In the Sky Bar on the roof of the El Cortez Hotel, a guy was playing show tunes on the piano—Move over world, nothing can stop me now, I'm a star, do you hear, a star! He had a pleasant voice but one that was unlikely to get him out of San Diego. The lights of the big jets came right past the windows of the Sky Bar as they headed for the runway. You could see the airport lit up against the crow-blue of the bay. At the bar Leo Durocher snapped his lighter to a Parliament cigarette and ordered a J&B and water. Hub Kittle, the pitching coach, reached for his billfold.
"This one's on me, Leo," he said.
"You open that thing and moths are gonna fly out of it," Durocher said. "You ain't had that thing open in 20 years. You're the only guy I know who saves money on his per diem. What'd you spend for lunch today, Hub? A dollar? How much?"
Kittle looked at Durocher for a while. Leo was wearing three shades of orange, with a sweater over a turtleneck. His hair was slicked back and darkened. In the faint light of the bar Durocher could have been 20 years younger than his registered age of 67. Kittle put his cigar into an ash tray and said, "About two dollars."
August 12, 1973
"Get that cigar away from me," Durocher said. "I hate cigar smoke. It stinks. Especially cigars like you smoke, Hub. If you paid three for a dime for those cigars, you got robbed."
Durocher turned and winked at Grady Hatton, another coach. That night the Houston Astros, managed by Durocher, had nearly blown a game to the San Diego Padres. The Padres don't very often beat anybody. But that night, five runs behind, they had loaded the bases in the last of the ninth with nobody out. Down in the bullpen Kittle took off his cap and waved it to show a relief pitcher was ready. The new pitcher walked in a run on four pitches.
"Two liked to knocked the hitter's knees off, and the other two bounced in the dirt," Durocher said. "If you ain't a hell of a coach! What do you think about down there?"
"If he just puts the ball over the plate and the guy knocks it out of the park, we're still one run ahead," said Hatton.
Kittle looked at both of them for a moment and then asked the bartender for a beer. "I swear he appeared to be ready, Leo," Kittle said. "He was coming in with his stuff. Said he felt real good. How did I know he couldn't get it over when he got in the game?"
"You're the coach. You're supposed to know. I'll tell you frankly, Hub, I was against you from the beginning for this job. They hired you over my violent protest. You must have some pull upstairs, or you wouldn't be here," Durocher said.
Durocher turned and winked at Hatton again. Kittle thought about it and laughed. "You're kidding me, Leo," he said.
"The hell I'm kidding," said Durocher. "You know what I'm gonna recommend for you? Hey, Grady, what's the name of that place where they send the rookies?"
"Covington," Hatton said.
"Well, Hub, that's what I'm gonna recommend," said Durocher. "I'm gonna see if they won't send you down to Covington to work with the babies. That's where you belong. Bartender, gimme the check for everybody."
Durocher stood up and signed the check. He stands very erect and moves like a young man. Kittle sat and looked at him, not sure anymore what Durocher intended. Finally Kittle laughed.
"I'll do whatever you say, Leo," Kittle said.
"Damn right you will," said Durocher.
On his way to the elevator Durocher gave Hatton another exaggerated wink. Durocher grinned and wiggled a thumb back toward the perplexed Kittle to show that this was just a good-time rib, just some good old boys having a little fun with each other. But Kittle couldn't see him. Durocher was scowling when he stepped onto the elevator. Hatton looked over at Kittle.
"Leo's gotten kind of mellow," Hatton said. "In the old days, Hub, he would have really cut you up."
A week or so earlier, Leo Durocher was sitting in his office in the home team locker room down inside the Astrodome in Houston. It is a small room with a desk, a couple of chairs and a private bath. The Astros had just lost a game to the Cubs and had slid deeper into third place in the Western Division of the National League. Durocher is a Leo, born July 27, 1906, and his pride needs a lot of feeding. The Astros had been beaten by the team Durocher managed for six and a half years, until he quit in the middle of last season. Durocher was irritated over losing, especially to the Cubs. It is supposed to be a Leo trait to shout frequently that he is surrounded by idiots, which is something Durocher shouted from time to time in Chicago, to the huge displeasure of many of those who surrounded him.
