Leo Durocher : Baseball’s Prodigal Son
By Paul Dickson
368 pages, $28
Paul Dickson’s first baseball biography was about Bill Veeck, one of the most interesting characters in the sport’s history.
He’s taken an even bigger challenge in his second such book. It’s not easy to wrap one’s hands around the force of nature that was player and manager Leo Durocher.
Dickson gives it a try in “Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son.” If nothing else, the author sets the record straight in several areas of the legendary baseball personality’s life in this thoroughly researched biography.
Durocher was full of fire during his baseball career, which requires some explanation when discussed decades later. He dropped out of high school and often took time out from haunting the pool halls of Springfield, Mass., to play baseball. His infield skills landed him a contract with the New York Yankees in the mid-1920s. He came up to New York just in time to play shortstop on the champion 1928 team, a squad filled with Hall of Famers such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Durocher may not have had the skills of players like the team’s stars, but he could outtalk any of them. The fiery Durocher found trouble with the Yankees when Ruth accused him of stealing his watch. That sentenced Durocher to a lifetime of cracks from opposing teams along the lines of “Hey, Leo, what time is it?”
The shortstop might have been the best fielder of his time, but offense was a bigger concern in that era. He bounced from New York to Cincinnati to St. Louis, where he was a starter on the legendary 1934 “Gashouse Gang” of the Cardinals. Finally, it was on Brooklyn, where Durocher was a player/manager for a while and then just a manager.
“Just a manager” doesn’t quite fit, though. Durocher was loud, profane, cocky and smart. Billy Martin might have been the best comparison to Durocher, but “Leo the Lip” deserved to be in a class by himself. He was suspended from baseball for a year for associating with gamblers in the spring 1947, just as Jackie Robinson was about the become the first African-American to play major league baseball in the 20th century.
Durocher came back to Brooklyn in 1948 but wore out his welcome quickly. That summer, the Dodgers let him take the managerial job with the cross-town New York Giants. Picture Roy Williams leaving as North Carolina basketball coach to take the same job at arch-rival Duke, and you’ll get an idea of the furor that caused.
Durocher managed the Giants to an incredible comeback to win a pennant in 1951, and won a World Series with New York in 1954. Durocher also was the Cubs’ manager when they collapsed to lose the National League East in 1969. His 24 years of managing and more than 2,000 wins got him in the Hall of Fame.
Durocher became a celebrity along the way. He was a guest star on television shows, one time playing himself as a Los Angeles’ Dodgers coach on “Mr. Ed.” Durocher piled up friends and enemies in his life. The allies were such entertainers as Frank Sinatra and Danny Kaye, most of his ex-wives, and some of his own players. The opposition included baseball executives, reporters, opponents, and some of his own players.
Dickson has a lot of ground to cover here, and he goes through Durocher’s life in methodical fashion. The author’s biggest job might be to knock down the myths surrounding the skipper’s life. Part of the problem is that Durocher wrote two autobiographies, and his side of the story is a version that he wishes were true. It seems those books should have been placed in the fiction department of the bookstore.
There are some testimonials from others here about how Durocher could be friendly and generous, and from others that he was frequently a miserable human being and deserved the problems caused by his behavior. That points out the biggest difference between the books on Veeck and Durocher - Veeck is much better company in the literary sense. The split opinions about the manager continued until after he died, when he finally and almost grudgingly received the necessary votes to enter the Hall of Fame.
It’s been a long time since Durocher was barking out orders and insults on a baseball field, but it’s hard not to be fascinated by someone who admitted he’d trip his own mother on the basepaths if it helped him win a game. “Leo Durocher” reminds us what all the commotion was about.
Budd Bailey is a News sports copy editor.