Durocher, Leo Ernest

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Durocher, Leo Ernest

(b. 25 July 1905 in West Springfield, Massachusetts; d. 7 October 1991 in Palm Springs, California), scrappy baseball player and combative Hall of Fame manager whose battling personality led to success on the field for more than fifty years.

Durocher was one of four children of George Durocher, a railroad engineer, and Clarinda Provost, a homemaker who took in boarders and stitched Spalding baseballs at home, both of French Canadian descent. Only five feet, ten inches in height, but the tallest male in his family, Durocher took after his tough-talking mother and not his more mild-mannered father early on to lead a hardscrabble life.

Growing up in West Springfield, Durocher enjoyed sports like most children but eventually focused his attention on billiards and baseball. Not one for schooling, he would often find himself refining his game in pool halls and became known as somewhat of a hustler because of his young age. While the information is not definitive, it is unlikely that Durocher attended high school. Eventually, it was on the baseball diamond where the smooth-fielding shortstop with the soft hands impressed the locals. Although he was not much of a hitter, a trait that would follow him throughout his professional career, his glove work had local semiprofessional and company teams bidding for his services.

In the spring of 1925 Durocher took a two-week leave from the Wico Electric Company, where he was assembling battery parts while also playing for the company team, to try out for the Hartford Senators of the Eastern League. He started at shortstop all year. His batting average was a woeful .220, but his fielding caught the eye of the New York Yankees scout Paul Krichell. The Yankees, suffering through a losing season, purchased Durocher from Hartford for $7,000. He made one pinch-hitting appearance for the Yankees in October, which proved to be his last big league at bat for two seasons.

The only way for Durocher to prove he belonged in the major league was to show it in the minors. His first stop was in Atlanta of the Southern Association, where he spent the entire 1926 campaign, and in 1927 he was with Saint Paul of the American Association. So while the Yankees were winning the 1927 World Series with Murderers’ Row, the heart of the 1927 Yankees batting order and arguably the greatest team of all time, Durocher was toiling in the bushes, where he committed fifty-six errors as the everyday shortstop.

When he returned to the Yankees in 1928, he was picked on incessantly by the stalwarts of the famed Murderer’s Row, but the team’s manager, Miller Huggins, also a man of small stature, saw something in the smart and aggressive Durocher. It was during Durocher’s first full season in the big leagues that his cocky talk led members of the team to call him “Lippy,” from which sportswriters Will Wedge and Ford Frick began calling the rookie “The Lip.” Huggins kept his pupil around for two seasons, with Durocher, often seen with a notebook marking down managerial moves, playing shortstop and second base for the Bronx Bombers and helping them sweep the St. Louis Cardinals in four games to win the 1928 World Series.

Although Durocher was the starting shortstop for most of the 1929 season, his poor batting (.246), the team’s second-place finish to the Philadelphia Athletics (eighteen games back), Huggins’s unexpected death near the end of the season, and his own financial woes eventually led to him being sold to the Cincinnati Reds in February 1930.

Durocher’s reputation began to be cemented in Cincinnati. Although his offensive production remained weak, his defensive prowess at shortstop and his leadership skills began to shine through despite the team consistently finishing in the second division.

Durocher’s private life was somewhat rocky. He was married four times, the first on 5 November 1930 to Ruby Marie Hartley. This union ended in divorce in 1934, but in 1931 they produced a daughter, the only child Durocher is known to have fathered. Each of his other three wives had children when he married them. Durocher married his second wife, Grace Dozier, on 26 September 1934. They divorced in 1943.

With the Reds struggling to another last place finish in the National League early in the 1933 season, the St. Louis Cardinals made a trade for Durocher with the hope that he would be the final link to winning the pennant. The St. Louis general manager Branch Rickey, who formed a love-hate relationship with the shortstop during the almost twenty years they stayed together, acquired Durocher with the pitchers Jack Ogden and Dutch Henry for the pitchers Paul Derringer and Allyn Stout and the infielder Sparky Adams on May 7. The Reds went on to finish in last place in 1933 and 1934, with Derringer eventually becoming a six-time all-star in later years, while the Cardinals were on their way to becoming the notorious “Gashouse Gang.”

Despite Durocher’s presence, the Cardinals still finished in fifth place in the National League in 1933. Everything came together the following season, with Dizzy Dean winning thirty games and his brother Paul winning nineteen, as St. Louis took the pennant by two games over the New York Giants. The twenty-nine-year-old Durocher, the team’s starting shortstop, came through with his best offensive season as he produced career highs in games played (146), at bats (500), runs (62), hits (130), doubles (26), runs batted in (70), and batting average (.260). The Cardinals won the World Championship in seven games over the Detroit Tigers.

Although he was named to all-star teams in 1936, 1938, and 1940, the 1934 season proved to be the highlight of Durocher’s playing career. The “Gashouse Gang” finished second in 1935 and 1936. On 5 October 1937 Durocher was sent to the Brooklyn Dodgers, where his infamy grew.

The Dodgers were perennial losers at the time, finishing in fifth place or lower every year since 1932, and Durocher’s arrival in 1938 didn’t pay immediate dividends. But when Burleigh Grimes was let go as the manager after the season, Durocher replaced him as the player-manager. The team’s fortunes soon reversed. An 84-69 record, good enough for third place, helped Durocher become National League Manager of the Year in 1939.

