Nice Guys Finish Last: The Leo Durocher Story

Having a strong presence leading a baseball team is crucial in MLB. The long season presents each team with ups and downs, and someone has to keep the ship going in the same direction. Pete Hodges tells us about the life and career of one of the greatest managers of all time.

Leo “The Lip” Durocher was born on July 27, 1905, the youngest of four sons. Growing up with a chip on his shoulder, he cared about one thing: winning. This drive started to manifest itself in the pool halls of his hometown of West Springfield, MA where he hustled the locals for spending money. Local companies offered the blossoming athlete easy, high-paying jobs in order to play for their teams.

He’s still that kid from West Springfield with a pool cue butt in his hand – Branch Rickey

A New York Yankees scout discovered and signed Durocher in 1925 thanks to his slick fielding. In October of the same year, he made his major-league debut, playing with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. He appeared in two games and had one at-bat, no hits, and a run scored. Durocher would then spend two seasons in the minors. One each with the Atlanta Crackers and the St. Paul Saints.

There are only five things you can do in baseball – run, throw, catch, hit, and hit with power – Leo Durocher

New York was in need of a shortstop in 1928 and the 22-year-old began the season as the starter, hitting seventh. The stars of the team did not appreciate the young, brash shortstop’s attitude. Durocher’s non-stop chattering and trash-talking earned him the nicknames, “The Lip” and “Lippy.” He also liked to let umpires know how he felt about calls. This behavior would normally be corrected by veterans, especially on a team featuring Ruth and Gehrig, but manager Miller Huggins protected and encouraged Durocher’s abrasive behavior. Ruth wasn’t a fan of “The Lip”, calling him the “All-American Out” because he lacked offensive talent, and The Babe even claimed that Durocher stole his watch.

Never back up… the first backward step a little man takes is the one that’s going to kill him – Walter “Rabbit” Manville

However, Huggins wouldn’t be around to shield Durocher from the scorn of his teammates. On September 29, 1929, Huggins succumbed to pyemia at the age of 51. When negotiating his contract before the 1930 season, Durocher pushed too far. The demand for a raise and his attitude had worn thin and, with no one to protect him, he was waived by the Yankees. The Cincinnati Reds claimed the shortstop for the waiver fee and a player to be named later. Durocher played in 208 games for the Yankees, putting up a .257/.323/.311 line with a 63 OPS+ and zero home runs.

1930 “The Chicago Sun Times Archives” (Leo Durocher on the left)

In Cincinnati, Durocher found that gambling, a love of his from his pool hustling days, was more accessible with Kentucky just across the Ohio River. Durocher married Ruby Hartley in 1930 and had a child with her, but the marriage would end with a 1934 divorce. His gambling debts, failing marriage, and on-field behavior embarrassed the Reds, and he was traded to their National League rival St. Louis Cardinals on May 7, 1933. In 399 games with the Reds, Durocher hit .227/.275/.303 with a 54 OPS+ and six home runs.

We fought among ourselves, but we stuck together if anyone picked on us. There was a fight every day… with each other or the other ball club – Leo Durocher

The 1933 season was rather uneventful for Durocher and his new team as they finished 82-71 and in fifth place in the NL. It was a different story in 1934. The team Durocher is describing above was known as the Gashouse Gang. They won 20 of 25 games during the last stretch of the season. Durocher found time during that stretch to marry his second wife on September 27, and went 2-for-4 with a double, two RBIs, and a run scored on the day of his wedding. The Gashouse Gang finished 95-58 and beat the Detroit Tigers in seven games for Durocher’s first and only World Series championship as a player. Once again, “The Lip” finally wore out his welcome as player-manager Frankie Frisch made an ultimatum in 1937:

It’s me, or Durocher – Frankie Frisch

It was Durocher and his .255/.302/.332 line. The Cardinals traded the caustic shortstop to the Brooklyn Dodgers for Jim Bucher, Johnny Cooney, Roy Henshaw, and Joe Stripp on October 4, 1937.

In order to become a big-league manager you have to be in the right place at the right time. That’s rule number one – Leo Durocher

After one season as the starting shortstop, Durocher was given the player-manager title in 1939 by owner Larry MacPhail. The team was coming off six consecutive sub-.500 seasons and hadn’t won a pennant since 1920. As manager, Durocher was given even more opportunities to argue with umpires, and he took them. “The Lip” was ejected four times during the first year of his managerial career.

