Did you know that beneath the fiery exterior Leo Durocher presents to the world there beats a heart of mush? I confess that I didn't, but after reading his autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last ( Simon and Schuster, $9.95), written in collaboration with the ubiquitous Ed Linn, I'm convinced of it.
Everyone knows what a tough guy Durocher is. The very phrase, "Nice guys finish last," got him into Barllett's as the personification of hard-boiled nastiness. His nearly five decades in and out of big-league baseball seemed to confirm the image: fights, suspensions, umpire baiting, nocturnal misadventures, expletives undeleted. For anyone who followed baseball between the late '20s and the early '70s, the mere mention of his name conjures up an image of nonstop combativeness.
Now it appears that we will have to do some conjuring of a different order, for the Leo Durocher whom we meet in Nice Guys Finish Last oozes the milk of human kindness. He is, for example, a man bound to hearth and home: "I am a very domestic person at heart. I am never happier than when I have the warmth of a family around me." He is also an inspirational leader: "...I stepped back down and waited for the players to come in. 'Fellows,' I said, 'you've done just a hell of a job all year long. I'm proud of every one of you. We've got three whacks at them, boys! It's not over yet. Let's go out there and give them all we got, and let's leave this ball field, win or lose, with our heads in the air.'
"The players responded, all as one, in a chorus of yells! 'Yeah, they still got to get us out. They haven't got us out yet.' And the last thing I heard as I was going up the stairs was Eddie Stanky yelling, 'Let's win it for Leo.' "
If that doesn't get you right in the old ticker, consider what a loyal friend Durocher is. Sidney Weil, onetime owner of the Reds, is called by Leo "the nicest, kindest man I have ever known." Branch Rickey was "the great man in my life." Ed Barrow of the Yankees was "the best friend I had in baseball." Phil Wrigley "is simply the finest man to work for in the world." And as for Frank Sinatra, well, words simply fail Durocher: "I guess you could say Frank is the average guy who nearly died at birth and continues to spend the rest of his life trying to pay rent for his spot on earth and chipping in for a lot of others. He saw his dream early in life and followed it until he landed in the pot at the end of his rainbow."
And so it goes, for 448 sanctimonious pages. To be sure, there's a lapse here and there, such as his repeated references to "colored" ballplayers or his description of Willie Mays as "some kind of boy" or his attempt to fob off his own failure as manager of the Cubs on Ron Santo and Ernie Banks—but those are only lapses. The real Leo Durocher, the dandy little manager with the solid-gold heart, shines through.
Curiously enough, if you can put up with all the glop, Nice Guys Finish Last is entertaining reading. It's the Durocher version, of course, and upon occasion his interpretation of events is open to question; but the man has been through a lot of baseball and a lot of excitement, and he has a lot of good stories to tell. Between sniffles, that is.