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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.
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.