Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son

  • By Paul Dickson
  • Bloomsbury USA
  • 368 pp.
  • Reviewed by Jay Price
  • March 9, 2017

The most combative player ever to mine the diamond.

Leo Durocher, Hall of Fame baseball manager and enfant terrible, is hardly the only leader of men — Machiavelli and Yogi Berra come to mind — whose words have outlived their triumphs or failures.

Nor, for that matter, is he the only one (see the aforementioned individuals) who never actually uttered the line for which he’s best known — at least, not in the form attributed to him.

But no four-word phrase ever encapsulated its (sort of) author’s outlook on life more eloquently than Durocher’s adopted declaration, “Nice guys finish last.”

That bit of ballpark philosophy not only defines how Durocher elbowed his way through nearly 50 years of a baseball life, it also served to justify the worst behavior of a generation of ill-mannered skippers — Billy Martin, Lou Piniella, and the spectacularly profane Earl Weaver — who came along in his wake.

In Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son, author Paul Dickson relates the dugout conversation in which radio announcer Red Barber asks the acerbic Brooklyn Dodgers manager, “Why don’t you try being a nice guy?”

“Nice Guy?” Durocher repeats, leaping to his feet and launching into a soliloquy on the uselessness of timid souls in a combative environment like baseball. “Nice guy?”

Spotting his New York Giants counterpart Mel Ott and some Giants players in the opposing dugout, Durocher waves a dismissive hand. “Look over there. Do you know any nicer guy than Mel Ott? Or any of the other Giants? Why, they’re the nicest guys in the world, and where are they? In seventh place!”

The amended version, as repeated by sportswriters everywhere, took on a life of its own and served Durocher’s tough-guy image so well that he used it as the title of his ghostwritten 1975 autobiography. This was, after all, a man who publicly reveled in the notion that he’d trip his dear old mom to win a ballgame…and then confirmed it to his stricken mother’s face.

Dickson, the author of 67 books, many of them aggregations — The Complete Book of Toasts; Baseball’s Greatest Quotations; Drunk: The Definitive Drinker's Dictionary — has fashioned a meticulously researched chronicle of Durocher’s life and career, bolstered by a nine-page bibliography and 27 pages of notes.

And if the end-product is occasionally as dry as old newspaper clippings? No worries. Durocher’s life — feuding with opponents, teammates, writers, and commissioners; baiting umpires; punching mouthy fans; running with gamblers and gangsters, and the Hollywood stars who played them in the movies; burning his way through four marriages, including one to actress Larraine Day — is colorful enough for any three novels. The world of Twitter and TMZ would’ve loved him.

It’s only a small exaggeration to say that Durocher, a light-hitting shortstop, talked his way to the big leagues, elevating the role of bench jockey to an artistic pursuit. Then he fought — sometimes literally — to stay there, first as a player with the Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig, and the St. Louis Cardinals’ iconic Gashouse Gang; and then as a manager with the Dodgers, Giants, Chicago Cubs, and Houston Astros.

Who else could’ve bookended his career by picking on Babe Ruth and Ernie Banks? Ruth, at least, had his own warts, but nobody didn’t like Mr. Cub. Small wonder, then, that when the Dodgers’ Carl Furillo, suspecting his former manager of ordering a knockdown pitch (Durocher yelling “Stick it in his ear!” might’ve been a clue), charges into the dugout to put Durocher in a chokehold, the Giants players are slow to jump to their manager’s defense.

That’s not to say Dickson’s Durocher doesn’t have his admirers. There’s always another owner or general manager looking for a man of his talents — which, if they don’t always drive his team to the World Series, can be counted on to generate bold newspaper headlines and raucous crowds, some of whom happily pay for the privilege of booing the manager.

By an accident of timing, Durocher winds up managing both Jackie Robinson, the first black player to break organized baseball’s color barrier and, after a stunning mid-season jump from the Dodgers to the Giants, Willie Mays, the greatest player of his generation.

Durocher is almost gentle with Mays, an innocent who addresses him as “Mr. Leo” and regards him as a second father. But Robinson is subject to Durocher’s acid tongue when the manager wonders if he might be self-satisfied and out of shape.

In Brooklyn and Chicago, that corrosive leadership style inspires clubhouse mutinies. And Durocher’s enemies, many still feeling the sting of his barbs long after their careers are done, manage to keep him out of the Baseball Hall of Fame until 1994, three years after his death.

The irony is that the one time he was held to account for his transgressions — when baseball commissioner Happy Chandler suspended him for the 1947 season for “an accumulation of unpleasant incidents” — he was apparently innocent of any actual rule-breaking. Or, at least, as innocent as a rogue like Durocher could ever be.

As Time magazine pointed out at the time, by lowering the boom without tangible cause, Chandler had accomplished the seemingly impossible: turning Durocher into a sympathetic character.

To his credit, Dickson doesn’t.

Jay Price, an award-winning columnist at the Staten Island Advance and Sport Magazine, is the author of Thanksgiving 1959. He coaches high-school football in Manasquan, NJ.

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