This is Chapter Twelve in a developing series titled “Who Remembers…..” that aims to highlight the careers of colorful and intriguing personalities who made their mark on the game of baseball, whether on or off the field.
WHO WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE PROFILED NEXT…………..
I’ll go not too far out on a limb and state that no one ever liked Leo Durocher. That would include his teammates when he played, the players he managed, all of his opponents, and probably each of his four wives. He did little to cultivate friendships and less to tolerate anyone who didn’t buy into his win at all costs mentality.
Unlike all the other characters in this series, I could not uncover any semblance of “humaneness ” about Durocher in the reading I did for this piece. Unless you want to include his taking the job of managing the Chicago Cubs and escorting them through more years of a fruitless search for a World Championship.
At the same time however, no one ever taught us as much about the mental side of baseball as Leo Durocher……….. And that’s why he earned a segment in this series……..
In a sport where the best players fail seven out of every ten times they come to bat and the best teams lose four of every ten nights they take the field, back to back titles are almost unheard of, and a team can play 162 games, then fight through the playoffs – only to lose the last game they play that year in the World Series………it’s refreshing to recall that as Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.”
Durocher, who coined the phrase, “Nice guys finish last” which became a popular American refrain that every citizen was familiar with from everything from sports to politics, would find that his mantra had limits. Because the bulk of his teammates and members of the teams he was managing were…….simply nice guys trying to make a living and a name for themselves in this game we call our National Pastime. Yes, winning was important – but it wasn’t, and never could be, everything.
Derek Jeter, for instance, often exuded a similar refrain declaring on numerous occasions that anything less than a Yankee Championship was a failed season. But while many took him seriously, Jeter never berated his teammates and always came back the next season, and sometimes even the next game to make things “right” the next time. Durocher never found that middle ground, and as a result lost jobs often as quickly as he found them.
In his playing days, he was known as a fine fielding shortstop whose glove and hustle made up for a .247 batting average. Before his abrasive personality rubbed harshly on some of the higher-priced Yankees stars and Yankee management, bringing his trade to the Reds in 1930, he was characterized by Babe Ruth as “the all-American out.” Ruth, then at the peak of his legendary career, was only one of the Bronx Bombers not on good terms with “Lippy,” as he was known.
For Durocher, a ballgame was guerilla warfare. In a sport where “gentleman” rivalries hardly ever turned viscous, Durocher never left behind the little league artistry of bench jockeying and baiting of the opposition. Usually, this was extended to the umpires and occasionally even to his own teammates.
Even his celebrated “support” of Jackie Robinson was couched in references to his win at all costs mentality. He went public with his support for Robinson: “I don’t care if he is yellow or black or has stripes like a fucking zebra. I’m his manager and I say he plays.”
Durocher’s abrasiveness and devil be damned attitude extended outside the lines as well. He would sit out a full year following a suspension for conduct detrimental to baseball. This behavior included his alleged stealing of another man’s wife and marrying her (this would be actress Lorraine Day) before her divorce became final. And then there was also the ties to mobsters and other seamy characters who liked to gamble.
But for all the hoopla surrounding him and his take no prisoners approach to baseball, Durocher actually did very little winning. As a player, he played shortstop for the 1934 Cardinals whose Gashouse Gang won everything, and his managerial record also shows only one Championship. That came in 1954 when his New York Giants upset the Cleveland Indians who had finished their season with a record of 104-50.
Not surprisingly, the welcome mat for Durocher was withdrawn rather quickly wherever he went. Learning how to lose in baseball is (ironically) synonymous with winning. No team or individual can expect to play as many as 180 games (including the playoffs) and expect to win it all if they first don’t learn how to lose.
So in the end, perhaps the best thing we can say about Leo Durocher is that he chose the wrong sport and that he would have been better suited to play and coach in the NFL where taunting and berating of your opponents and even your own teammates is almost a birthright.
I began this chapter by saying that Durocher should be credited with teaching us about the mental side of baseball. But now, I’m not sure even about that. So maybe it should be restated by saying instead that Durocher taught us more about how NOT to approach the mental aspects of baseball………because in this game if you don’t learn how to lose, you’ll never learn how to win…………
SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: