He walked into the room as feisty as ever. At 79, Leo Durocher was ruddy-cheeked, raspy-voiced, talking without seeming to take breaths.
Once he had been a fiery shortstop who broke in with the Yankees, was one of the Gashouse Gang, later player-manager of the Dodgers, still later miracle manager of the '51 miracle Giants. He fought with almost everybody, sometimes even his own players. Now he pads around Palm Springs in his shorts and tennis shoes. His present embraces ease, his future promises more.
But his past had its trouble. A portrait on the wall of the National Portrait Gallery is that of a smiling Durocher, in his Yankees uniform. He looked confident, as if he knew he'd be somebody. "I was a little boy then," he said, coming face to face with himself. It was 1925. But four years later the smile was gone and so was Durocher, from the Yankees. "The Lip" had spoken.
"I went in to ask (General Manager Ed) Barrow for a raise. I wanted $7,000 instead of $6,000 -- the $1,000 was to pay my hotel bill at the Piccadilly. 'Six thousand,' he said, 'take it or leave it.' " Then Barrow swung around in his swivel chair, showing Durocher his back. Infuriated, Durocher turned for the door but called back and cursed Barrow.
He heard that, Barrow replied, but Durocher only piped up, "And it still goes." To which Barrow neatly responded, "And so do you."
"The next day," recalled Durocher, "I was the property of the Cincinnati Reds. He shipped me out of the American League to a last-place team in the National League."
A large chunk of Durocher's life slid past his eyes the other day as he inspected a new National Portrait Gallery exhibition, "Baseball Immortals: The Photographs of Charles Martin Conlon, 1905-1935." Conlon worked for The Sporting News, which is sponsoring the show of 60 prints, among them: Babe Ruth's swing, Lou Gehrig's dimpled smile, a somber Carl Hubbell, Ty Cobb's spaced-hands batting grip, Christy Mathewson greeting an awed youth, Shoeless Joe Jackson ruminating.
There are Pie, Slug, Dizzy, Chief, Lefty, Pepper and Rube.
Durocher knew most of them. "Ah. Here's two guys that when I managed I used to say, 'Let's not pitch to 'em. Put Lloyd on third and Paul on first. That's where they're going to wind up anyway.' " It was the Waner brothers, "Little Poison" and "Big Poison."
Then Durocher, wearing pink-tinted glasses, walked up to one of the most famous pictures in baseball history. It was taken in 1909. Jaws clenched, Ty Cobb is sliding hard into third base. Dirt, like the surf, sprays in all directions. Menacingly, Cobb has turned his body so he can ram into the New York Highlanders' Jimmy Austin, a 5-foot-7 1/2, 155-pound Welshman. Austin already has been spiked, and is being upended. A week passed before Conlon looked at his print and realized he had something.
"They say he was the meanest man to play the game," Durocher said of Cobb. "He'd slide in with his feet high. He'd cut your legs off. I'll tell you: He was finishing out his career with the Philadelphia Athletics. I was with the Yankees. One day I went after this ball at shortstop and managed to get my glove on it. It stopped on the outfield grass, but as I was going after it I accidentally got in Cobb's way. He was going from first to third. I slowed him up just enough so that I was able to throw him out at third. In those days the Yankee dugout was on the third base side so when I ran in he passed by me. He said, 'Next time you get in my way I'll step on your face.'
"The Babe was coming in right behind me. 'What'd he say?' Babe said. I was scared to death -- I was just a kid then. 'Call him a penny pincher,' the Babe said."
Durocher moved along the wall. "And this fella, he wasn't much of a hitter." Durocher is laughing. The young man on the wall is the old man standing next to Durocher. Bent and leaning on a gold-handled cane, Bill Terry will be 86 next week. He hit .341 for 14 years, all with the Giants. Durocher, in an aside to a large man, says, "He was as tall as you when he played. Ah, he was what you call a contact hitter. And he could fly! He could get to first in 3 1/2, 3.4."
Terry is squinting at the photograph of Durocher. "It was the year Wally Pipp came off first base," Durocher said. "They took him out and put Lou Gehrig in. Pipp used to hit balls to me. 'Go out to shortstop, I'll hit you some ground balls,' he'd say. It didn't matter how hard he hit 'em, I loved it. One day he said, 'I can't hit any by that kid. Hell with it.' I was only 19."
A third legend-come-to-life looked into the eyes of Jimmie Foxx, in his frame. They are hauntingly pale, his face as round as a cherub's. Lefty Gomez, 74, the onetime Yankee, used to look into those eyes from the pitching mound. He has never forgotten, though with time he has forgiven, one blast Foxx hit off him. "After the game the writers asked me what I threw him. I told them, the best pitch of my life -- for 60 feet. I just didn't fool him the last six inches."
"Hey, here's my first manager, my first big league manager," says Durocher. "Look at that, he's sitting on an orange crate. He's sitting on a crate." It's the 5-foot-4, 146-pound Miller Huggins.
As though a prophet who could foresee both Durocher's .247 career batting average and his subsequent managerial success, Huggins told Durocher the rookie, "There are a lot of fellows around here with strong backs and weak minds. You have a strong mind and a weak back. Let them do all the hitting, you use your head. You'll be here when they're all gone."
So he was. He moved to the last wall, which held several shots of Christy Mathewson, young and handsome. Durocher stood in front of the pictures, remembering that this, indeed, was how Mathewson looked. The great pitcher and his wife lived in an apartment in view of the Polo Grounds. His wife is quoted: "I could see the scoreboard from my kitchen window and when I saw Christy was ahead in the seventh inning, I put the potatoes on."
On the way out, Durocher fell silent for a moment, as if turning over something in his mind. "I've got a few memories," he said quietly.