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Leo “The Lip” Durocher

Lawrence Richards recounts the polarizing, scrappy, in-your-face baseball career of Leo Durocher, also known as “The Lip,” “Lippy,” “C-Note,” “5th Avenue,” and “The All-American Out.” As Richards relays, Durocher’s lifestyle and attitude not only lead to these nicknames but also to Babe Ruth accusing him of stealing his watch.

By Lawrence Richards, September 13, 2017
New York Yankee teammates Leo Durocher and Babe Ruth, 1929.

In his baseball career spanning almost 50 years, Leo Durocher didn’t always walk the walk, but there isn’t a scintilla of doubt that he could talk the talk. A small, slick-fielding shortstop, he broke in with the Yankees in 1925 for two at-bats and a cup of coffee. He spent the next few years in the minors before joining Murderers Row in 1928. His fiery personality, scrappy play, and bench­jockeying prowess compensated for his light hitting. Babe Ruth is credited with giving him the punishing moniker “The All-American Out.” Ruth also accused Durocher of stealing his watch.

Leo’s combativeness, blatant self-promotion, and clashes with authority on every level are succinctly summed up by his famous creed, “Nice guys finish last.” Leo, to put it mildly, though there was nothing mild about him, never lacked confidence in his judgment: “Baseball is like a church. Many attend, few understand.” To punctuate the “Durocher Philosophy,” the first chapter in Leo’s autobiography is titled, I Come to Kill You. For him, baseball wasn’t a game, it was guerilla warfare with no holds barred, the art of intimidation. I think we get it.

Nonetheless, his tumultuous baseball life could be considered benign compared to his beyond-stormy, raucous personal life. He had multiple serious legal problems; divorced four times; gambled excessively; knew many mobsters thru close friend and actor George Raft; was suspended the entire 1947 season for “conduct detrimental to baseball”; fought with teammates, other players, umpires, and fans; was a world-class womanizer; and feuded with owners, executives, and members of the press. If nothing else, Leo was consistent.

Leo Ernest Durocher was born on July 27, 1905, the youngest of four sons, to his French-Canadian parents. He grew up in a tough section of West Springfield, Massachusetts. As his athletic skills blossomed, Leo served Mass at the local parish while building a solid reputation as a premier rock-thrower during gang fights. Before the ninth grade, he had a fistfight with a teacher, was expelled from school, and was a highly accomplished pool hustler.

In his teens, Durocher’s idol was Boston Braves shortstop “Rabbit” Maranville, living nearby in Springfield. Rabbit was only 5 feet, 5 inches and 155 pounds (maybe), and he heard about Leo’s talent playing semipro. They got together and Maranville preached that small players like themselves must develop a tough mental attitude to compete. “Never back up,” he told Leo. “The first backward step a little man takes is the one that’s going to kill him.” Leo was a most apt, receptive pupil. How can you not listen to someone named Rabbit Maranville? (Author’s Totally Unsupported Vastly Subjective Somewhat Irresponsible Unprovable Whimsical Theory: That name got him into the HOF.)

When he was called up by the Yanks in ’28, his audacity, ego, and abrasive personality didn’t exactly gain him favor with the regulars. He did have an admirer and protector in Manager Miller Huggins. Huggins, also a diminutive man, saw in Durocher a potential manager; the competitiveness, the passion, and the ability to make in-game adjustments would embellish his limited skill set.

This 1928 New York Yankees team photo, with manager Miller Huggins (seated, center), was taken during spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida.
(To see this photo larger, click on the first image of this article and scroll through the images using the pointing hand on the right side.)

When Huggins suddenly died in 1929, the end of Leo’s tenure as a Yankee was a done deal. “Lippy” was his primary nickname, others were “C-Note” and “5th Avenue,” in recognition of his lifestyle. He welshed on bar tabs, blew off extravagant haberdashery bills, and was a regular on the city’s posh nightclub circuit. Passing bad checks didn’t help his reputation either. This behavior came to the attention of a notable trio: local leg-breakers, Baseball Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and Yankees General Manager Ed Barrow. As one could surmise, none were too happy with C-Note.

He was summoned constantly by Landis. One story claims that Leo, whose charm apparently was equal to his recklessness, persuaded the taciturn judge to loan him the money so his legs would remain intact. Whatever the case, Leo never had a “leg injury.” Durocher responded to all this by demanding a raise. GM Barrow had more than enough. In 1930 Durocher was waived out of the American League to the last-place Cincinnati Reds in the National. AL ownership collusion? Of course not.

The Reds were owned by a fellow named Sidney Weil, by all accounts a decent guy. In a family published book, Weil wrote, “No sooner did I arrive home than I began to get letters from hotels enclosing bills that Durocher had run-up and not paid.” Welcome to Leo. In the early 1930s Cincinnati was a major gambling center, and Leo quickly became tight with Runyonesque characters named Sleep-Out Louis, Cigar Charley, and the Dancer.

He was a fan favorite. It should be noted, Cincy rooters realistically didn’t have much else to cheer about. He was acrobatic in the field, and the lowly Reds led the league in double plays. In 1931, Leo played errorless ball from May until August. During the streak, The Sporting News wrote, “His irresponsible habits gradually are leaving him, now that he’s a husband and a father.” Shall we laugh or cry? Both maybe? When Durocher reminisced about his three years with Reds, he said, “It’s possible to spend money anywhere in the world if you put your mind to it—something I proved conclusively by running up huge debts in Cincinnati.” Take a bow, Leo.

