October 20, 2017

“Leo Durocher, Baseball’s Prodigal Son,” by Paul Dickson–a Review

March 16, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Paul Dickson’s wonderful book, Bill Veeck, Baseball’s Greatest Maverick, is a personal favorite. So when I sat down to read his newest work, Leo Durocher, Baseball’s Prodigal Son, it was with some trepidation. Like many, I do not remember Leo Durocher fondly, although for the life of me, I could not tell you why. Yet in the first pages of this wonderfully thorough examination of Duchocher’s life, it suddenly comes back to you. There he is: the bullying, gambling, loud mouth that so many came to despise.

And yet his long tenure in the game derived from that same personality. Dickson describes Durocher as being able to venture into a room full of people all smarter and better looking than himself and yet command that room within an hour. It was Durocher’s fierce and uncompromising commitment to the fullness of life that won him important friendships from the very beginning. He inveigled his way into the hearts of men of intellect and character, and they became his enduring champions. Men like Yankee manager Miller Huggins and Cincinnati Reds owner Sidney Weil became father figures to the young Durocher and provided a life line that kept him hanging onto his place in baseball–even if by a thread at times–until he was such an essential piece of the fabric of the game, that he could not be removed. And then there were the many Hollywood connections, men like Sinatra and George Raft and women too many to name.

The first chapter of the book is entitled, “Enfant Terrible.” What a wonderful introduction to “Leo the Lip.” Fighting, biting, spitting and cursing, he sprawls across the pages of the book, A lifetime .247 batting average, he was the prototypical good-field, no-hit shortstop. But boy could he work wonders with the glove according to Dickson. As a twenty year old he broke in with the Yankees and was almost swept away from the beginning. Yet he works his way back and sticks, thanks in no small part to his relentless badgering of other players from the bench where he sat more often than not. He kept at it until he was the captain of the St. Louis Cardinals Gas House Gang in the 1930’s and that is the pinnacle of his career as a player and it was the perfect place for him.

Much of Paul Dickson’s story is about the fights. Durocher fought with the other team, his own, the umpires, and the writers. And of course famously he fought with fans, punching one and breaking his jaw. Yet he seems not to have fought with himself. There are no bouts of depression or drinking, no signs of regret anywhere to be seen. His third wife, Laraine Day, said at his funeral that it was all for show, that like herself, he was just an incredibly gifted actor who invented a persona and then filled it completely.

That perspective belies the reality that so many experienced. His treatment of Jackie Robinson and Ernie Banks, just to name two, is reprehensible. On the flip side are Willie Mays and Monte Irvin who loved him like a father until the very end. Durocher’s place in the Hall of Fame–coming only after he died–was won on the strength of his record as a manager. Three times Sporting News Manager of the Year with a lifetime–24 years–.540 winning percentage, his record of leadership remains among the best in the business.

For all the superlatives, for winning three National League pennants and 1954 World Series with the New York Giants, underlying it all is the nagging abscess that will not heal, the lingering questions about whether he bet on games. Dickson draws the question out until the final revelations and I will leave that as the teaser. Did he or didn’t he? Regardless the answer, the other questions about his character pile up like a huge multi-vehicle collision on a fogged in expressway, one that continues to smoke and smell long after the debris is cleared.

Durocher’s record as manager was won on the backs of young men whose self-image was assaulted from the moment they stepped into Durocher’s clubhouse. For some it pushed them to their best performance, but for others it was a permanent stain on their lives. Dickson recounts the many other managers who employed the same methods. Billy Martin, most notably, but also Tommy Lasorda and others. It was part of an era, a commonplace management approach even if few took it to the lengths that Martin and Durocher did.

Durocher’s style of managing ball players began to wear thin as the players began to organize themselves and demand better treatment and more money under Marvin Miller. Durocher was drawing a bounteous pension from the fund, but all the while decrying the union and its influence on the game. His last years with the Cubs and the Astros were among his worst. Players like Larry Dierker allege that he misused them and put their careers at risk. The adversarial system Durocher milked was the only one he knew, but thankfully it has been replaced in the modern game.

Even in his day there were those who eschewed the Durocher school of bullying the best out of his players. Burt Shotton took over with the Dodgers after Durocher was suspended in 1947 and won the hearts of the team with his laid back gentlemanly manner. Shotton led his team to the World Series and Branch Rickey–another father figure for Durocher–bid his prodigal son adieu. But Durocher stayed afloat and had his best years with the New York Giants immediately thereafter.

Thankfully in today’s game there is no room for a Leo Durocher. He is antithetical to almost everything that defines modern baseball. Joe Maddon’s quirky style was able to push the Cubs to the very heights where Durocher failed in 1969. And that is a good thing. We have made progress since Leo Durocher’s time in the game. But it is essential to understand the history of it all, to walk the road of precedent.

Durocher’s balancing act as he skirts chaos and infamy is enough to keep you reading in Paul Dickson’s book. It is a great read, make no mistake about it. But for much of it I wondered,”why Durocher?” Was there a link between Durocher and Veeck, some common thread that drew Paul Dickson to write about both men. I suspect so. The two men have to rank near the top of all rebellious souls who ever haunted the game of baseball–certainly among those in the Hall of Fame.

Veeck is still my favorite, but Paul Dickson’s book, Leo Durocher, Baseball’s Prodigal Son is worth every minute it will take you to read it. Enjoy it and be grateful we have Paul among us.

 

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