Talking Ball: Dickson on Durocher

Leo Durocher is one of the more controversial figures in baseball history.

One of the more highly anticipated baseball books of 2017 is Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son, the latest effort from prolific author Paul Dickson. It is out now from Bloomsbury USA.

An in-depth study of a complicated man, Dickson’s biography is the most comprehensive volume ever written about Durocher, perhaps the most controversial manager in the history of the game. The book covers his playing days with the New York Yankees (including his feud with Babe Ruth), the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Brooklyn Dodgers, and his many managerial stops with the Dodgers, New York Giants, Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros.

Dickson also devotes space to debunking Durocher’s “false childhood,” while exploring his love affair with Hollywood, his multiple marriages, and his many, many feuds, including battles with Walter Alston, Ernie Banks and Marvin Miller.

Last month, Dickson answered questions about the Durocher biography.

Markusen: Durocher is a subject that has been tackled before, by Leo himself in an autobiography. Why did you feel the time was right for a new biography of Durocher?

Dickson: I picked him because of his complexity and because of the events he was part of and his role on the teams he played for and those he managed. Durocher cast a shadow across several eras, from the time of Babe Ruth to the Space Age Astrodome, from Prohibition through the Vietnam War. For more than 40 years, he was at the forefront of the game with some of the greatest teams and defining baseball moments of 20th century. He was a rugged, combative shortstop and a three-time All-Star, he became a legendary manager, winning three pennants and a World Series in 1954.

As a manager, his players either loved him or hated him. Twice—in 1943 as manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and in 1970 with the Chicago Cubs—he is faced with clubhouse revolts.  He is also unique in his having one foot in baseball and the other in show business. Also, much of the story of his suspension and his overnight transfer from the Dodgers to the Giants in 1948 has remained untold and I was looking to find answers to these questions, which I was able to do using primary source material.

Leo’s autobiography is fascinating but totally unreliable. It includes a faux childhood during which, among, other things he brags of ice skating to Boston and back to Springfield in a day, which is impossible since the Connecticut River goes north to south not east to west.

Markusen: Tell us more about the relationship between Durocher and Ruth. We know that Ruth   didn’t much care for Leo, but how did Leo feel about The Babe?

Dickson: As a rookie for the Yankees, Leo took an immediate dislike to Ruth and [also] Ty Cobb, who then played in Philadelphia. He thought Ruth was a clown and called him “Dummy.” Ruth in turn disliked Leo and went to his grave believing that Leo had stolen his watch. A theme that runs through my book is that Leo often had the greatest disregard for anyone who was more popular than he was. When he managed the Cubs, he went out of his way to disparage Ernie Banks.

Markusen: It was Durocher who was supposed to manage Jackie Robinson during his first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but a suspension prevented him from doing so. Before the suspension, what was the relationship like between Leo and Jackie during spring training in 1947?

Dickson: The two men got along extremely well and Leo headed off a famous petition drive by certain players who did not want to play with Robinson. The scene in the movie 42 with Durocher confronting the team on the matter of Robinson is accurate.  Durocher had spoken out in favor of the integration of baseball as early as 1939 and seemed to be color blind. Little known is that an African-American man named David Redd was instrumental in getting Leo to try out for the Hartford Senators. He made the team, which led to his [Durocher’s] signing by the Yankees. For decades to come, Leo made sure David Redd had World Series tickets.

Markusen: As a manager, Durocher had perhaps his greatest success with the Giants, where he got along exceedingly well with Willie Mays. Why do you think that Durocher and Mays were so compatible?

Dickson: Durocher’s greatest moment came with the Giants. It began when he signed Monte Irvin and Henry Thompson in July of 1949. Both these men were African-Americans who had been in combat zones in World War II—Irvin during the D-Day invasion and Thompson during the Battle of the Bulge. He knew he could not treat these men without deep respect for what they had been through. When Mays came up a year later, he realized that Mays needed nurturing rather than badgering. He stuck with Mays during an early slump. His treatment of these three men may have been his finest hour. Mays was the only ballplayer to speak at Leo’s funeral.

May I Have Your Autograph, Please?
The payoff of being polite.

Markusen: Durocher developed a huge love of the Hollywood lifestyle and culture. Tell us more about his relationship with George Raft, the actor known for his ties to the gangster world.

Dickson: Leo met Raft in 1928, when Leo was with the Yankees and Raft was a song-and-dance man in the speakeasies along Broadway. They became close friends and even began to dress alike, black suit, black knit tie. But Raft was accused of cheating a man out of a large sum of money in a dice game at Leo’s apartment. Raft’s association with known gamblers forced Commissioner Happy Chandler in 1946 to forbid Leo from ever being seen with Raft again.

Markusen:  Zsa Zsa Gabor, who recently passed away, was sued by Durocher. Why did that happen?

