Leo Durocher: His Controversial Career in Baseball

Leo Durocher was one of the most colorful and controversial baseball figures of his era, a man possessed by a fierce determination to win, with no regrets about how he tried to achieve victory. Leo Durocher was a light hitting middle infielder during the late Twenties and into the Thirties, who became one of a handful of managers to win over 2,000 contests. He was the first to skipper three separate clubs to more than 500 victories, and one of the most famous quotes in sports is attributed to Leo Durocher. “Nice guys finish last”, a statement that sums up Leo Durocher and his attitude towards winning, was actually a misquote, although Leo Durocher had no problem with it being used as it was.

Born in West Springfield, Massachusetts on July 27th, 1905, Leo Durocher joined the Yankees briefly in 1925. He became a regular in 1928, playing the middle infield positions. Leo Durocher was not much of a hitter, but Yankee manager Miller Huggins quickly recognized that Leo had a keen baseball mind. Passing bad checks to sustain his taste for the nightlife soon caused Leo Durocher to fall out of favor with the Yankee brass, and he found himself put on waivers in 1930. Babe Ruth had nicknamed Leo Durocher the “All-American Out”; there was no love lost between the pair. As a member of the Reds, Leo Durocher continued his less than stellar playing career, and he was eventually dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1933. He had his best seasons as a Redbird, knocking in a career high 78 runs in 1935 and batting a lifetime best of .286 in 1936. From St. Louis, Leo Durocher was sent to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938; he retired as a player after 17 campaigns in 1945 at the age of 39, with a career batting average under .250.

Leo Durocher’s playing days had been anything but boring. It had been rumored that the Yankees had let him go because Leo had a propensity for stealing things out of the locker room. As a member of the Cardinals, Leo Durocher had caused the team to be boycotted by trade unions after Durocher, who had already obtained a more appropriate nickname, “Leo the Lip”, had made antiunion statements in regards to his wife’s dress business. In 1936, Casey Stengal, the future Hall of Fame leader of the Yankees but then in charge of the Dodgers, met Leo Durocher under the stands to settle their disagreements about the game just played. Stengal came away with a bloody lip. In July of 1939, Leo Durocher spiked Giants’ first sacker Zeke Bonura, prompting Zeke to chase Leo down the right field line before tackling him. After the melee was broken up, Leo Durocher exclaimed, “If that big clown hadn’t got his foot in my way, I wouldn’t have been close to him.”

If Leo Durocher had simply depended on his status as a player to be recognized, he would have remained an obscure individual in the sport of baseball. But he became a manager, assuming the role even while he was still playing for Brooklyn. As a player-manager with the Dodgers, Leo Durocher proved to be exactly what the moribund franchise needed. He instilled a will to win, and in his first year at the helm, the Dodgers went from 69-80 in 1938 to 84-69 in 1939. A wild 1940 brouhaha at Ebbets Field, caused in great part by Leo Durocher, resulted in the Dodger’s manager being suspended and fined. In 1941, only his third year as their manager, Leo Durocher took the Brooklyn Dodgers to their third National League pennant, but first since 1920. The Dodgers finished at 100-54, on the strength of Dolph Camilli’s 34 home runs and 120 RBI and the hitting of Joe Medwick and Pete Reiser. Of Medwick, Leo Durocher said admiringly, “That Joe Medwick never lost a debate in his life, mostly because he didn’t bother. He was a one man rampage.”

The 1941 World Series was lost to the Yankees, with Leo Durocher and his Dodgers suffering three tough losses. The Dodgers would have only one losing season under Leo Durocher, the 1944 war-torn season, but things were always lively. Troubles with insubordinate players that nearly caused his own team to walk out on him, run-ins with umpires, and doing anything to give himself an advantage made Leo Durocher the press darling. In one game in 1944, with both the Giants and Dodgers out of the pennant race, Medwick, now playing for the Giants, had to leave the game when hit on the elbow. Durocher told the Giants he would allow Medwick to reenter the game if he could choose who was to run for him. The Giants agreed; Leo Durocher chose the slowest player the Giants had, illustrating his desire to gain every advantage he could. Indeed, Leo Durocher once was quoted as saying, “If I were playing third base and my mother were rounding third with the run that was going to beat us, I’d trip her. Oh, I’d pick her up and brush her off and say, ‘Sorry, Mom,’ but nobody beats me.”

