When Leo Durocher returned to baseball he talked to reporters at the Dodger's spring-training camp about his new house. "From left to right I have a view of the Pacific Ocean and all the San Fernando Valley," he declaimed lyrically, adding what is perhaps the most inimitable attraction ever listed for a piece of real estate: "The Nixon house is spread below me, and I can drop a baseball down his chimney." Observing that Frank Sinatra lived across the canyon, Durocher said, "I can hardly wait to holler at him, 'Get up, you skinny bum!' "
Two years have passed, and now at the edge of the third season of Durocher's reincarnation with the Dodgers, it appears that these simple pleasures have not palled. He is a hard-working and conscientious baseball functionary whose strident, brassy voice is loud and unceasing. He rises early every morning at training camp or at home. His uniform is always immaculate and his $50 handmade baseball shoes are unscuffed. Fifteen years ago he was managing the Dodgers and knocking out grounders to the likes of Pee Wee Reese and Gil Hodges. When the Dodgers leave next week for Vero Beach, Leo is to go along for his third year as third-base coach, and he will be knocking out grounders to Maury Wills and Pee Wee Oliver and Bill Skowron. To a great many people, and perhaps to Durocher himself, the most astonishing fact is that he is going back to Vero Beach at all.
It was only four months ago, after the awful moment in Dodger history when the Giants won the third game of the playoff, that Leo made his famous comment about the managing of Manager Walter Alston. "We would have won the pennant," he said with characteristic tact and modesty, "if I had been managing." Or did he really say it? Whether he did or not, he precipitated another of those loud executive-suite quarrels which, among the Dodgers, are conducted with all the discretion and privacy of the filming of Cleopatra. Buzzie Bavasi, the general manager, announced that either Durocher would leave or he would, and with that he set out after the reporter who first quoted Leo's alleged words.
According to the reporter, an Associated Press correspondent from San Francisco, "fisticuffs were mentioned." Walter O'Malley, queried in the Wyoming mountains where he was prudently hunting bighorn sheep, refused to join the bickering in the ranks. "This is no time to make comments," he said. Walter Alston, heading for his home in Darrtown, Ohio to spend the winter at his favorite hobbies of making furniture and trapshooting, said nothing. Peace slowly returned, and Leo hung on to his post, to the surprise of more than a few.
February 18, 1963
It was only two years ago that Leo was widely quoted as saying he was blacklisted by organized baseball and couldn't get a job with any club. Only last summer there were stories that his health had failed. He collapsed before a Dodgers-Mets game. A doctor summoned by the public-address system couldn't find the visitors' clubhouse at the Polo Grounds. He eventually located Durocher, suffering from penicillin shock, being attended by the team trainers and Alston. In another five minutes a doctor would have been too late.
So there were several reasons why it was surprising that a healthy-looking Durocher would be returning to Vero. O'Malley, who seemed to have decided to take no action about the fighting within the organization—just to show he wasn't influenced by publicity, according to one account—now added still another explosive element to the Dodger mixture: he announced the hiring of Charley Dressen, perhaps the only man in the majors who can challenge Leo Durocher for general tactlessness and an ability to worsen bad situations, and who has, moreover, fought historic battles with Leo in the past. WILL DISSENSION DESTROY THE DODGERS? asked a sports magazine anxiously.
In the comfortable offices at Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine last week the atmosphere was outwardly pacific. Bavasi long ago had announced that he was convinced the report of Durocher's alleged remarks was untrue. He said there would be no trouble because of Dressen; Charley would be on the road scouting all the time. "Nobody's ever going to change Leo," Bavasi said. Mr. O'Malley, looking 10 years younger than he had when the season ended, appeared to be enjoying the general public interest in Dodger affairs. As for Leo, he was hurrying off to make a speech to the Athletic Club at Albuquerque, returning to Los Angeles in time for a testimonial affair for O'Malley at the Hotel Ambassador, the presentation of oil paintings of his players.
Durocher at 56 is almost bald, and his hair is white, but he is still hard, flat-bellied and active, and his rasping and sardonic outcries of vituperation and encouragement are unchanged as he slaps grounders to the rookies. The oldest man on the Dodger squad—Duke Snider, 36—was one year old when Leo was starting in the majors. Oliver, 22, was only one year old when Leo won his first pennant with the Dodgers. At the start of his 31st season in pro baseball, Leo Durocher is substantially unchanged from the blustering and unpredictable figure he was at the start.
Or almost unchanged. In those days he was a famous baseball character who wanted to be a theatrical figure, and now he is a theatrical character who rejoices every day that he is back in baseball. His house is in Trousdale Estates, a new and fashionable development of elegant one-story houses threaded up a long, dry, bony ridge, where half-acre lots start at $50,000 or $75,000 and where the neighbors, in addition to Richard Nixon, include Dinah Shore, Gypsy Rose Lee, Cornel Wilde, Vic Damone and a number of executives, lawyers and physicians. Durocher fits into a Hollywood environment in a way that people who remember him only as Leo the Lip in his Brooklyn days can hardly credit. The combination of his old hard-bitten baseball knowledge and experience and his new consciousness of himself as an authentic Hollywood celebrity makes this most recent phase of his career unique in the history of baseball.
"Leo has been a pain in the neck to me for a good many years," said Walter O'Malley at a testimonial dinner celebrating Durocher's return to the Dodgers. "When I was a lawyer in Brooklyn he was my favorite client." Recalling those good old days at Ebbets Field, O'Malley lingered fondly on the golden year of 1947, when Commissioner Happy Chandler unexpectedly suspended Durocher for the entire season. "That year he was banned," O'Malley concluded nostalgically, "we paid him $50,000 for not working for the Dodgers." A good many other eminent authorities on sport added similar tributes to Durocher's accomplishments and character—among the speakers were George Jessel, Milton Berle, Dean Martin, Buddy Hackett, George Burns, Tony Curtis, Dan Dailey and Kirk Douglas—and, as a belated reminder that the game of baseball had something to do with it, Don Drysdale sang Take Me Out to the Ball Game.
In addition to honoring Leo, this historic occasion was also a charity benefit, a dinner at the Beverly Hilton Hotel for 1,500 at $15 apiece, the sponsor saying that another 5,000 places could have been sold for $50 each. Buddy Hackett said that as a boy in Brooklyn the baseball exploits of Leo Durocher inspired him with a lifelong resolve to become a golfer. Durocher was altogether unruffled by such elliptical commentaries on his dedication to sport. "If they hold dinners for guys like Dean Martin in places like this," he said, "they should have staged mine in the Coliseum."
Now he has become a Hollywood punch-line artist instead of the choleric dugout brawler whose fame once depended largely on the frequency with which he blew up. When the Dodgers leave Los Angeles for Vero Beach next week, Leo will accompany them as he does on Dodger road trips—that is, he will be driven to the plane in his blue hardtop Cadillac, and he will probably play a little gin rummy for small stakes, and he undoubtedly will contribute to that gentle ribbing which is a part of Dodger tradition. He is only the third-base coach, but Leo Durocher at third base is a little like John Quincy Adams returning to the House of Representatives after the presidency because the country needed him. Durocher probably is the only third-base coach to be paid $25,000 a year, and he is certainly the only one who has half a dozen $250 suits tailored for him annually at Sy Devore's shop in Hollywood, and the only one who owns 30 alpaca sweaters of every color, 75 pairs of slacks, six topcoats of different weights, four tuxedos, innumerable $25 tapered shirts made for him by a French shirtmaker, and a good many pairs of $125 shoes.
In retrospect it is easy to trace the bright-lights impulse that led Durocher to such Hollywoodian elegances. His early years have been so thoroughly reported by Robert Shaplen (SI, May 23, 30, June 6, 1955) that little remains to be said of them; however, it may be worth pointing out that West Springfield, Mass., where he was born in 1906, was the home town of Rabbit Maranville, who was not only a great shortstop but a good song-and-dance man and the star of a vaudeville act that climaxed when he slid into a bass drum. Any ballplayer from Springfield in Maranville's great days came naturally into a theatrical heritage.
Durocher's Hollywood success on a major scale began when the Giants met the Cleveland Indians in the World Series of 1954. He was certain that the Giants were going to beat the Indians handily, and said so vigorously at private Hollywood gatherings, though the pre-Series odds against the Giants were 2 to 1. According to Corney Jackson, a Hollywood friend, Leo never exactly said that the Giants could win it in four straight games but, what with his confidence (and the fact that the odds against the Giants taking four straight were set at 22 to 1), some of his Hollywood friends, including Jackson, bet the Giants would win four in a row. This they did, of course, and it was enough to set off a well-nigh continuous round of celebrations in Leo's honor, with such impressive characters as the Marx Brothers, George Jessel, Tony Martin, Danny Kaye, Danny Thomas and some 600 others hailing him at a celebration at the Hillcrest Country Club as soon as he got back to Hollywood.
Durocher's life in those days was about as orderly as any triumphant baseball manager's life is likely to be. He was the Manager of the Year, the winner of the Wrigley award for the game's greatest comeback, and the guest of honor at innumerable gatherings, the celebrations continuing until about the first week in June of the following year, when the Giants had fallen 12 games behind. That fall Durocher and the Giants parted company. "He was a 1:30 to 4 p.m. manager," wrote Dick Young of the New York Daily News. "He'd play gin rummy in the clubhouse before the game, and run off with his showfolks buddies as soon as the game ended." Leo Durocher was now out of baseball for the first time since he joined the company team of the Wico Electric Co. of Springfield, makers of motorcycle batteries, 32 years before. For the first time, also, he became a full-time Beverly Hills resident as a National Broadcasting Company executive, with a salary then reported to be $81,000 a year. He was a liaison officer between the network and its talent—"My job is to make Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis happy," he explained.