Dickson: It had to do with a commercial for Aamco transmissions in which Zsa Zsa said, “Tell ‘em Leo sent you!” In those days everybody knew who Leo was, and he sued her and the advertising agency that produced the commercial for $1 million. It was settled out of court, but what made it so big a story was that Leo and Zsa Zsa hashed it out on the Tonight Show, which was then hosted by Johnny Carson. Like so many things Leo did, the battle with Zsa Zsa got Leo headlines which were not on the sports page.

Markusen:  As a fan of the old Munsters television show, I have to ask you about Leo’s appearance on the show in 1965. In your research for the book, what did you uncover about that?

Dickson: Other than the fact that it was one of his funniest sitcom appearances there was nothing special about the appearances on that show. Leo went to work for NBC after he left the Giants in 1955 and did much work on television including hosting the Colgate Comedy Hour. He appeared on many shows on radio and television, with the most famous probably being on Mr. Ed where he plays opposite the famous talking horse. Leo loved Hollywood and was very close to a number of stars, including Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye, Spencer Tracy and so many others.  I think my book on Durocher may be one of the few baseball books ever which includes Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, John Wayne and “Mr. Ed” in the index.

Markusen: Back to baseball. A number of historians have blamed Durocher for the Cubs’ second-half fade in 1969. Is that fair? Was he past his prime as a manager by that point?

Dickson: Leo made a lot of mistakes in 1969 including the fact that he did not use his bench when the regulars needed a break. He was also expressing his dislike for certain players, including Ernie Banks,  who was the clear fan favorite in Chicago. In 1969, he treated his players unevenly down the stretch, deserting them during two key moments, creating turmoil in the clubhouse and callously degrading them in defeat. “Our offense went down the toilet, the defense went down the drain, and I’m still looking for a pitching staff,” he said of his 1969 team after they lost the pennant. “I could have dressed nine broads as ballplayers and they would have beaten the Cubs.”

Was he past his prime? You could make the argument that Leo was past his prime, although the Cubs kept him as manager until 1972, when he went to the Houston Astros.

Markusen:  Not much has been written about Durocher’s last managerial job, with the Astros, but you detail it in some depth. Did he fail in Houston because he had become old and bitter, or was it simply a case of refusing to change with the times?

Dickson: At the end of his career in Houston he expressed his disdain for the new breed of players with their high salaries, union representation, and ability to talk back. His record with the Astros was 98-95. Not to be forgotten, however, was that at the time of his death in 1991 only five managers in major league history had won more games than Durocher’s 2,008.


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Bruce Markusen is the manager of Digital and Outreach Learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.

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19 Comments on "Talking Ball: Dickson on Durocher"

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Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

Great interview Bruce. About 4 years ago, you wrote a piece about Joe Pepitone, http://www.hardballtimes.com/card-corner-1973-topps-joe-pepitone/, and touched upon his rocky relationship with Durocher. It was sort of a generational rift. I wrote a comment in that post about Durocher being arrested for assaulting a fan. I don’t know if Dickson goes into this. Durocher was one of those sports personalities whose most interesting moments are probably best left unearthed.

Philip
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Philip
Thanks for the alert on the book. I look forward to reading it soon. Re: Ty Cobb There was apparently an incident I read elsewhere long ago where Durocher really stuck it to Cobb, baiting him to try to steal second, saying his days of terrorizing infielders with his spikes was over. Durocher nearly managed in Japan in 1976, then couldn’t due to illness. Also, I’ve always speculated that had the Yankees not signed Catfish Hunter, an early season tailspin would have led to Bill Virdon’s firing in May 1975, long before Billy Martin would have become available. (In one… Read more »
S
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S
He had a lot in common with Billy Martin, if you think about it. Good at being celebrities, driven, propensity for beating up fans and fucking, hard-driving managers whom the players either loved because of how he motivated them and how exciting he was, or hated them because, well, he’s kind of an asshole. They both burned out pitchers and expected their players to push hard and play dirty. I could see Durocher managing the Yankees and become part of their mythology in the interesting period between the DiMaggio-Yogi-Mantle era where they won everything and the boring corporate Core Four… Read more »
Richie
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Richie

Very interesting. Thank you!

Dr Doom
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Dr Doom
The record shows that ‘The Lip’ was a terrible manager. He only won in ’54 because he CHEATED! His mismanagement of the Cubs in 1969-70 was EPIC! According to B-Ref his 1970 Cubs pythWL was MINUS TEN! In 1969 he sent an over the hill Al Spangler and his 60 OPS+ to the plate 238 times. He ABUSED his catcher, Randy Hundley to the point that his slash line in Sept/Oct was a pitiful 151/240/221! At the end of August it was 275/353/424. Ron Santo is NOT in the HOF because of Leo, who is in the HOF! Pete Rose… Read more »
Chill Out
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Chill Out

Yo, Dr Mood.