Durocher smoked a cigarette and stared out the door at players walking down the hall. It is a peculiar feeling to be alone in a small room with a man who was a celebrity before most people in the United States ever heard of Hitler. Durocher played shortstop for the New York Yankees briefly in 1925 and returned three years later as a regular on the team that had Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and the rest. He used to ride to Yankee Stadium in Babe Ruth's Packard limousine. He played for Frankie Frisch on the famous Gas House Gang in St. Louis with Pepper Martin and the Dean brothers when Bonnie and Clyde were still banging around on dusty Texas roads. He was the manager of the Brooklyn Dodger team that accepted the first black man, Jackie Robinson, into the big leagues, but did not get to manage Robinson in his first year, 1947, because he was banned from baseball that season for allegedly associating with gangsters and other low types. That same year he got the Catholic Youth Organization against him, in part for marrying Laraine Day, a Mormon and a movie actress. After the ban the Catholic Youth Organization agreed to quit boycotting Ebbets Field. The year after the Korean war started, Bobby Thomson hit his famous home run to win the pennant for the New York Giants, managed by Durocher. Durocher's 1954 Giants won the World Series in four straight from Cleveland, with Spencer Tracy acting as Leo's lucky piece. Then Durocher became a television executive, a job in which he could trade on his friendship with the stars.
In other words, Leo Durocher is more of an American institution than Colonel Sanders. Before this country ever heard of Kennedy, Nixon, Gable, Disney, Earhart, DiMaggio, Presley, Flash Gordon or Dr. Spock, people knew about Leo Durocher.
"Why should I talk to a magazine guy?" Durocher said, dragging on a cigarette in his office. He speaks deliberately and forcefully, the way he walks, and is inclined to repeat a phrase or a whole sentence—"Why should I talk to a magazine guy, why should I talk to a magazine guy?"—so that you expect him to retrace his steps when he is walking someplace; going twice to the elevator, for example, instead of getting on just once.
"I don't talk to magazine guys. Why should I tell you anything about my life? It'll all be in the book I'm writing. Irving Lazar is my agent for the book. Best there is. Got $150,000 in front. Not too bad, is it? Not too bad, is it? So how could anybody hope to write something if I didn't tell you, which I won't, about what happened between me and Mr. Rickey, or me and Horace Stoneham, or me and Larry MacPhail, or me and Mr. Weil from Cincinnati? They ain't gonna tell you, and neither am I.
"Of course, a writer could make up stuff about me, but he better be careful or I'll drop the weight on him," Durocher said. "A lot of times I get blamed for things I got no control over. Like when Stoneham didn't speak to me for a year. We won the Series in '54, and they gave me a big stag dinner at Hillcrest Country Club. The dais was as long as this clubhouse, and there was $5 million worth of talent up there. You name 'em. George Jessel was M.C., I could start there. Sinatra, Dean Martin, Hope, Burns, Danny Kaye, Danny Thomas. Name all the big stars in Hollywood, they were there. They ribbed me pretty good. Ribbed me pretty good. Now you and I both know Horace Stoneham takes a drink here and there, mostly there. So Danny Kaye got up with his shirttail out and said something to make it sound like Horace. Christ, I didn't know Danny was gonna do that. But Horace wouldn't speak to me afterward. How could I stop Danny Kaye? He's one of my closest friends.
"I've known Francis Sinatra since he was a kid working at the Rustic Cabin in Jersey. Him and Jackie Gleason got a sandwich, cup of coffee and $2 a night. Francis is one of my very closest friends. Very closest. This park could be filled with 60,000 people and I could have done something you and I and everybody else knows is wrong, and Francis would walk up beside me and say, 'He's right.' Loyalty, that's what makes a friend...not some guy who'll pat you on the back when you're on top."
Durocher lives in the off-season in Palm Springs, just off Frank Sinatra Drive, with his wife Lynn and her three children. They have a lot of art around the house, including a Chagall. One evening last winter Durocher played cards with Sinatra at Tamarisk after a golf game, and then got into his electric cart to drive home in the desert's sudden dark. "I know where every palm tree on the course is," Durocher said back in his office in the Astrodome. He stood up and began stripping off his uniform. He is in exceptional condition for a man his age. Durocher is 5'10" and keeps his weight at around 170 by going on an occasional diet in which he eats nothing but steak. "I know where every palm tree on the course is. So, wham, I run head on into a big one and break three ribs."