What isn't generally known is how much a part of the Hollywood scene Leo became in the five years he was out of baseball. Interviewed by a baseball writer, he talked about actors. "Many, many of my best friends live here," he said, "guys like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Danny Kaye, Spencer Tracy, George Burns and Jack Benny." Durocher played golf three or four days a week at Hillcrest, and on most afternoons he could be found with some kindred spirit like Sinatra at the Friars. The gin rummy game in which he regularly played had the status of an institution. About the time of his divorce from Laraine Day (he had married the film star in 1947) the local newspapers were festooned with pictures of a beautiful girl named Lorrie Thomas, with whom he was often seen, and even last year, when it was reported that he was going to Cleveland as manager of the Indians, Louella Parsons inquired in her column: "What is this with Anna Kashfi and Leo Durocher? They were in the corner at George Lim's Kowloon, holding hands at dinner."
All told, it would be difficult to round up a more representative collection of stock Hollywood items than those Durocher has provided. When his network job ended in 1959, a friend reported, "Leo made a discovery not unfamiliar in Hollywood. 'Guys who were once my pals aren't any longer,' he said." His idle weeks dwindled on into months. "Nobody came knocking at my door," he said. "My pride was hurt." In 15 months only one offer came his way. Herman Franks, who had been the third-base coach when Leo was manager with the Giants, wanted him to manage Salt Lake in the Pacific Coast League. Leo decided against it, but he had to face some hard facts. At least five major managing jobs—the Tigers, the Senators, the Athletics the Giants and the Angels—had gone to other people in the intervening period. Acting with carefully premeditated impulsiveness, Leo called a Los Angeles sportswriter and confided that he was being blackballed by baseball's owners. "They may think I'm too controversial," he said. "I always say what's on my mind." A second possibility occurred to him. "A guy like me makes a lot of enemies. Any opinionated guy does. When things were going good with me, I probably stepped on a lot of toes without even knowing it."
With a sort of somber eloquence he added, "I'm pretty convinced that my place is in baseball. This is my element, and where I belong. I would like to come back to baseball. I'm not asking for the world with a fence around it."
Would he consider a job as third-base coach of the Dodgers? "I had three of the best coaches in the business when I was with the Giants," he mused. "Herman Franks, Fred Fitzsimmons and Frank Shellenback. We worked as a team. No man can manage by himself. If I'm going to manage again, I must get familiar with the players around the league. There's no better way to look them over than to coach at third."
Early in the morning on his first stay at Vero Beach, Durocher was a picture of casual splendor in the kitchen of the training-camp cafeteria, conversing with the lady cooks. He wore his white linen slacks and a tailored pink sport shirt. The sullen masses of sleepy baseball players were pushing their trays along the counter, but Leo was at ease on the other side of the counter, explaining how his eggs ought to be poached as he oozed charm among the kitchen help. They poured his prune juice (cooled, as he told them, precisely to his taste), poached his eggs the way he wanted them and even made him fresh whole wheat toast instead of the dry commodity toasted in advance that was served on the breakfast assembly line. Walter O'Malley, plainly looking as if he wouldn't dare to ask the kitchen force for any special consideration, stood in the cafeteria line, pushing along his tray. "Yah, pile it on, O'Malley," said Durocher. "You look great. You need calories."
"This was a nice, quiet camp," said O'Malley, "until he came in. He tells my wife I don't give her enough spending money. He tells me what to eat." The Dodger training camp is in a converted naval base, and Leo's assigned quarters, like those of all the unmarried players, were deep in the enlisted men's barracks, ancient and shabby, with a roof that leaked on a foggy day. Durocher at once applied for living quarters off the base, planning to bring his cook and maid from Beverly Hills. But Buzzie Bavasi ruled against it on the grounds that only married players could be permitted such privileges. Almost immediately Durocher received six widely published proposals of marriage from lonely ladies who wanted to live in Florida. "I wish he would get married," said Bavasi, "and live off the base. Once he borrowed my car to go to town for some toothpaste, and I didn't get it back for eight days."
Out on the field, Leo Durocher was watched with the sort of attention ballplayers usually receive only in the ninth inning with the score tied. Everything was noted about him, what he said as the grounders rolled—"Come on, chum, where do you think you are?"—or his fidgety habit of erasing the white lines around the coaching box with his toe. Actually, he was nervous, and after five years' absence from baseball he was learning how rapidly its personnel changed. Only Duke Snider and Gil Hodges then remained of the Dodger teams he had managed. Junior Gilliam had been with the Dodgers when Durocher managed the Giants, and Daryl Spencer had played on his Giant team, but most of the others had come up in his years of absence: Tommy Davis, Maury Wills, Frank Howard, Don Drysdale, Willie Davis, Ron Fairly; while Sandy Koufax and Ed Roebuck were newcomers to the major leagues at the time Durocher had bowed out.