Ron Santo went in the HOF five years ago.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider
The book is definitely on my reading list and I am going to get it today! Re Dr. Doom: I think, when referring to the cheating, you mean 1951, not 1954. In 1951, the year of the Bobby Thomson home run, the Giants were apparently stealing signals from the clubhouse; Thomson may have known the pitch Ralph Branca would through. I don’t know about 1954, but the Giants didn’t win in 1952 or 1953, so cheating couldn’t have been the only reason they won. And, Ron Santo IS IN the Hall of Fame, although, unfortunately, he went in posthumously. Your… Read more »
reform1946
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reform1946
An interesting point is Durocher’s positive relationship with Branch Rickey, truly the odd couple. This raises an interesting matter. The original Mets franchise was awarded in 1960/61 to Joan Payson, who was the sister of John Hay Whitney, one of the richest men in America. Mrs Payson originally wanted to hire Rickey as the Mets’ General Manager, but Rickey wanted $5 million to buy players, as astronomical sum at the time, which even she didn’t have. So she turned to other great team builder who was looking for work, George Weiss, former General Mgr. of the Yankees, who brought his… Read more »
S
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S
I don’t know. There’s some evidence that the reason Rickey sold Durocher (a successful manager) to the Dogers’ big rivals in favour of Shotton (a blah manager) was because Rickey lost patience with Durocher and all his issues. Besides, are you arguing that Durocher is a better manager than Stengel, manager of the winningest franchise in history? Or that if the horrible 62 Mets were the result of a terrible manager, that the winning 69 Mets were because Gil Hodges was a genius? Besides, Durocher is still managing wealthy, unionized players that fight back. Chances are his style was suited… Read more »
GFrankovich
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GFrankovich

By the time Stengel got to the Mets, he already had a reputation of falling asleep on the bench with the Yankees and being past his prime as a manager(he was 72 when he took over the Mets). He was popular and got along with the press, but I’m not sure how much he added to making the Mets successful. The way they and Houston were stocked with players just about nobody was going to do very well with them.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

“Durocher is still managing wealthy, unionized players that fight back.”

Not in 1962. There was a union but it was very weak until Marvin Miller took over in 1966 and free agency didn’t start until the mid-70s. The players still had very little power in the early 60s, even into the late sixties/seventies (read Ball Four). And Durocher had success with the Cubs in the mid/late sixties overall even though, obviously, they had the collapse in 1969. Of course, by the sixties, people in general were becoming more rebellious.

GFrankovich
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GFrankovich
On the other hand, Durocher had a history of getting bored with losing teams – doing such things as having different coaches run the game at different times through the season – great training for those who later became managers such as Wes Westrum, Whitey Lockman, Alvin Dark and others, but not so good for the team. His reputation was of being a much better manager when he had a team in the pennant race(not considering the issues he had later on with the Cubs). I’m not sure he would have been a good fit for the Mets – he… Read more »
Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider
The problem the Mets had was not so much Stengel-although he probably should not have been managing-but the way they tried to put the team together. Granted that the expansion draft was set up to make it basically impossible for the expansion teams to be any good, the Mets went to the extreme by bringing in so many over-the-hill ex-stars, such as Duke Snider and Richie Ashburn. It’s hard to see how they could have been any worse than they were in 1962 if they had just drafted nothing but young players; again, recognizing that the other teams weren’t making… Read more »
GFrankovich
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GFrankovich
Funny thing about the Mets in 62, they have the reputation of drafting in expansion all over the hill playess(and they did their share of that), plus adding veterans like Frank Thomas, Richie Ashburn and Duke Snider(in 1963). I saw a study pointing out that they also drafted their share of younger players as well. Unfortunately, except for Al Jackson, Jim Hickman, and a few others most of those younger players were lousy players(probably why they were available for expansion). It was strange – almost like we know we are going to be bad, lets celebrate that, but hey! we’ve… Read more »
reform1946
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reform1946

Richie Ashburn had a good season in 1962- he and Frank Thomas were the Mets’ best players.

Rainy Day Women 12x35
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Rainy Day Women 12x35

Interesting, isn’t it? As a manager, Durocher was nothing if not polarizing. Now, all these years later, the comments on this page are as well. No one is “meh” on Leo.

Philip
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Philip

The ’69 Cubs entered September playing .612 ball. The Mets would finish the season at .617.

Even if the Cubs continued to play at that current pace, without reversing a loss or two to the Mets (they were 1-3 vs NY that month) they still would have lost the division.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider
I’m reading the Durocher book now. It’s very good, but what’s interesting to me is how much stuff went on back then both on the field and off that, if it happened today, would be a major scandal. Durocher hit an umpire in the face with a wet towel-three day suspension. I suspect that if he did that today the punishment would be much worse. Also, he got away with assaulting an abusive (but not physically) fan largely because the jury wouldn’t convict a Dodger and, also probably because they thought the guy deserved it. If that happened today, there… Read more »
Womens Fake Yeezys
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When I pick out clothing pieces, I try to find ones that don’t sacrifice comfort for style. I don’t wear heels unless the occasion calls for it and I don’t really wear flats. More often than not I wear sneakers.

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