Midpoint in the 1933 season, Durocher was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. For Leo spiritually, he was home. He fit in seamlessly with the fabled Gashouse Gang’s group of misfits, eccentrics, and highly talented oddballs. Trivia Alert! What’s a gashouse? Sure, a gas-powered generating station. But in the mid-1920s, it became an emblematic term for a rundown city district—a typical abode of gangsters. Not a bad fit for this wild Cardinals team. If, by the end of the game, there wasn’t at least one layer of caked dirt on their uniforms, something was wrong.

In 1934—his first full season in St. Louis—Leo Durocher captained the Cardinals to a World Series title.

Leo was given all the latitude to play his brand of baseball along with teammates Pepper Martin, Frankie Frisch, Joe Medwick, Rip Collins, and the Dean Brothers. It’s hard to say if they fought more with opposing teams or with each other. Before Durocher left his St. Louis haven—perhaps heaven is more appropriate—he appeared in two All-Star Games, was voted team captain, and played a vital role in the Cards’ 1934 World Series victory. Leo and Player-Manager Frankie Frisch had a contentious relationship. After the 1938 season ended, Durocher became a Brooklyn Dodger.

If playing with the Cards enriched his soul, the Dodgers fulfilled his destiny. Lippy was named player­manager by mercurial president and GM, Larry MacPhail. It was love and hate at first sight. MacPhail was a heavy drinker who would fire Durocher in the evening and re-hire him in the morning. The volcanic Durocher and borderline sociopath MacPhail made the Martin-Steinbrenner relationship seem genteel.

When Leo came aboard in ’39, the “Bums” had finished under .500 six years in a row; their last pennant was in 1920. In 1941, the Bums, now an endearing reference (winning does that), were NL champs, losing the Series to the juggernaut Yankees. When the war ended, and players returned, Durocher became a full­time manager, at least until 1947. Late in spring training, the day Jackie Robinson was to be introduced by Branch Rickey, Commissioner Albert “Happy” Chandler suspended Leo for the entire season on the familiar charges of associating with gamblers, bookies, and “wise guys.” Two lessons here. Invariably your past will impact your present, and beware of anyone named Happy.

Right after Chandler’s “proclamation,” a faction of the Dodger players circulated a petition protesting the coming integration, threatening a team boycott. Durocher called a midnight meeting. There’s numerous eyewitness accounts of what Leo said, but his language can’t be repeated here, or most anywhere else. For all his faults, he believed in meritocracy, didn’t care about color, only winning. And that was that.

The severely bludgeoned players silently shuffled back to bed. Leo, adrenalin still curdling, poured himself a drink.

For diehard Dodgers fans, the real Day of Infamy was not December 7, 1941, but July 15, 1948. Durocher left Brooklyn to manage the Giants. Think Robert E. Lee, mid–Civil War, denouncing the Confederacy and choosing to command the Union Army. “Et tu, Leo?” Giants faithful had their own major emotional adjustments. They had despised Durocher for almost 10 years; he was loathsome by reflex. This poses the question: Is it possible to be equally hated by two teams at the same time in the same league?

After nine seasons with Brooklyn, that included leading the 1941 team to their first National League pennant in more than two decades, Durocher joined the Dodgers’ cross-town rival New York Giants. Star center fielder Willie Mays was very close to “Mr. Leo” and considered him a father figure.

He managed the Giants close to eight years, highlighted in 1951 by their miracle rally from a 13.5-game deficit against, naturally, the Dodgers. The “Shot Heard ’Round the World” by Bobby Thomson won the pennant, but they lost again, to those damn Yankees, four games to two. Trivia Alert! Who was on deck when Thomson homered? Willie Mays.

“Say Hey” had a very special relationship with Durocher. A father and son label may seem pretty wild given their diametrically opposed everything, but it’s true. Leo thought Mays the greatest ballplayer he ever saw. In the ’54 World Series, when Willie made that inhuman over-the-shoulder catch of Vic Wertz’s towering 450-foot shot, whirled and threw a bullet back to the infield preventing Larry Doby from scoring, underscores Leo’s comment. The Giants swept the heavily favored Indians four straight to secure Durocher’s only World Series championship.

In ’55 Leo left the Giants to pursue a suppressed career in show business. He became a TV color commentator on NBC’s Major League Baseball, did some hosting for The Comedy Hour, and, of all things, Jackpot Bowling. Credits included The Beverly Hillbillies, The Munsters, The Joey Bishop Show, and Mr. Ed. He played a caricature of himself. Critics were not kind. Leo could care less. The money was good, and he was hanging with Frank and company in Palm Springs.

He coached the LA Dodgers from 1961 to 1964, occasionally taking pot shots at Walt Alston’s style of leadership. Durocher returned to managing in 1966 with the Chicago Cubs. They came close in ’69 to winning the pennant, but this time, a miracle finish was accomplished by the “Ya’ Gotta’ Believe” Mets. Leo helmed the Houston Astros from the latter part of ’72 to the end of ’73, then he packed it in for good.

I was surprised by the extent of success Durocher had in his managerial career, easy to get side­ tracked by his Sturm und Drang. In a highly distinguished group with over 1,200 victories, he still ranks 10th all-time with 2,008 wins, ahead of Casey Stengel, Tommy Lasorda, and Earl Weaver. He died in LA on October 7, 1991,  at age 86 and was voted into the Hall of Fame posthumously in 1994.

How does one encapsulate the life of this ultra-intense, charismatic man? Neutrality isn’t an option. Branch Rickey offered this succinct analysis of his character, “He’s [always] still that kid from West Springfield with a pool cue butt in his hands.” Sportswriter Dick Young summarized Leo’s temperament thusly, “You and Durocher are on a life raft. A wave comes and knocks him into the ocean. You dive in and save his life. A shark comes and takes your leg. The next day you and Leo start even.” My take?

Many loved him.  Many hated him.  No one ignored him.

 

 

 

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