Durocher laughed and mentioned that he and Sinatra are often faced with violence when either of them goes to a restaurant or a nightclub. Sinatra travels with bodyguards. If he can, Durocher uses his mouth and sometimes his friends for protection. "There's always some guy following me into the men's room and saying, 'You're Leo Durocher, you pop off all the time, you think you're a big shot.' I talk real polite and nice and just try to get out. I don't want no beef with anybody. Two years ago in Palm Springs I had dinner at Sinatra's and went over to Jilly's later to meet Francis and the boys. Half a dozen of my players were in there—Santo and Pepitone and some others—so I sat down with Hank Aguirre. It was real crowded and some stranger, a big guy, hit me a shot for no reason. Well, Chuck Connors, he's a close personal friend of mine, he come right over that table without touching it and got the guy by the neck and bent him over the bar and said, 'That's Leo Durocher you hit, you'll be lucky to get out of here alive.' So the guy run off, and I didn't do anything. But if there'd been a newspaperman there, they'd have reported Durocher is in a brawl again."
Durocher walked toward the shower. From his neck swung a gold chain with a gold St. Christopher's medal on it. On the back side of the medal it said NO PENICILLIN.
Tommy Helms, the Astro second baseman, put his cards down on the table in the visitors' clubhouse in San Diego and said, "Gin."
Durocher flipped through the remaining cards in the pile. "You dummy, you never pick up a bad hand, do you?" he said. "You fall right into every card. Pure dummy luck. Two more cards and I get what I'm waiting on, and wham!"
Ferguson Jenkins, the Chicago Cub pitcher, said in his book that if Durocher drops you from the card game and stops calling you dummy, he has dropped you for good. Jenkins said Durocher would play cards for months with some guy and one day ignore him from then on. He said part of the trouble Durocher had with the Cubs came from those card games.
As Durocher tells it, playing cards had nothing to do with his troubles with the Cubs. He quit as manager in the middle of last season because the team wasn't doing as well as he thought it should. As usual, Durocher had a tempestuous time of it during his six and a half years in Chicago. To begin with, the Cubs had finished eighth the year before Leo came in, and he immediately made his famous statement: "This is not an eighth-place ball club." So the Cubs finished 10th the first season under Durocher.
But the Cubs were never lower than third again while he was there. That sounds like a pretty good record, but Durocher still got on the wrong side of most of the Chicago press and many of the players. The way some of the Chicago press and TV people talk about Durocher even today, you might think he had singlehandedly fouled Lake Michigan. In 1969 the Cubs blew a 9½-game lead in August and September and wound up in second place, eight games behind the Mets. The press hit Durocher hard about that. In 1971 there was an incident in the clubhouse when Durocher tore off his uniform and told the team he was quitting, supposedly while Santo (according to Jenkins) was being restrained from punching him. The next year, in July, Durocher finally did go to Phil Wrigley and resign.
Then Leo was in bed one night in his 11-room penthouse apartment in Chicago, and the phone rang. Durocher had figured he was through with baseball. He had planned a trip around the world with his wife, and they'd just finished their shots. But he says he could sense that this phone call might change everything. On the line was Spec Richardson, general manager of the Astros.
Spec asked if Leo would like a job. "You've already got a manager," Durocher replied. Spec said no, Harry Walker had just been fired, and could Leo take over the club the next night. After a few more phone calls, including one from Durocher to Phil Wrigley, Durocher agreed to be in Houston in uniform the next day. He hung up at last and looked at Lynn. "Honolulu...Tokyo...Seoul...Bangkok...Singapore...Rome...London...Paris...HOUSTON?" she said.
"Sure. I was surprised when I heard Leo had got the job," Grady Hatton said. He was sitting in the dugout watching the players take batting practice an hour before a game. Hatton is no ordinary coach. He was the Astro manager for two and a half years and later was a vice-president and special scout for the organization. Hatton and Spec Richardson are frequent companions of Judge Roy Hofheinz, the owner, who is now in a wheelchair after a stroke.