Durocher went on to a twenty-four-year career in the dugout as one of his era’s most successful and controversial managers. He favored scrappy players and the running game, played hunches, harassed umpires, and fought with owners and fans. His seventeen years as a player produced a .247 lifetime batting average in 1,637 games with 1,320 hits, 210 doubles, 56 triples, 24 home runs, 575 runs scored, 567 runs batted in, and 31 stolen bases.

A second-place finish in 1940 was followed the next year by Brooklyn’s first pennant in twenty-one years. The Dodgers then fell to the powerful New York Yankees in the World Series in five games.

When Rickey, then the Dodgers general manager, decided to bring Jackie Robinson to the majors as their first African-American player in 1947, Durocher was supportive. However, he did not get to manage in the player’s rookie year because Commissioner Albert (“Happy“) Chandler suspended Durocher for a year for associating with gamblers and other activities.

On 21 January 1947 Durocher married his third wife— the actress Laraine Day. Although Durocher adopted Day’s children, this union eventually ended in divorce in 1960.

Durocher returned in 1948 to replace Burt Shotton as the Dodgers manager, but near the All-Star break, Horace Stoneham hired Durocher to manage the Giants. Ironically, it was late in Durocher’s tenure as the manager of the Dodgers that he is believed to have said his famous “nice guys finish last” quote. He was talking with some sportswriters before a game at the Polo Grounds when the topic switched to Eddie Stanky, and Durocher was explaining how the “Brat” overcame his physical limitations with a ferocious will to win. Just then the Giants came out for batting practice, led by player-manager Mel Ott. “Nicer guy never drew a breath,” Durocher said. “Walker Cooper, Mize, Marshall, Kerr, Gordon, Thomson. Take a look at them. All nice guys. They’ll finish last. Nice guys. Finish last.”

With Durocher at the helm the Giants moved up to third place in 1950, and then came the “Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff.” In the middle of August the Dodgers were thirteen and a half games in front, but when the regular season ended they were tied for first place. A three-game playoff followed, with the Giants winning the first game and the Dodgers winning the second game. In game three, the Dodgers scored three runs off the starting pitcher Sal Maglie in the top of the eighth to take a 4–1 lead. But after Dodger starter Don Newcombe was relieved by Ralph Branca in the ninth, Bobby Thomson hit the “shot heard ’round the world,” a three-run, game-winning homer, and the Giants were the National League champs. The Giants then lost the 1951 World Series to the Yankees in six games.

The Giants won the pennant by five games in 1954 and played the Cleveland Indians, the team that had won a record 111 games, in the World Series. In a surprising sweep, the Giants became world champions as Willie Mays made his famous catch off Vic Wertz about 425 feet from home plate to save the first game. The Giants were a distant third to the Dodgers in 1955 when Stoneham fired his manager. Durocher then became a broadcaster for NBC, where he stayed for five years (1956-1960).

Durocher became a coach for the Dodgers under Walter Alston in 1961, a job that lasted until 1965. The Cubs made him their manager in 1966. The Cubs finished tenth in his first year at the helm, but finished third the next two seasons and second in 1969 behind the surprising New York Mets.

The sixty-four-year-old Durocher married his fourth wife on 19 June 1969, Chicago media personality Lynne Walker Goldblatt, who was twenty-four years his junior. She eventually tired of his constant gambling, and they divorced in 1981.

Midway through the 1972 season, Durocher left the Cubs and replaced Harry Walker as the Houston Astros manager. The Astros finished 1973 with an 82-80 record, Durocher’s last year as a manager before retiring. In his twenty-four years of managing, Durocher had a 2,008–1,709 record and won three National League pennants (1941, 1951, 1954) and one World Series (1954). After retiring, he coauthored Nice Guys Finish Last with Ed Linn, which was published in 1975.

Durocher died of natural causes at the age of eighty-six and is buried at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Combative on the field and gregarious off it, Durocher always seemed to get his team out of trouble, but he always seemed to be able to find it himself. Whether leading a ragtag team to a World Series title as a player, shifting the fortunes of franchises as a manager, or getting suspended by the powers that be in the game, things were never dull when Durocher was around. He retired with more than 2,000 victories as a manager with four different teams, still one of the highest figures of all time, and in 1994 was posthumously inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, New York, has a number of clippings files on Durocher that include newspaper and magazine stories from throughout his lengthy baseball career. Durocher’s autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last (1975), gives the author’s account of life in baseball with some perspective. A book of lesser note that Durocher contributed to is The Dodgers and Me (1948). A number of biographies have been written about Durocher over the years. Gene School wrote The Leo Durocher Story (1955), but it suffers from being too well meaning and possibly was written for a younger audience. The most informative and well researched biography is Gerald Eskenazi, The Lip: A Biography of Leo Durocher (1993). Books that touch on specific parts of Durocher’s life include Arthur William Mann, Baseball Confidential: The Secret History of the War Among Chandler, Durocher, MacPhail, and Rickey (1951); Day with the Giants (1952) by Durocher’s former wife Laraine Day; and David Claerbaut, Durocher’s Cubs: The Greatest Team That Didn ’t Win (2000). An obituary is in the New York Times (8 Oct. 1991).

William Francis