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His father had an extra motive for moving the family west: Gene had shown great promise as an athlete, and George wanted to give him every chance to play. At 13, the boy was cocky, aggressive and smart, "a hot ticket," as he describes his young self. He was good at all sports and he was student body president of Berendo Junior High School. It was there he met Nina Lee Taylor, a lively girl who was then, and would remain for the rest of her life, pretty as a picture. They became sweethearts and stayed that way. Seven years after they met, in December of 1945, they were married.
Mauch decided to go to Fremont High in L.A., the best baseball school in town. It was outside his district, but he was willing to travel the 40 minutes crosstown on the S streetcar to play with some of the hottest athletes in Southern California. Gene wanted the action. He is as fiercely proud of his alma mater as any Yalie or Notre Dame alum is of his. He can recite the names of virtually every Fremont graduate who has played major league baseball, beginning with his first idol, Bobby Doerr, the brilliant Red Sox second baseman. He played all sports at Fremont and was president of the student council. He was a handsome, well-built youngster, 5'10" and wiry, and the Fremont coeds took notice. But Nina Lee was his girl.
His American Legion team, Sunrise Post of L.A., won the national championship in '42, whipping along the way Stockham Post of St. Louis, sparked by a hard-hitting outfielder named Lawrence Berra, who would be called Yogi. Mauch's nickname was Skippy or, prophetically. Skipper. Eight players from that championship Legion team signed major league contracts, and Mauch was one of them. Branch Rickey signed him up personally for the Dodgers in 1943 and sent him to the Durham, N.C. farm club in the Piedmont League. He was barely 17. His roommate there, at Ma Gregory's rooming house, was an 18-year-old fireballer from Omaha, Rex Barney. "Gene was a smart player even then," recalls Barney, now the Orioles' public address voice. "He was very aggressive and scrappy, a Stanky type. He'd fight at the drop of a hat, but he always had Nina Lee, his girlfriend back home, to calm him down. I remember Mr. Rickey liked him because he had brains and desire."
In 1944 Mauch, at 18, was to be the Dodgers' shortstop. It was a war year, and Pee Wee Reese, the once and future shortstop, was in the Navy. Mauch took the assignment in stride. "Nothing overwhelmed me then. I'd never done anything but good. I had it all figured out. But what did I know?" Working out with manager Leo Durocher in spring training, he fired a double-play ball to Leo, playing second, and broke his right thumb. It seemed an unpromising start. Not at all. "Leo gave me a brand-new tweed topcoat the next day. It was out of gratitude. He didn't want to play anymore, and I gave him the perfect excuse."
Mauch played only five games for the Dodgers that year before being sent to Montreal. He was in the Air Corps in '44 and '45, and for the next 14 years he bounced back and forth between the minors and six major league teams. He was a Stanky type all right, fearless and canny, but he lacked even that prototype's minimal talent.
Typically, Mauch was harder on himself than any manager, other than Mauch, could ever be. Del Crandall, who played with him on the Braves, recalls a furious Mauch snatching up a razor in the clubhouse after a game in which he had stranded five or six base runners. "I didn't know what he was going to do," says Crandall. "Well, he didn't cut his throat, but he did dry-shave. Blood was coming down his cheek, but he kept right on going, mumbling to himself." Mauch may well have been more dangerous with a razor than a bat. In 304 major league games, he averaged .239. But he did not go unnoticed. Billy Southworth, his manager with the Braves in 1950, was the first to tell him he was managerial material. "Just one word of advice, Skip," he told Mauch, "don't ever fall in love with your ballplayers."
Mauch did manage the Atlanta Crackers in the Southern Association in 1953 to a third-place finish, but it was a debilitating, if instructive, experience. He was only 27 and still playing, and he fought with everyone in the league—umpires, opposing players, his own players. The strain was too much. He went from 173 to 153 pounds, and he learned that "you can't tell your players off if they're better than you." When he finally got his chance to manage again, in 1958, he was ready. He took the Triple A Minneapolis Millers to the Junior World Series against the International League champion two years in a row. And in 1960 he finally got his break, if you can call it that, when an old friend from his Braves days, Phillies general manager John Quinn, summoned him to take over for poor Sawyer.
For all of the frustration he has endured, Mauch has had one helluva lot of fun at the helm. With the Phillies he once transposed his first-and third-base coaches, explaining afterward, "Everything was so fouled up I thought I must've had my coaches in the wrong place." Twice he has overturned postgame food tables after tough losses, prompting Baylor to inquire of him on his first day with the Angels, "Will the food be served on the floor?" He has belabored his office door with a fungo bat, challenged Steve Carlton to a fight, been a merciless bench jockey, provoked brawls and baited umps with the worst of them.
If anything, Mauch's posturing and apparently superior attitude may have worked against him. Opposing players have always taken special pleasure in beating his teams. Joe Nuxhall, the old Reds pitcher, once said of Mauch: "I especially like to beat that little so-and-so. Do you see him showboating out there? He isn't even saying anything to the umpires, but he's still standing there. And I don't like the things he says. Who does he think he is?"
Mauch is unmoved by such vituperative outbursts from the opposition. He once knocked a ball out of an opposing catcher's mitt after that player had charged into his dugout to make the catch. He was, it develops, within the rules in doing so. He has made enemies of his players, but most respect him and some love him. Butch Wynegar, his catcher at Minnesota, called Mauch aside after he learned the manager was leaving, to say thanks and goodby. He cried so hard he couldn't utter a word. Mauch was deeply touched. Like all "tough guys," he's terrified of the sentimentality that hums within him like a Gypsy violin. His sister laughingly calls him "mid-Victorian" in his morality. And he would learn a lesson about himself.