In the spring the handbooks in Las Vegas, New offered odds of 5 to 1 against the New York Giants' pennant chances. When the Giants took over first place in June their price dropped to 7 to 5. Lately the prices have been as fluttery as a bookmaker's heart. Whether the Giants win the pennant or blow it, the big news of the 1954 season has been their resurrection. It started with a charm.
Before one game, Leo Ernest Durocher, the manager, had beaten Russ Hodges, the television-radio announcer, at gin rummy. This involved no powerful magic, as anyone could testify who had observed Durocher as a youth in the pool halls of West Springfield, Mass. Still, the Giants won that day. Next day Hodges paid off again. The Giants won again. And so on.
When at last the charm wore out, Durocher took to practicing his magic on the field. There is a common tendency to exaggerate the manager's importance, chiefly because the owners have sired a notion that firing the manager is a remedy for every ill. It is difficult, however, to overemphasize Durocher's role with the Giants.
Bold, brassy, combative, fearless, loud and pushing, he is in fact the leader of his team. He is too impatient to be a good manager for a poor team but he can be great with a good one, resourceful, driving, tireless. When his team is one run behind he's no better than anyone else, for then he must make the conventional moves to get the vital run. Chances are he isn't as good as the next when the score is tied, for his jittery temperament is no aid to nervous players. But give him a one-run lead to work with and he's the best.
The old West Springfield pool shark is a gambler to the marrow. No one has a better grasp of tactics, a clearer understanding of percentages, and few minds are so agile. He'll flash the hit-and-run sign on one pitch, change it on the next, try something else on the third, harassing the enemy, worrying him, jabbing him off balance. He'll play the bunt when it is least expected, steal, squeeze, hit and run, run and hit.
He has mastered the gift of absolute concentration, whether he is at pool or baseball or cards or conversation.
The most noisily controversial figure in baseball, Durocher is what he chooses to be. To some he is a basking bounder on a Hollywood set, perfumed, overdressed, vulgar, varnished and vain. He is capable of small acts of thoughtfulness and studied bits of malice. He subscribes to his own most-quoted dictum, "Nice guys finish last," yet he was nicest finishing first in 1951. Then he remained resolutely in the background giving all credit to the players.
He can exert, when he wishes, great personal magnetism if not charm, and he can stir his players. If they are not universally fond of him, they respect his ability. This year he has been the practically peerless leader, controlling both his team and himself. In the past his erratic impatience led to constant, unsettling line-up changes. This team took form in training camp and, except in real emergencies, has played as a unit. He recently had enough credit to spare in the charm column to weather the onus of a graceless dug-out spat with Whitey Lockman.
That is one reason for the Giants' success. Another, of course, is Willie Mays. Returning to baseball after two years in the Army, the dashing center fielder picked up where he left off in the spring of 1952 and picked up the team as well. He hits, he outruns line drives and he throws strikes from the fences. In one space of five games he hit six home runs. When he wasn't knocking in the big ones, somebody else would come forward to further the hero-a-day policy.
In this latter respect the Giants have been lucky, as a hot team always is lucky. One day the catcher, Wes West-rum, would win the game with a four-run homer. Next day Bobby Hofman, the utility infielder, would do it with a single.