers would get out of an inning, walk off the mound and place bets on a horse race. At the same time, the struggling Giants needed a manager, so Durocher was sent to a Manhattan. “It was like Lincoln becoming the head
of the Confederacy,” Dickson said.
It also added another layer to an already heated rivalry. “There were fights in bars, it was really intense,” Dickson said. “Brooklyn was Brooklyn. There was really a feeling that Brooklyn was different and New York City had the stockbrokers and skyscrapers.”
In 1949, the Giants added Hank Thompson and Monte Irvin, the first black players in team history, and two men that had served in World War II. The often volatile Durocher understood that he couldn’t push these guys around. “He realizes he can’t intimidate them like a 16-year-old from Georgia,” Dickson said. “They were real men and has to treat them as such.” The Giants soon added Willie Mays and Durocher stuck with him even as he struggled. Decades later, Mays would be the only baseball man to speak at Durocher’s funeral and called him the father he never had. The team rallied in the summer of 1951 to overtake the Dodgers for the pennant, and would win the World Series in 1954.
Durocher left after the 1955 season and was hired by NBC. In addition to announcing baseball, he hosted Jackpot Bowling, and Colgate Comedy Hour.
He joined the Dodgers as a coach under Walt Alston for four seasons in the early 60s. He got to be a part of the 1963 World Series champs and really became Mr. Hollywood. Durocher appeared on a number of programs including Mr. Ed, The Munsters and The Donna Reed Show.
Durocher took over the Cubs in 1966 and went from losing 103 games that season to making them a contender in 1969. But it’s the tail end of the season that he’s remembered for in Chicago, as the Miracle Mets overtook a tired Cubs team to win the NL East. “The reaction to the book was different in Chicago than New York or Los Angeles,” Dickson said. Durocher didn’t like Ernie Banks and Ron Santo and there was a clubhouse revolt in 1970. Durocher asked what the players didn’t like about him. “It got worse and worse and at one point Santo had his arm around his neck,”
Durocher was fired in 1972 and went to the Astros. “By the time he got to the Astros, he hated the modern players,” Dickson said. After dining with Sinatra, he would tell his players he was with Frank, and the players would say Frank Who? Durocher retired after the 1973 season.
Coincidentally, a book about Durocher’s contemporary Casey Stengel written by Marty Appel is also coming out. Appel actually proofread the chapter on Durocher with the Yankees for Dickson.
The Hall of Famer Durocher’s method was later adopted by guys like Earl Weaver and Billy Martin. “There was a Durocher style of cantankerous ump-beating,” Dickson said.