In his 50 years in
baseball Leo Durocher came to represent a way of life at least as American as
apple pie and quite a bit crustier. He was the apostle of high spikes,
knockdown pitches, taunting lingo. Rules were for stretching, umpires were for
baiting. Durocher was 20 when he played his first major league games, for the
Yankees. He was an adept shortstop, but, said teammate Babe Ruth, the
"All-American Out" at bat. Subsequently he took his glove to
Cincinnati, St. Louis and Brooklyn. Best known as manager of the Dodgers of
MacPhail and Rickey and the Giants of Thomson and Mays, he had an affinity for
hot water (he was suspended for the 1947 season). As skipper of the Cubs and,
lastly, the Astros, he viewed a new breed of ballplayer with increasing ire.
"Nice guys finish last," although a misquotation, suited him well.
"I come to kill you" was the authentic Durocher credo in the ball park.
Now he has put the entire career into a book, and this article is the first of
a series excerpted from it.
In some of the
voting I have seen on the greatest teams of all time, the 1927 Yankees have
been ranked first and the 1934 Cardinals second. Which shows what the passage
of time can do. In sheer talent, those Cardinals weren't in the same class with
a dozen teams I could name. We were a one-shot champion, and they were saying
that we weren't even the best team in the league that year. To win the pennant
we had to win 20 of our last 25 games, and even then the Giants had to lose
their final two games to a second-division team. I can tell you one thing,
though—we may not have been the greatest, but there were 23 players on that
team who thought we were.
The best thing we
had going for us, as far as posterity is concerned, was our name, the Gas House
Gang. It gave us an identity, it gave us a personality, and in both cases it
was an accurate one. You say those words and you think of Dizzy Dean and Paul
Dean and Pepper Martin and Joe Medwick and Frankie Frisch, the playing manager,
and Rip Collins and Bill DeLancey, and by the way let us not forget the captain
and shortstop, Leo Durocher.
I remember so
clearly the doubleheader we played in the Polo Grounds late in the season. We
were still 5� games behind the Giants with 16 games to go, but we had been
coming on strong. We had been unbeatable on the whole trip through the East,
and the place was jam-packed. Ballplayers are a superstitious breed, and while
you are winning you'd murder anybody who tried to change your sweat shirt, let
alone your uniform.
To complete the
picture, we had played on a couple of wet fields during the road trip and so
our uniforms were not only dirty, they were caked with dry mud. Pepper Martin
and Frankie Frisch were already being called our "diving seals." They
would put on a double steal, and just as Martin, who made the head-first slide
famous, would be diving into third base, Frisch, who had been quick to copy it,
would be diving into second. DeLancey and Medwick would dive half the time, and
so would Jack Rothrock and Ernie Orsatti, our other outfielders besides
Medwick. By the time we got to New York the uniforms were so filthy that we
could have thrown them in the corner and they'd have stood up by themselves.
The bills of our caps were all bent and creased and twisted. We looked
horrible, we knew it and we gloried in it.
We swept the
doubleheader at the Polo Grounds to stay alive, and I believe it was the next
day that I saw a cartoon by Willard Mullin in the New York World-Telegram. It
showed two big gas tanks on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, and some
ballplayers crossing over to the good part of town carrying clubs over their
shoulders instead of bats. The caption read: THE GAS HOUSE GANG.
Whether it was
Mullin who coined the name for us with that cartoon, I can't say for sure; all
I know is that it was the first time I ever saw it. And I just loved it.
I think people of
a certain age remember the Gas House Gang so fondly because we typified what
big-league baseball was in those days. It was a rough-and-tumble
no-holds-barred game played predominantly by farm boys. Generally unschooled,
generally unspoiled, generally unsophisticated. Right off the farm or down from
the hills. Today the battle cry is, "This is my office; this is where I
work. I've got a private life and interests off the field." In the olden
days they had only one interest, and that was baseball.
The philosophy on
the field was totally different than it is today. Baseball was a form of
warfare played under a set of rules that were not necessarily drawn up by the
league officials and certainly not by the Marquess of Queensberry. Today, a
pitcher gets fined if the umpire thinks he threw at a batter. In those days the
umpire didn't have to take any courses in mind reading. The pitcher told you he
was going to throw at you.
special hatred was the batter who dug a hole for his back foot as he stepped
into the box. Diz would just stand there nodding his head until he was finished
and then he'd yell, "You all done? You comfortable? Well, send for the
groundkeeper and get a shovel because that's where they're gonna bury you."
And—boom—down he'd go.