I made a game effort to argue but two things were against me: the umpires and the rules – Leo Durocher

He finished that year eighth in NL MVP voting with a .277/.325/.369 line and an 82 OPS+ playing in 116 games while managing the team. The 1940s saw the end of Durocher’s playing days. He played in just 62 games in 1940 followed by 18, zero, six, zero, and two games from 1941-1945. In 1941, the Durocher-led Dodgers won the pennant with a 100-54 record, but lost the World Series to the Yankees four games to one. The last year he played in the field was 1945 as the World War II veterans returned. His final numbers with the Dodgers stood at .244/.303/.319 with a 67 OPS+ over 345 games.

Walker Cooper, Mize, Marshall, Kerr, Gordon, Thomson. Take a look at them. All nice guys. They’ll finish last. Nice guys. Finish last – Leo Durocher

Durocher made that comment in reference to the last place Mel Ott-managed Giants. The Dodgers finished second that season, losing the pennant by two games.

He had the ability of taking a bad situation and making it immediately worse – Branch Rickey

Durocher’s reputation took another hit in 1947. He had married actress Laraine Day under dubious circumstances in January. The problem was that Day was granted an interlocutory divorce on January 20, that would not be official for another year. Day traveled to Juarez, Mexico to get a second divorce, then to El Paso to marry Durocher on January 21. That second divorce was deemed illegal by the California court that granted her the interlocutory divorce. This along with his behavior on and off the field led the Brooklyn Catholic Youth Organization to boycott the Dodgers as long as Durocher was the manager. This all came in front of what was supposed to be one of baseball’s proudest moments.

I don’t care if the guy is yellow or black, or has stripes like a fucking zebra. I’m his manager and I say he plays – Leo Durocher

The Dodgers headed to Havana, Cuba for spring training with the CYO boycott hanging over their head and Durocher as the manager. During a trip to Panama to play against an all-star team, Durocher learned about a players’ petition being passed around in protest over integrating the team. Durocher gave an impassioned speech and told the players that they could “wipe [their] ass” with the petition. Legendary general manager Branch Rickey had told the media throughout the offseason that the manager had been hounding him to let Jackie Robinson play, but there was trouble on the horizon for Durocher.

As a result of the accumulated unpleasant incidents in which he has been involved, which the commissioner construes as detrimental to baseball. Manager Durocher is hereby suspended from participating in professional baseball for the 1947 season – Commissioner Albert B. “Happy” Chandler

Durocher’s association with known bookies and people involved with organized crime finally caught up with him. He was suspended just six days before Robinson broke the MLB color barrier. That season went well for the Dodgers under interim manager Burt Shotton with his laid-back style. Brooklyn won the pennant with a 94-60 record, ultimately losing to the New York Yankees in Game Seven of the World Series.

Courtesy of Getty Images

Reporters, and some members of the Dodgers organization, thought that the argumentative manager returned more relaxed in 1948. However, his old ways returned when Jackie Robinson showed up to spring training overweight. His barbs and constant badgering worked well with Robinson, as the future Hall-of-Famer quickly shed the extra pounds. After a 35-37 start, Rickey was approached by New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham about acquiring Burt Shotton to replace Ott as manager. Rickey countered with Durocher and a deal was struck. After eight and a half seasons with a 738-565 record and 43 ejections with the Dodgers, Durocher was headed to manage a new team in the same city.

If I was playing third base and my mother was was rounding third with the run that was going to beat us, I would trip her. Oh, I would pick her up and I’d brush her off, and then I’d say ‘Sorry mom.’ But nobody beats me – Leo Durocher

Durocher’s on-and off-field style did not mesh well with his new team. The Dodgers led the NL in steals with 114 that year, while the slow-footed Giants had just 51. Giants’ players were also used to Mel Ott’s nice guy attitude. The team went 41-38 with Durocher at the helm for a fifth place finish and a 78-76 final record. The Giants turned things around in 1950 after going 73-81 in Durocher’s first full year, going 86-68 for a third place finish.