His association with known gamblers, bookies, and card sharks made Leo Durocher a target of then baseball commissioner Happy Chandler in 1947. When a columnist wrote an article chronicling Leo Durocher and his off the field pals, Leo was investigated and suspended for the entire 1947 season for conduct detrimental to baseball. Leo Durocher did not help his own cause when he complained about the shady people that Yankee owner Larry MacPhail was entertaining at a pre-season game in Cuba. MacPhail himself was behind Leo Durocher’s being scrutinized and his subsequent banishing. But before he was sent packing for the year, Leo Durocher made a great contribution to baseball. In quelling a rising player’s reaction to Jackie Robinson joining the Dodgers, Leo Durocher told his team, “I don’t care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a god-damn zebra. I’m the manager of this team and I say he plays.”
Perhaps it was his own desire to win that made him feel this way, knowing Robinson gave him an advantage. He admired Jackie’s hustle and smarts, calling him “a Leo Durocher with talent.”

The Dodgers let Leo Durocher go in 1948; he took over the cross-town Giants from Mel Ott and turned the team’s fortunes around almost instantly. By 1951, New York was in the World Series. That year, Leo Durocher took a tearful 20 year old rookie named Willie Mays aside and told him not to worry about not getting a hit in his first 13 at bats; Mays got his first hit the next day, a home run off Warren Spahn. With Leo Durocher imploring his charges, the Giants made up a huge 13 Ã?½ game deficit to the Dodgers in the last few weeks of the season to force a three game playoff, which the Giants won when Bobby Thomson hit “the shot heard ’round the world” off of the Dodgers’ Ralph Branca on October 3rd at the Polo Grounds. Not even Stengal’s Yankee sweep of Leo Durocher’s Giants in the Series could do much to dampen the spirit. Leo Durocher would pull off his own sweep in 1954, when his Giants took out the highly favored Cleveland Indian’s in four games. Willie Mays’ catch of a Vic Wertz drive in Game One, and the pinch hitting of Dusty Rhodes helped give Leo Durocher his only world title.

Leo Durocher, as the Giant skipper, had plenty of his usual problems with umpires and baseball’s upper hierarchy. He was suspended and fined numerous times for beanball incidents, arguing with umpires, and other on-field shenanigans. Of umpires, Leo Durocher claimed, “I never questioned the integrity of an umpire. Their eyesight, yes.” On another occasion, he chimed, “I made a game effort to argue but two things were against me: the umpires and the rules.”
When the Giants failed to renew his contract after the 1955 season, Leo Durocher became a color commentator for baseball games, and then a coach with the Dodgers from 1961 until 1964. He took over the Chicago Cubs in 1966, losing over 100 games that year but winning 87 the next. He posted a winning record as the Cubs’ manager every year until his contentious relationship with stars like Ron Santo and Ernie Banks eventually led to his dismissal. Leo Durocher, in 1969 as the Chicago skipper, saw a 9 Ã?½ game lead over the Mets in early August turn into an 8 game deficit by the end of the season. The Cubs never won their division under his guidance, finishing second twice and third a pair of times.

In 1972, after being fired from the Cubs (“If you don’t win, you’re going to be fired. If you do win, you’ve only put off the day you’re going to be fired.” ) Leo Durocher became the manager of the Houston Astros. He led this team to an 82-80 record in 1973, and then retired from managing for good at the age of 68. Leo Durocher passed away on October 7th, 1991, in Palm Springs, California, at the age of 86. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1994, with a managerial record of 2,008 and 1709, a .540 winning percentage.

During his days managing the Dodgers, a reporter once asked Leo Durocher if a team had to have good people that got along to be able to be successful. He pointed over to the Giants, who the Dodgers were preparing to play in an exhibition game. “Nice guys. Finish last every year, though”, he told the reporter, making his point that the fellow had it all wrong. The quote came out as “Nice guys finish last”, which became Leo Durocher’s trademark, as well as the name of his autobiography. It was a good title for a book about the life of Leo Durocher, probably better than something he told another reporter one time. “Show me a good loser in professional sports, and I’ll show you an idiot.” That probably would not fit on the cover!

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