Durocher: He Did Nicely
By Shirley Povich
They don't come along very often in the mold of Leo Durocher. It is safe to say it has happened only once in this century. Durocher's death yesterday, at 86, closed the book, but not the memory, of one of baseball's most fascinating characters, who, it seemed, lived every day by his wits.
In his native Massachusetts, he was a youthful pool hustler; when he reached the major leagues it was as a good-field, no-hit shortstop, who became one of the finest managers, a sawed-off, umpire-baiting, loudmouthed tough guy. A bad boy in many ways, sometime palsy with the mob, yet respected as one of the great figures in the game. He was on the major league scene for more than 40 years.
He was famous as the abrasive fellow who intoned, "Nice guys finish last." His aphorism got him an indelible place in the list of American sayings for the ages. It could also be said that Durocher was best insulating himself, disqualifying himself, from any visits to last place.
But a wonderful thing happened in his later years. He became the nice guy, an elder statesman type, the mellow old fellow who made friends so fast there was a large, concerted movement to get him into his game's Hall of Fame.
To be affirmed at Cooperstown as one of the greats of the game would have been Leo's final fulfillment and at the annual voting he waited hopefully for the word. In each succeeding ballot of the last several years, Durocher came close to being voted into the company of the game's giants. Last time, in February, he lost out by a whisker in the final balloting. There are some who now wish they had their nay votes back.
At stud poker, he looked from face to face for some expression that would betray somebody's bluff. While coaching at third base he once yelled across the field to a runner on first, "Stick close to the bag, this guy's got a great move to first." It was Leo's double-talk to lull the pitcher into believing what Leo said and enabled the runner to steal second on the next pitch.
The manager of St. Louis's Jefferson Hotel where Durocher lived when he was the Cardinals' shortstop, and was often his dinner host, related an episode that personified Leo, the unreformed hustler. "When Leo ordered mashed potatoes and gravy, he told the waiter 'Bring the potatoes and the gravy separate.' I asked him why he specified that and Leo explained, 'They might bring you cold potatoes and warm gravy. Don't trust everybody.' "
The Yankees brought him out of the minors in 1928, and it was then that rookie Durocher perhaps got his high living ideas after Babe Ruth sort of adopted him as his roommate as a $4,000-a-year shortstop. He was even trying to match the Babe at picking up checks in a year when Ruth was headed toward an $80,000 salary. Durocher was giving the Yankees a fine job in the field but his bat was lacking somewhat and in 1930 when Leo demanded a $6,500 salary, Ed Barrow traded him to Cincinnati.
Even when his batting figures dipped a bit, Leo's glove kept him in the major leagues. He joined the Cardinals in 1933 and his smooth style with the glove and his slashing play on the bases not only fitted him as a member of the vocal, hell-raising, super-performing Gashouse Gang, but it was Leo who gave the group its name, and they voted him team captain, of course.
When Durocher harshly complained that playing manager Frankie Frisch wasn't covering enough ground at second base, Frisch traded him to the Dodgers, in 1938. Thus came about the perfect twin-up, Durocher and Brooklyn's Bums. And of course he soon became their manager, beating out Babe Ruth, another applicant for that job, and won a pennant with them. And then the Giants, across town, lusted for him, and he won a pennant for them, courtesy of that Bobby Thomson last-ditch homer, memorialized by Russ Hodges' screaming radio voice, "The Giants win the pennant. The Giants . . ."
If only as a manager, he had 14 first division clubs in his first 18 years, Durocher may have qualified for Cooperstown. But when they called him good field, no hit, it was a libel. In that game when the Cardinals clinched the World Series against the Tigers in 1934 Durocher delivered three big hits for the Cards.
And take another look at that .247 career batting average of Leo's, and ponder it, and also some of those seasons when he hit .286, and .277, and .265. No hit? In modern baseball, those same figures would qualify a shortstop for one of those $2-3 million contracts and classify him as one of the better hitters of the game. But could they carry Durocher's glove? Leo leaves a memory of how the game was played, so well. Durocher-style.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company