One of his first impressions on returning to baseball was that the aspiring contenders at spring training had got much bigger. "Looking at them, you would think they were trying out for the Rams," he said. "We've got kids 6 feet 6 inches tall, and you ask them how old they are and they tell you 18." Another impression was of vastly increased speed: Willie Davis seemed to him the fastest ballplayer he had ever seen, and the whole club phenomenally fast by earlier standards. He was tossed out of the first camp game in the sixth inning, the umpire holding that he wandered illegally outside his coaching box after erasing the white lines around it. When the season started, Alston kept him on the bench beside him, and nothing much happened until a week had passed. One Sunday there were 27,000 in the stands for a Pittsburgh game, and in the fourth inning Norm Larker lofted a pop fly which Pirate Catcher Hal Smith just failed to reach. It dropped foul, but the Dodgers claimed it had touched Smith's mitt in fair territory. Durocher threw a towel in the dugout. Conlan ordered him out of the game. Leo threw a towel and a batting helmet out on the field, and then walked up to Conlan, hands in his back pockets. "I just kicked dirt on him," said Durocher, "and I think he tried to kick dirt back on me. Only he kicked me in the leg. I kicked back. He kicked back." He paused. "And so on," he said.
"Feet flew as if it were an old-fashioned hoedown," wrote an excited Los Angeles reporter. "It was like the Russian kazatski standing up," said another.
"What is baseball coming to?" asked Jocko Conlan. "The season isn't a week old."
"I kicked an umpire once before," Durocher confessed, "but that was accidental. This is the first time an umpire ever kicked me." Banished for three days, he marched off glumly to the showers. Where had he ever got the idea that there were any nice guys?
These days Durocher lives so quietly that the Jocko Conlan incident seems as far away as Ebbets Field. He still blows up with or without provocation, but often nowadays he somehow seems to half blow up, as if something had checked his anger just before it got away from him. "When Leo gets in a fight now it's like two little kids fighting," said one of his friends. "You know, they get sort of embarrassed, and they can't really let go but they think they should." Durocher may start out with a blast like the blaze of an acetylene torch, in a gravel-voiced roar of outrage and perplexity. "What's the idea?" he begins, with the profound moral fervor of a man who not only has never recognized the other fellow's point of view but never even knew there was one. Now, however, he may stop after this familiar beginning to ask with genuine interest and in a changed tone of voice: "What was that you said?" He seems less motivated by a desire for peace than a desire to learn. After 30 years in the majors he gives the impression of suddenly having become intensely interested in the game.
He may drop in at the Friars one day a week, and these days he is usually alone. He rarely plays golf at Hillcrest, and on the road he keeps to himself. One of the Dodgers said, "He knows so many people that there is generally somebody he visits in every town we play in. If any of his friends like Tony Martin are playing in a nightclub within reach, he goes to hear them, but usually he gets to bed early." All this may not suggest the average routine of a ballplayer, but it is like the sort of program a veteran actor might follow on the road in a revival.
And Durocher gives the impression of being conscious of what he is doing all the time. "He's kind of detached from everyone," said a Dodger official. "He doesn't socialize." True, he raced off last year on a goodwill junket which Frank Sinatra organized for the benefit of needy children. Sinatra went around the world, singing in each country and donating the proceeds to orphanages. "We had a ball!" said Durocher. "We hit all the high spots—Honolulu, Sydney, Singapore, Bagdad, Hong Kong and Tokyo. We visited the Sultan of Johore at his palace. It's some joint!"
But most of the time he concentrates on baseball. Or at least on the dual problem of baseball and keeping his own opinions under control. There were a few bad moments last year. Once he chewed out Ron Fairly for running over his own bunt. Then he blasted Willie Davis for failing to handle a fly he had fielded. Then he said they ought to be fined, and Alston told him to stick to coaching and he would do the chewing out. After the unfortunate crack at the farewell dinner, it appeared that the old Durocher was back, though it had taken an unparalleled series of disasters to recall him. He may still be there, under the surface, all the time. But at least Leo now gives every impression of wanting to measure his words.
Now, for perhaps the first time in his life, Leo Durocher seems wholeheartedly concerned with baseball, rather than with the game as a means to the theatrical life he enjoyed. He has pointedly stated that he has no thought of going after Walter Alston's job. "I never did say that you can't be a nice guy and win," he said. "I said that if I was playing third base and my mother rounded third with the winning run, I'd trip her up." At this vivid image of filial disobedience even Leo paused. "It upset my mother very much," he added.