"I knew Harry Walker was going," Hatton said. "I'd been in meetings about it. But I never heard Leo's name come up. I thought the trend would be toward a younger manager. I was on a scouting assignment when I heard about Leo. Last October Leo asked me if I'd get back in uniform and help him. I had to resign as vice-president, but the judge says I can come back."
Preston Gomez, also a former big-league manager, runs the team on the field from the third-base coaching box. Hatton stays beside Durocher in the dugout. "I sit right beside Leo. I handle the paper work, the changes in the lineup, keep up with the bullpen. Leo is at an age when he may not think of all those things. When the club's at home, I work with the hitters and the infielders. The coaches go to the Dome at 3:30 in the afternoon to work with players. Leo's not there then, so we tell him what we've done."
For a giddy period earlier in the summer, the Astros climbed into first place. They did it by winning 14 of 17 games while Durocher was in the hospital with an infected colon (Leo says it was the celebrated Dr. Michael DeBakey who cured him). "The players went on a rampage," Hatton said. "We could hardly do anything wrong. In one game we had so many injuries that we had to let the pitcher, Jim Ray, hit in a crucial situation. We told him to strike out if he could, anything but hit into a double play. He said that was the first time he'd ever had both teams pulling against him at once. So wouldn't you know it, he got a base hit and won the game."
Spec Richardson remembers sitting down on the night he fired Harry Walker and writing five or six names on a piece of paper. One of the names was Leo Durocher's. Without conferring with anyone. Spec says he phoned Durocher and offered him the job. "Leo's age didn't bother me," Spec says. "I thought our club ought to be doing better, and Leo might fire 'em up."
"I wouldn't have taken the job if it had been some team like Texas or San Diego," Durocher said. He was walking toward the locker room at Candlestick Park wearing a three-shades-of-purple outfit with a turtleneck over a sweater. "Houston has the nucleus of a top ball club. I couldn't spend years trying to build a team.
"I'll tell you, the players make the manager. A good manager can win six, seven, eight games in a season. All big-league managers are different, but we all know the game. No manager is smarter than I am, and I'm no smarter than any of the others. I may gamble where another manager is conservative. But a manager has got to have the right guy on the field to get the job done, no matter what his philosophy is."
Durocher signed some autographs, the papers flapping in the cool, windy afternoon. "So a manager likes to know people have confidence in him. Like what happened to me in the middle of 1948. I was managing Brooklyn. I went in to Mr. Rickey and said, "I want to ask you two questions. The first is, am I still the manager?' He said yes, I was. The second question, then,' I said, 'is will I be the manager at the end of the season?' Mr. Rickey turned and looked out the window. Well, it was nine o'clock at night and pitch dark outside. That's when I told Mr. Rickey to give me the phone, and I called Horace Stoneham and became manager of the Giants."
Durocher was pulling on his road uniform with the No. 2 on the back. Players wandered through the locker room. One player had just been telling how the house doctor in a certain city refuses to enter the visiting locker room when Durocher is in town. "Leo could never be a general manager because he always had too many enemies," the player said.
"I don't think I've mellowed any," Durocher said a few minutes later. "You might call it mellowed in a sense, because you can't manage like you did years ago. Players are more sensitive, got more freedom, got a union, make big money. If I holler at a $200,000 bonus kid, and he packs and goes home, it's me the owner is gonna come down on.
"When you lost a game under old John McGraw, you didn't dare untie a shoelace until he left the clubhouse. He would be dressed in street clothes, and he'd roll up his sleeves and wash his hands and arms like a doctor. Do it several times. Maybe for hours. And you'd sit there and not dare move until he was gone. Now if you want to tell a young kid something, you've got to take him into the office, shut the door and explain it to him. There's not as many good ballplayers now, either, because kids can play golf or tennis, things not many kids could do in the olden days. But, hell, it's baseball. It's been my life."
Durocher tugged on the bill of his cap and glanced at himself in the mirror. "I've never wanted to do anything else," he said. "Politics, show business, big business, none of that stuff. Baseball's it for me. It's been my life."