In Memory of Leo Durocher

Leo Durocher, Fiery ex-Manager, Dies at 86
Thomas Rogers, The New York Times
October 8, 1991


(c) Houston Astros
Leo Durocher, perhaps major league baseball's best example of the win-at-all-costs manager, one who viewed the game not as a challenging pasttime for talented athletes but as a sports relative of guerilla warfare, died yesterday in Palm Springs, Calif. He was 86 years old.

A spokesman at Desert Hospital, Randy Bevilacqua, said Durocher died of natural causes.

Durocher achieved national notoriety proclaiming "nice guys finish last" while driving his teams to three National League pennants and one supremely unexpected World Series victory. Durocher always placed heavy reliance on physical and psychological intimidation of the enemy, the army of foes that, to him, included the umpiring crews. To him, base hits, hook slides and sharp-breaking curveballs were important, but equally so were sharp spikes, beanballs and umpire-baiting.

Twenty-four of his 48 years in and around professional baseball were spent as manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, Chicago Cubs, and Houston Astros, but he was also a good-fielding, light-hitting shortstop for 17 seasons; a Los Angeles Dodgers coach under Walter Alston for four years in the 1960's, and a once-a-week baseball broadcaster with NBC's "Game of the Week" in the late 1950's.

Broke in With Yanks

Leo Ernest Durocher was born in West Springfield, Mass., on July 27, 1905.

He reached the major leagues briefly in 1925 and then for good in 1928 with the Yankees. He left, bidding a grumpy farewell to the game, in 1973 when he quit as manager of the Astros, at odds with his players, his front office, umpires and the high-echelon executives of the game.

As a 5-foot-9-inch, 160-pound battler with the Yankees, Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals and the Dodgers, he was known as a fine fielding shortstop whose glove and hustle made up for a .247 batting average. Before his abrasive personality rubbed harshly on some of the higher-priced Yankees stars and Yankee management, bringing his trade to the Reds in 1930, he was characterized by Babe Ruth as "the all-American out." Ruth, then at the peak of his legendary career, was only one of the Bronx Bombers not on good terms with "Lippy," as he was known.

After three years in Cincinnati, Durocher found his spiritual baseball home with the Cardinals of the mid-1930's, the famed Gas House Gang that featured talented eccentrics like Dizzy and Paul Dean, Pepper Martin, Frankie Frisch and Joe Medwick. The volatile shortstop's taste for all-out combat on the field and merry hi-jinks off it blended nicely with the rough and ready style of the Cardinals.

Joined Dodgers in '38

In 1938, Durocher moved to Brooklyn and took over the managerial duties the following year, quickly becoming a sort of balding, mercurial folk hero to the rowdy Dodger fans. He became renowned for fiery, dirt-kicking tirades against umpires that delighted the partisan fans of "Dem Bums" - Dixie Walker, Pete Reiser, Dolph Camilli, Billy Herman, Pee Wee Reese, Whitlow Wyatt, Kirby Higbe and Medwick. In 1941, Durocher led that group to Brooklyn's first pennant in 24 years, but the Yankees won the World Series in five games.

While at Brooklyn, Durocher estimated that he was fired and rehired informally at least 60 times by Larry MacPhail, the general manager, before Branch Rickey took over during World War II.

As a nationally known figure after his sucess with the Dodgers and his many raucous battles against umpires, Durocher made many radio broadcasts and public appearances and enjoyed rubbing shoulders with celebrities as well as some less reputable figures.

Suspended for '47 season

Baseball Commissioner A.B. (Happy) Chandler suspended Durocher for the entire 1947 season for "the accumulation of unpleasant incidents" that were "detrimental to baseball."

Durocher had been warned by Chandler about his association with gambling figures, had figured in a highly publicized controversy with MacPhail - by then an owner of the Yankees - and had drawn headlines with his marriage to actress Laraine Day, whose former husband charged that Durocher had stolen her away from him while posing as a family friend.

In Durocher's absence, the Dodgers won the pennant in 1947 - Jackie Robinson's rookie season - under the leadership of Burt Shotton, a quiet, elderly man who wore a business suit in the dugout and never ventured onto the playing field to challenge an umpire's judgment.

Durocher gained entry into "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations" for a remark he made about Mel Ott, the former New York Giants superstar and then their manager. "Nice guys finish last," was the quote, but Durocher later claimed, after the line drew some criticism of defenders of sportsmanship, that he did not necessarily imply a cause-and-effect relationship.

Both Dodger and Giant fans went into shock not long after Durocher had returned from his suspension. Rickey was not on the best of terms with Durocher by then, and when the Giants made it known that they were looking to replace Ott as manager, Rickey suggested Durocher as his replacement. On July 15, 1948, Durocher forsook Ebbets Field for the Polo Grounds, and Shotton took over the Dodger managing job again. Durocher had been despised for a decade by Giant fans; now Dodger fans saw the move as treasonous betrayal of the "Flatbush Faithful."

Durocher enjoyed his greatest managerial acclaim in the early 1950's with the Giants. He provided unswerving and never-say-die leadership in 1951 as the Giants rallied from a 13 1/2 game deficit in mid-August to win the pennant. They beat the Dodgers in a three-game playoff series courtesy of Bobby Thomson's fabled home run in the last of the ninth inning of the deciding game at the Polo Grounds. Supply an important part of the drive to first place was Willie Mays, a rookie center fielder of multiple talents whom his manager often called the best all-round player he had ever seen.

When Mays returned after two years of Army service in 1954, he led the Giants to another pennant, and Durocher was able to claim his only World Series victory, a 4-0 sweep of the heavily-favored Cleveland Indians who had set an American League record with 111 victories in a season.

Durocher quit the Gaints at the end of the 1955 season to become a baseball commentator on television and also had a brief tryout as a television actor and variety-show host,but received little critical encouragement.

With Cubs and Astros

He returned to the diamond to serve as coach under Alston from 1961 to 1964. In 1966, he went back to the manager's office with the hapless Cubs. He came close to winning a pennant with the Cubs in 1969, the year of the Mets' miraculous victory. But in seven years of trying, he could never get the Cubs higher than second and on July 27, 1972, he was replaced by Whitey Lockman. Just a month later, he was picked to succeed Harry Walker as manager of the Astros. Durocher claimed he was fascinated by the potential talent he saw in Cesar Cedeno, a young outfielder with many of the skills possessed by Mays.

Cedeno proved a solid ballplayer, but not a superstar. After the Astros finished fourth in 1973, Durocher decided that the "new breed of ballplayer," the inflexibility of the Astros' front office, the unquestioned authority that umpires had acquired and the deaf ears that the National League and the commissioner's office had turned to his complaints were too much to bear or combat. He resigned as manager for the last time.

In 1975, he published a book about his years in baseball, "Nice Guys Finish Last," in collaboration with Ed Linn. As with most of his endeavors, the book created controversy, and it sold well.