Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son (Bloomsbury Press; hardback; $28; 358 pages) is the perfect book title. Durocher had a history of doing great things, despite being controversial, tacky, self-centered, a bully, an umpire baiter and a win-at-all costs baseball player and manager. “I Come To Kill You,” is the title of the first chapter of his second autography, 1975’s Nice Guys Finish Last, and of a May 1963 article in the Saturday Evening Post, both co-written with longtime sportswriter Ed Linn. He quotes Rickey as saying that Durocher was a man who had “an infinite capacity for immediately making a bad thing worse.”
But Rickey always defended his prodigal son, and in this well-researched, page-turning book, Dickson shows the reader why. Dickson’s work is based on few personal interviews, but is chock full of what he does best — research — and he digs for information and puts it together in a smooth narrative.
Dickson combed newspaper archives and the personal papers of Rickey, Jackie Robinson and journalist Arthur Mann to supplement his research. In fact, Dickson calls the writing and collected letters of Mann to be the one source that was the most crucial in “getting to Durocher.”
No fewer than 24 magazines and major newspapers were tapped as source material, which helps provide a more balanced look at the Lip.
Dickson is a prolific writer of baseball history. His 2012 work, Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick, was a detailed and precise book that shed new light on baseball’s ultimate showman. Dickson also has written The Unwritten Rules of Baseball, The Hidden Language of Baseball, The Baseball Dictionary and Baseball’s Greatest Quotations.
In The Lip, his 1993 biography of Durocher, longtime sportswriter Gerald Eskenazi called him a “Beau Brummel of the gray flannel set” who was just as comfortable socializing with actors, actresses and members of the mob as he was directing a baseball game. Eskenazi also made a strong case for Durocher being enshrined into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and he was finally elected by the Veterans Committee in 1994, three years after his death.
Dickson agrees, writing that Durocher performed on the main stages of New York, Chicago and Hollywood. “He entered from the wings, strode to where the lights were the brightest, and then took a poke at anyone who tried to upstage him,” Dickson writes.
Dickson examines Durocher’s gambling, which had been “a constant” in his life. It did not affect the Dodgers in 1941, as Brooklyn won its first National League pennant since 1920.
One interesting angle Dickson takes concerns a possible reason why Durocher was suspended for the 1947 season. Commissioner Happy Chandler essentially put a gag order on all involved parties, so no real concrete reason was ever given. Venerable baseball author Roger Kahn said he confronted Durocher in 1990 about an accusation that his suspension was because he had fixed the 1946 National League playoffs against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Durocher hotly denied it, calling it “outrageous,” with some expletives thrown in for good effect. “You writers either say I tried to win too hard or that I didn’t try to win at all,” Durocher told Kahn.
Dickson does some more digging and concludes that the charge was baseless. And honestly, the only reason the rumor even had legs was because it sounded like something Durocher might have done. Durocher confessed in his autobiography that he always spent beyond his means and needed advances from owners like Cincinnati’s Sidney Weil to stay afloat during his career, so being a prime target for gamblers is not a ridiculous theory.
Dickson writes that the Dodgers’ clubhouse under Durocher was “overrun” with gamblers, bookies, ticket scalpers and racing handicappers. That ended when Rickey became general manager after the 1942 season.
Dickson trots out some of the familiar stories — Durocher’s bench jockeying as a player was legendary, and the number he played on Bob “Fats” Fothergill is worth repeating. In this second game of a doubleheader in Detroit on Sept. 27, 1928, Fothergill already had gone 2-for-3 with a triple and two RBI when he came to bat in the seventh inning. New York led 8-5 but Detroit had two runners on base and darkness was falling. Durocher called time, ran toward the plate from his position at second base and told the umpire that “there was a man batting out of place.”
Told by the umpire that the lineup was proper and Fothergill was indeed the hitter, Durocher said “Fothergill? Ohhhh, that’s different. From where I was standing, it looked like there were two men up there.”
That did it. Fothergill, furious, took three straight strikes to end the game, and, Dickson writes, “from that point on, baseball was more than a game for Durocher — it was theater.”
Elevated to a starting role in St. Louis, Durocher became team captain and helped the Cardinals win the World Series in 1934.
As a player, Durocher was mediocre — Babe Ruth called him “The All-American Out” — but he really excelled as a manager. He won 2,008 of the 3,739 games he managed over 24 seasons and won National League pennants with the Brooklyn Dodgers (1941) and the New York Giants (1951, 1954). He also managed the Chicago Cubs for 6½ seasons and the Houston Astros for slightly more than a season. He had a winning record at every stop, but wore out his welcome at every venue.
Durocher was a manager who deserved credit for backing Jackie Robinson as he broke into the majors in 1947 (although Durocher did not manage him during the regular season because he was suspended by Commissioner Happy Chandler), and for nurturing a young Willie Mays into superstardom with the Giants. Just as he was as a player, Durocher was equally cantankerous as a manager. When pressed by writers, Dickson writes, Durocher admitted that his fiercest arguments with umpires came “when he believed the call had actually had been right but close.” Durocher figured that the umpires, with Durocher’s arguments still ringing in their ears, would call the next close play in the Lip’s favor.
Durocher’s shining moment as a manager came during spring training in 1947, when he squashed a potential boycott by players who did not want Robinson on the Dodgers’ squad. The low point came in the summer of 1969, when he went AWOL for a day during the heat of a pennant race to visit his stepson at Camp Ojibwa in Eagle River, Wisconsin.
Dickson dissects Durocher’s second autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last, and notes how the former Cubs manager ripped stars Ron Santo and Ernie Banks. The attack on “Mr. Cub” elicited the most response, as Durocher called Banks a phony. Dickson is a gentleman, and while he does not openly rip the second autobiography, he shows enough discrepancies and self-embellishment by Durocher to let the reader decide.
In Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son, Dickson takes a balanced, impartial look at a man whose baseball career spanned a half century. Always colorful and controversial, Durocher deserved a fresh look. Dickson provides it with strong research and an excellent narrative.