Durocher's piercing, pale-blue eyes twinkled, and he grinned. "You can say that again," he shouted. And then, more softly as we shook hands and he walked back in alone, I heard him mutter, "Buster, you can sure say that again..."
West Springfield was the beginning. Durocher was born in that Massachusetts town in July of either 1904 or 1905. No birth certificate is on file in Leo's name. A record of "Charles Joseph Durocher" having been born on July 28th, 1905, is in the town clerk's office. Durocher has three older brothers, Clarence, Armand and Raymond, but there is no Charles Joseph. Baseball players frequently pretend, in the record books, to be younger than they are, and while Leo's birth date is set down in diamond almanacs variously as 1905 or 1906, there is no explanation for the lack of correct information at the source. Certainly, despite his oversize hands at birth, there was no reason to suppose that he was predestined to be a ballplayer. The discrepancy over the date, at any rate, caused a considerable ruckus when Durocher's draft status came up for review during the last war (as it turned out he had a punctured eardrum and was put in 4F).
COURSE IN MARKSMANSHIP
Durocher's father, George, a French Canadian, worked in the yards of the Boston & Albany Railroad, and Leo's mother, Clara, did housework to help support the family. The neighborhood they lived in was a poor but decent workingmen's section near the Connecticut River, sort of "upper lower." Leo's talent as an athlete was soon discernible, but he was too small to join his older brothers and their companions in games. Brashly, he vented his youthful spleen by throwing rocks at the trucks that carried them off to nearby contests on Saturdays and Sundays. He improved his marksmanship by tossing stones at street lamps and beating all the target games at local amusement parks. Pool parlors were next, and when he could hardly see over the rails he was leveling an expert cue across the green-felt tables.
Durocher says he went through grammar school and then began at Springfield Technical High School, but he got into a fight with a male mathematics teacher in his second year, was suspended 30 days and never went back. He was in high school long enough, however, to play some football and basketball as well as baseball and to have two Catholic priests approach him with the lure of an athletic scholarship to Holy Cross. Instead, at the age of 16, Leo found himself working for a machinery firm and then for the Wico Electric Company, where he proved adept at handling machinery. He increased his income measurably by shooting dice along the banks of the Connecticut River and pool at Smith's billiard parlor, where friends would back him for $50 or $100 against visiting suckers and he would receive part of the bag. In his spare time, already showing an early taste for flashy clothes, he went dancing at Springfield's Butterfly Ballroom. He had an easy attraction to women, which usually was reciprocated.
ANOTHER RABBIT ?
Not far from his home, on Old Bridge Street, a semipro ball team sponsored by the Merrick Athletic Association worked out on a crude field and played nearby nines for small sums per man. Durocher kept begging for a chance to prove he could play ball despite his weight and size—another little Springfield man, Rabbit Maranville, like himself a shortstop, had already proved his right to wear a big-time uniform and had become Durocher's hero and example. Finally, when the regular Merrick shortstop hurt a leg, Durocher was given a shot at the job. He was then 17. From the start he was sensational in the field, ranging far to both sides to spear ground balls that seemed impossible to get and then, in the same motion, firing them to the proper base. At the bat, except for an ability to bunt well, he was nothing much, but he managed to draw a lot of walks and he made up in spirit what he lacked in power. Once, when an opposing hurler tried to quick-pitch him on a third strike, Leo threw his bat at the mound. The pitcher never tried it again. Tom Fitzgerald, manager of the Merricks, drew a proper early bead on the youthful Durocher. "The fans were never indifferent about him," he recalls. "Either they loved him or they hated him."
Leo also played for the Wico team in a local industrial league and for the Immaculate Conception Church in the Catholic Junior League. According to Harry Nunn, at the time a railroad foreman who coached baseball on the side, Leo "lived and thought and dreamed and acted baseball. Pretty soon he was playing with every team in the area he could get money from. He started playing for my church team after it had lost its first four games. When I put it up to Leo he admitted that he wanted a shot at the Eastern League. I told him to stay with us for a year and I'd see that he got his chance." By the time Nunn got a promise from Jack O'Hara of the Hartford club to give Durocher a tryout, Leo wasn't so sure he wanted it. Not only was he aware of his batting limitations, but he was earning nearly $60 a week assembling motorcycle batteries at piece rates at Wico. A Negro welder named David Redd who worked alongside him in the factory kept prodding him.
"I told him not to worry about getting a leave," Redd recalls. "You can always get a job," I said, "you're a young fellow, and you're a better ballplayer than all the others around here. You're different." Durocher took Redd's advice and he has always been grateful for it. (He and Redd have remained friends and Redd can take some credit for Durocher's having been, from the outset, one of the staunchest advocates of bringing Negroes into organized baseball. Until last year, when he suddenly was asked to pay for World Series tickets, Redd always got passes from Leo for nothing. But if he ever expected additional rewards, he never got them.)
"I took two weeks' leave from Wico in the spring of 1925 to try out at Hartford," Durocher remembers. "The manager was Paddy O'Connor, a tough man of the old school. I knew I couldn't hit a bull's behind with a paddle, but it wasn't long before everyone was talking about how I could field. When my two weeks were up, nobody said anything to me, though, and I had to lay it on the line to O'Connor myself. I didn't want to lose my job with Wico if I wasn't going to stick, but I was scared as hell to talk to Paddy. Finally I got up enough nerve to go up to his hotel room. He was sitting at a table, smoking a big black cigar. 'How does it look, Mr. O'Connor?' I said. All he did was grunt and growl. That scared me even more. I got out of there and took off for home."