Leo Durocher is not in the Hall of Fame. That should surprise you. It surprises me every time that I think about it. I thought about it last week, on the day Billy Williams, Catfish Hunter and Ray Dandridge were inducted into the Hall in Cooperstown. The next day happened to be Durocher's 82nd birthday.
Here are some snapshots for the display case that should be in Cooperstown: a young Durocher with Babe Ruth, a teammate on the '27 Yankees; Gas House Gang captain Durocher with Dizzy and Daffy Dean; Dodger manager Durocher mobbed at Grand Central Station after bringing Brooklyn its first pennant in 21 years; Durocher alongside his rookie first baseman, Jackie Robinson; Giants manager Durocher trying to make his way through the mob around Bobby Thomson; Leo the Lip and the Say Hey Kid; Durocher agonizing over a loss by his '69 Cubs.
Ruth called Durocher the All-American Out, but no less an authority than Red Barber said he was the best shortstop of his era. As a manager, Durocher had genius, taking the Dodgers and the Giants (twice) into the World Series and transforming the Cubs into winners. He has managed more games than all but five men—Connie Mack, John McGraw, Bucky Harris, Casey Stengel and Gene Mauch—and four of them are in the Hall of Fame, as are Walter Alston, who is seventh on the all-time list, and Wilbert Robinson, who is 15th. None of them married a movie star. None of them said, "Nice guys finish last." Of course, none of them was suspended from baseball for a year, as Durocher was in 1947 for "conduct unbecoming a big league manager." Durocher made a few enemies along the way, but time should have healed those wounds. Yet, each March, the veterans committee pretends he never existed.
It also makes no sense that Roger Maris hasn't made Cooperstown. As I recall, the man did hit 61 homers, won back-to-back MVP awards and played the game with grace as well as power. The knock against Maris has always been that he couldn't sustain his high level of achievement. Well, he had three outstanding seasons and some other pretty good ones in his 12-year career. Sandy Koufax had three outstanding seasons and some pretty good ones in his 12-year career, and he was a Hall of Fame shoo-in. Sixty-one home runs is one of baseball's most hallowed records, but it's as if the asterisk that Ford Frick hung on Maris is still there. In last year's voting by the Baseball Writers of America, Maris was named on 177 of 425 ballots, far short of the 319 needed for election.
It is, after all, the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Cronies, not the Hall of Good Players with Long Careers. There are too many plaques as it is, but why Durocher and Maris don't have them is beyond me.
Most of the voters take the job seriously, though a few haven't seen a live game since Hector Lopez was in knee pants, and a few don't have a clue what the Hall is about. How else can you explain the two votes for Ray Sadecki in 1983? Or the 11 not cast for Babe Ruth in 1936.
The Hall's very first class, in '36, as voted by the writers, was indeed one of fame: Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson. But the very next year, the Centennial Commission selected Morgan Bulkeley for the Hall, and now the level is down to Candy Cummings, Rabbit Maranville, Rick Ferrell, Ross Youngs and Don Drysdale.
Personally, I swing from both sides on the issue. There are times when I feel as curmudgeonly as Scrooge and say, "Bah, humbug, throw out the riffraff, like Elmer Flick and George Kelly." There are other times when I feel as generous as Bob Barker on The Price Is Right. They put Bobby Doerr in the Hall of Fame. Well, come on down, Red Schoendienst and Bill Mazeroski. Pee Wee Reese is in, so come on down, Phil Rizzuto and Maury Wills.
But even in my most Scrooge-like moments, I would never deny Durocher and Maris. Here's Pete Rose, whom nobody is going to deny, on Leo: "Why isn't he in the Hall? He was a great manager, as everybody knows—fiery, a battler. What did he do, snub the reporters? He belongs. Period." Perhaps the veterans committee is afraid that if Durocher is selected, it would eventually lead to...come on down, Billy Martin.
Baseball keeps trotting out Durocher for Old-Timers' games, yet it keeps him away from Cooperstown. A couple of months ago the New York Daily News ran a story previewing a game that would include appearances by Hall of Famers Billy Herman, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider and Willie Mays. The headline: LEO BACK TO PILOT DODGERS.