I believe in rules. (Sure I do. If there weren’t any rules, how could you break them?) I also believe I have a right to test the rules by seeing how far they can be bent – Leo Durocher

Hopes for a pennant weren’t looking bright in August of 1951. The Giants were 13 games out of first place with Durocher’s former team leading the league. However, a red-hot stretch saw the Giants tied with the Dodgers at the end of the season. A three-game playoff was needed to determine which New York-based team would take the NL crown.

If you ever hit one, hit it now –  Leo Durocher

The Giants manager uttered those words to Bobby Thomson as he left the dugout in the bottom of the ninth with the Giants down 4-2. Thomson fell behind in the count after a first pitch strike, but he knew what was coming next. Durocher had a telescope in his manager’s office in the center-field clubhouse. It was used along with a buzzer to alert the dugout about the next pitch. So when pitcher Ralph Branca came up and in with a fastball, Thomson deposited it in the left-field stands. The New York Daily News dubbed the home run “The Shot Heard Round The World.” The Giants would go on to lose the World Series in six games to the Yankees, but the season was a resounding success considering how far back Durocher’s squad was in August.

If you don’t win, you’re going to be fired. If you do win, you’ve only put off the day you’re going to be fired – Leo Durocher

The Giants finished second and fifth, respectively, the next two seasons. But in 1954 the Giants took the pennant for the second time in four years, and went on to sweep the favored Cleveland Indians. Durocher’s squad went 80-74 the following year, and the Giants decided to move on from the foul-mouthed manager for the 1956 season. Durocher put up a 637-523 record in eight and a half seasons with the Giants to go with his two pennants and World Series victory.

© Bettmann/CORBIS

Durocher decided to take a try at Hollywood following his stint with the Giants. He hosted the NBC Comedy Hour in January of 1956, but was replaced after three episodes. He went on to make appearances on various shows including the Bob Hope Show, but found broadcasting MLB games to be more profitable.

What are we out at the park for except to win? I’d trip my mother. I’ll pick her up, brush her off, tell her I’m sorry. But mother don’t make it to third – Leo Durocher

In 1960, Durocher divorced his third wife and was hired by the Los Angeles Dodgers as an assistant coach for the 1961 season. He frequently criticized manager Walter Alston, and lasted just four seasons in Los Angeles. The Chicago Cubs hired the 60-year-old championship manager to right their ship in 1966. That year the Cubs went 54-108 for a last place finish.

God watches over drunks and third basemen Leo Durocher

It appeared that Durocher had turned the Cubs’ fortunes around. In 1967, they had their first winning season since 1946. They were in first place for more than 100 days in 1969 and up nine and a half games in August, but did not win the pennant after an epic September collapse. In the end, Durocher’s old-school style did not work well with the younger players, who did not respond to his jibes and insults. In 1972, Curt Flood won his landmark case against the MLB, and Durocher was staunchly anti-union, which further inflamed relations with his players. Durocher was fired from his position with the Cubs after a 46-44 start. Durocher’s record as the manager of the Cubs was 535-526.

Show me a good loser in professional sports, and I’ll show you an idiot – Leo Durocher

The Astros hired the aging manager for the last stretch of the 1972 season, but after an unsuccessful 1973 campaign that included two fights with players, he was fired for the last time.

Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand – Leo Durocher

Leo Durocher retired to California with his fourth wife Lynn Walker Goldbatt, whom he had married in 1969 and wound up divorcing in 1981. Durocher believed that he deserved to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, but passed away in 1991 from natural causes without ever getting the call. In 1993, Durocher was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a manager with his third wife, Laraine Day, giving the induction speech. As a player, he hit .247/.299/.320 with 24 home runs and 31 steals, winning one World Series. As a manager, he had a 2,008-1,709 record, was ejected 94 times (21 as a player, 10 as an assistant coach), won three pennants, and one World Series. He’s the tenth winningest manager of all time and only Earl Weaver, John McGraw, and Bobby Cox were ejected more times.

Pete Hodges has written about a call-up and an odd tradition.

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About Pete Hodges 123 Articles
Pete is the Editor-in-Chief of Sons of Sam Horn. Currently residing in North Carolina, he enjoys reading and spending time outdoors when not editing or working with his tremendous team.

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