The pitcher, lumbering over to cover first base, slipped and fell flat and lay on his stomach for a moment until he was lifted, almost literally, by a loud, raucous voice.
"Put a fork in him, Gil," the little man hollered. "He's all done."
The first baseman laughed, and the pitcher scrambled to his feet. Leo Durocher, his bald pate a bright red from two days under the hot Florida sun, hit another ball into the infield. Charlie Neal, moving with the special grace which marks his play, scooped it up, then threw it wide of first base.
"What the hell was that?" Durocher roared incredulously. "What the hell was that?" He walked a couple of steps toward Neal. "All right, Gertrude," he called in a high fluty voice. "Try it again. Are you ready, Alice?" Neal laughed and fielded the next ball cleanly, throwing it easily and accurately to first.
Durocher worked with the players in the Los Angeles Dodgers training camp at Vero Beach for three hours. Now a coach with the Dodgers, the onetime "best manager in the game" worked hard and relentlessly, kidding the players and yelling at them. He looked happy, and he looked extraordinarily fit for a man of 55.
Later, in the players' lounge, he entertained a circle of young players with stories of Dizzy Dean and Frank Frisch and the other baseball heroes who were his friends. The youngsters listened silently for the most part, and Leo talked steadily, perched on the edge of a table, getting up once to demonstrate Stan Musial's pigeon-toed batting stance, again to show Dean's sweeping pitching motion.
One youngster asked him who was the greatest player he had ever seen. Durocher, who used to say "Willie Mays" instantly, didn't hesitate now. "Joe DiMaggio," he said. "Willie Mays is the best in the business today, but you got to remember DiMaggio would hit you .330, .340 every year, sock 40 home runs, play center field better than anybody else, and he had that great arm."
When the group finally broke up Leo said, "It's a pleasure working with these kids. I never saw a club with so much talent on it, and I was a major league manager 17 years. From '39 to '55—that's 17 years, isn't it? We got no humpty-dumpties on this club, no tomato pickers, no plumbers. These kids got talent."
Before he signed with the Dodgers this winter, Durocher had been out of baseball for five years. He resigned as manager of the New York Giants at the end of the 1955 season to take a job with NBC.
Leo and Frank
"Manny Sachs, who was General Sarnoff's right-hand man, was one of my best friends," Leo said. "He had been after me for a long time to get out of baseball. 'What do you want?' he said to me one time. 'What are you trying to prove, Leo? Come with me.' 'I can't do it yet,' I told Manny. 'When I was a kid I wanted to be a baseball player. Then I wanted to be a major league player. Then I wanted to play on a pennant-winning team. After that I wanted to be a manager, and then I wanted to manage a pennant winner. Now I want to manage a world championship team.' Well, I did that in 1954, and then Manny called me and said, 'How about it, Leo? You coming with me now?' I told him I couldn't. I had another year on my contract. Then at the end of the 1955 season I went with him."
Durocher's first assignment with NBC was to persuade Frank Sinatra to appear on the Dinah Shore show. Sinatra, who is an old friend of Leo's, had previously refused to make any TV appearances, and Leo was not very confident that he could carry out the assignment.
"Frank was playing the Paramount in New York," Leo said. "He was a close friend of Manny's, and I asked Manny to help. 'Not me,' he said. 'This is your baby.' Well, I trailed Frank around for about a week, trying to get him alone. Finally I did, and I told him what I wanted, and he just looked at me and didn't say a word. I kept on talking, and finally he said, 'Buddy, is this for you?' 'It's for NBC and Dinah Shore,' I said. 'But I'd take it as a personal favor.' He looked at me for a long time without saying anything, and then he said, 'Don't worry, buddy. You got me.' "
Durocher stayed with NBC until Sachs died.
"I had a big beef with Bob Kintner, the president of the outfit," Leo said. "I could always go to Manny when I had a beef, and he would straighten it out. But after he died, I knew Kintner wouldn't renew my contract, and he didn't."
For 15 months, then, Durocher did not have a job. He wanted to get back in baseball, but he had said once that he would never return unless he had an opportunity to buy stock in the club that hired him.
"I said that once," he admitted. "But things change. I didn't feel that way any more, but nobody contacted me. Oh, I had a few chances to get back in earlier. One was a hell of a deal with Cleveland, but I was with NBC and making about a hundred grand a year, and I didn't want to leave."
When the American League expanded to 10 teams last December and awarded one of the two new franchises to Los Angeles, Durocher was eager to get the job as manager of the new team—and for 24 hours he thought he would.
"Fred Haney, the general manager, called me," Leo said. " 'I'd like to talk to you about something very important,' he said. 'Do you have any free time?' I hadn't worked in 15 months, and he asks me if I got any free time. 'Sure,' I said. 'Would the next five seconds be soon enough?' He said he would come by my apartment the next morning at nine."
Durocher, naturally, felt sure the visit meant he would be offered the Angel managership. "Sinatra called me a little later," he said. "He asked me over for dinner, and I told him about it. Frank shook his finger in my face like this," Durocher went on, shaking his finger in his listener's face, "and he said, 'Buddy, you take that job. If it's for a dollar a year, you take it. They're gonna sell 49% of the stock in that club. There's 500,000 bucks downtown in the bank that's yours to use to buy stock. Take all of it or any part you want.' How about that Sinatra? How many guys would do that for you?"
Haney arrived the next morning, and he and Leo went over the players Haney would have to choose from to stock his club. Finally, just before he left, he said, "Leo, I'm sorry, but I've already picked my manager."
"I said, 'Fine, Fred. You're the general manager, and you have the right to pick anyone you choose.' Then, just as he was getting on the elevator, he said, 'The reporters will be around, and I'll tell them we had a conference and you didn't want the job.' The elevator doors closed before I could say anything, and I went back to my apartment and looked at the four walls and the ceiling, and I thought, 'What the hell is this?' "
Durocher's friends were stunned by the stories that Leo had turned down the Angel job until Durocher denied it, hotly. "There were lots of jobs open about that time," Leo said angrily. "I got no calls. Everybody figured I had priced myself out of the market. I asked Haney about it, and he said he thought he was letting me off the hook. Hell, he was letting himself off the hook, not me."
Leo's connection with the Dodgers came about through a chance encounter with Walter O'Malley in a small restaurant in Los Angeles called Dominick's.
"I was going there with some friends for dinner," said O'Malley. "We had an argument with another party about a parking place in front of the cafe and then, to save trouble, we let the other party have it. They came in and sat near us, and in a little while Leo joined them. He saw me and came over to say hello and ask me if he was really blackballed in baseball. I told him he wasn't. Then he said he would even take a job as a coach if it was with the right club. So the next day I got Bavasi to talk to him, and we hired him."
"O'Malley and Bavasi couldn't have been better to me," Durocher said. "When they offered me a contract I said the money doesn't matter. Just put the contract down, and I'll sign it. Well, some of the papers have said I'm getting $17,500, but that's not even close. I can't tell you any more than that without naming a figure, but that's not even close."
Durocher and the Dodgers are both happy with the deal. Durocher handles players easily and authoritatively, and he gets along well with Manager Walt Alston.
"Leo's forte has always been getting the most out of his players," Bavasi said one afternoon, watching Leo work. "He's a better manager than half the managers in the league right now. We won't have him more than a year. He'll be managing a club next season."
"I'm happy with the Dodgers," Leo said. "It would take a hell of a deal to make me leave. Los Angeles is my home, and I like it."