A few days later, the afternoon before the season started, the regular Hartford shortstop got hurt, and early the following morning Durocher's sponsor, O'Hara, appeared at the Wico factory gate. He virtually shanghaied Leo and drove him hurriedly to New Haven, where Hartford was scheduled to open. They made it just at game time. "I remember I dressed in the car, behind the stands," Leo says. "There was skin on the field, no grass, but I handled eight chances without an error and I also got two hits. I was flying."
"HE'S GOT MOXIE"
One of the great baseball scouts, Paul Krichell of the New York Yankees, had been tipped off about Durocher and had seen him play some semipro ball. Krichell had been impressed by the glove work, but Leo's hitting had given him pause. "I could have had him for nothing if I had had enough guts," he mused, not long ago. "Instead he cost us $7,500." At that, Durocher seemed something less than a sure-fire bet to hit the majors. He played 151 games for Hartford in 1925, fielded .933 but batted only .220. Krichell nevertheless became convinced that the young man was so good in the field that he would make the grade, and the current great Yankees of Ruth, Gehrig, Combs, Meusel & Co. were scarcely in need of another slugger. Still, when Krichell telephoned the late Ed Barrow, the Yankees' general manager, and told him to buy Durocher, Barrow snorted. "Durocher!" he said. "He's hardly hitting his weight." Krichell was adamant. "He'll be great," he said. "He's got moxie." Barrow gave in.
Durocher got into two games as a pinch-hitter late in 1925 for the Yanks (he went 0 for 1). In 1926, optioned to Atlanta in the Southern Association, he fielded .937 and hit .238 in 130 games. The following season he stepped up to St. Paul in the American Association, where he fielded .946 and hit a respectable .253 in 171 contests. Krichell's prediction—that his hitting would at least justify his genius with a glove—began to seem true, and in the spring of 1928, Leo was back with the Yanks. It might have been for good, but it wasn't; in more ways than one, he was to prove a sensation.
No louder rasping voice had ever grated out of a raw rookie's mouth than Durocher's from the first day of spring training on. Just who tagged him Lippy is not clear, but it was the perfect nickname. With yellow-reddish hair, blond eyelashes and fleshy, muscular features that included a large nose and a strong jaw, he looped through the league chattering like a fresh young monkey in the jungle. His jockeying of rival players, managers and umpires from the outset demonstrated a remarkable, animal-like ability to ferret out someone else's weaknesses or foibles; and the bigger they were and the tougher, the quicker Durocher went after them.
It wasn't long before he tangled with the great Cobb, who at 41, coming down the stretch of his tremendous career, was in no mood to be dealt with by a brash busher. One day, shortly after the season opened, Cobb was on first and Tris Speaker was at bat. Playing second for the injured Tony Lazzeri, Durocher gave Cobb a hip as Ty spun around second just in front of a low liner. Leo picked the ball up and threw him out at third. When the inning was over, Cobb threatened to step on his face if he ever tried the same stunt again. Leo taunted him back, told him he should settle for an armchair and threatened, in turn, to stuff the next ball he got down Cobb's throat. Back on the bench, fellow Yankees egged Durocher on, told him to call Cobb, known for his careful spending habits, a penny pincher. Leo harped on that in the following weeks. One afternoon the exacerbated Cobb waited for him below the stands after the game. Babe Ruth happened along just as Cobb was about to jump on Durocher. "What the hell you gonna do, hit a kid?" the Babe gruffly demanded. Durocher didn't wait. He recollects that "whether I ran or flew, I don't know, but I got the hell out of there as fast as I could."
George Moriarty, then managing the Detroit Tigers, was another powerful and angry man who became a Durocher target, as did Bob (Fatty) Fothergill, a rotund and uneven-tempered Tiger outfielder. Leo taunted Moriarty, coaching at third, so fiercely one day that Moriarty threw a ball at him from 10 yards away with all the speed he could muster. Spearing it with his bare hand, Durocher rammed it back, hitting Moriarty painfully on the shins. Then he laughingly danced away. On another occasion, toward the end of a game with the Tigers when it was growing dark, Durocher suddenly raced in from second when Fothergill was at bat, shouting "Time!" at the top of his voice. The umpires demanded what he wanted. Leo claimed the hitter was batting out of turn. Lineup cards were quickly examined, and he was told that Fothergill was properly at the plate. "Fothergill!" Durocher shouted, slapping his brow. "I thought it was two other guys up there!" Fothergill was so mad he struck out with a man on base, and the Yanks went on to win.
When he had first appeared at the Yankee training camp in St. Petersburg, only little Miller Huggins, the astute manager, suspected that the fresh youngster would be playing considerable baseball for New York that year. In popular estimation, the great '27 team seemed intact. It had just zoomed to the pennant and then whipped the Pittsburgh Pirates in four straight World Series games. But Hug-gins knew better. He knew, for example, that Lazzeri at second was ailing and unable to play every day, and that Koenig's eyes were slowing him up. Even Hug, however, who became the first of several of Durocher's sponsors and protectors in the big leagues, scarcely would have guessed that Leo would play as many as 102 games in 1928, alternating at short and second. Certainly no one on the Yankees, let alone Koenig and Lazzeri, would have admitted it in advance. The kid's tongue-wagging, which found its mark in the locker room as well as on the field, had at first amused and then annoyed the old-timers. In self-defense they began calling him the "All-America Out." Leo played along with the barbs. When Huggins toyed with the idea of making him a switch hitter, he quipped that he'd then hit .400—.200 each way. He seemed able to meet a fast ball fairly well, but curves were his weakness. Another Yankee made it more inclusive. "His weakness," he said, "is a bat on his shoulder."
Nevertheless, Durocher managed to hit a surprising .270 that first year, while he fielded .945. His brashness, however, wore everyone down. He was only earning $6,500, but he dressed and acted as if he were making Ruth's salary and deserved it. Before long he owed everyone money; on one occasion, having passed a series of checks that bounced in a stationery store across from the Yankee Stadium, the owner of the store, after failing to reach Leo, decorated his window with the evidence of Durocher's insolvency. So Leo borrowed from someone else to pay the man off.
"Leo never reckoned the cost," one of his first friends in New York, Harry Lewine, now a prosperous fur buyer, says. "If he was down to his last $1.50 and had a choice between having his pants pressed and a meal, he'd have his pants pressed."