BAD DAY FOR LEO
The big city took rapid hold on him, and he on it. Broadway especially drew him, and he became part of the Damon Runyon set. His Yankee uniform was his pass as he moved on the temporary cuff, seldom drinking but always yapping. He had appeared in only 10 games at the Stadium when, on June 23rd, 1928, the ill-conceived idea of throwing a " Leo Durocher Day" was concocted by some of his new-found friends. The Yanks lost a doubleheader to the Red Sox that afternoon, and Leo didn't even play an inning. That didn't faze him. His increasing subsequent appearances as a stop-gap in the creaking lineup had as much as anything else to do with the Yankees' retaining the pennant.
The following season he dropped to .246 but fielded .958. It was to prove his last with the Yanks. There are various explanations of his abrupt departure from New York and from the American League. Old-time Yankees say it was simply because of Leo's' 'companions," by which they mean his gay and sometimes questionable Broadway pals, including a motley array of hangers-on at certain billiard parlors where Leo had resumed his old Springfield habit of taking on all comers and outcueing—also outpocketing—such men of championship caliber as Marcel Camp. He even got himself invited to play in the World's Pocket Billiard Championship. At one point, checking up on his multifarious outside activities, the Yankees assigned a private detective to follow Durocher. Not much was found out that Leo hadn't already bragged about.
FAREWELL TO THE YANKEES
There were other factors. His performance afield continued to be superb, but so much so that some of the tottering veterans resented it more and more. A conspiracy of sorts developed, calculated to embarrass Leo on the field. Durocher began finding fellow infielders hopping and curving balls to him on simple plays. Huggins was aware of what was happening, and he swore at the others and by Leo, threatening to rebuild his aging team around Gehrig, Dickey and Durocher. Durocher thought he was safe enough no matter what the others thought of him, but then Huggins suddenly died and he knew, just as surely, that he was through. He came to the parting of the ways with Ed Barrow in a postseason salary wrangle, during which, employing his customary shrill invective, he told the sedate but tough Yankee boss what to do with a renewed offer of $6,500 a year and demanded $8,500, citing not only his good play but his bad debts. Barrow made up his mind right then that Leo would have to go.
A short time later, Dan Howley, manager of the Cincinnati Reds in the National League, who had been a good friend of Huggins', told his owner-boss, Sidney Weil, that he thought Durocher could be bought. Weil went to see Barrow, who demanded $25,000. "I started to walk out, figuring I'd been thrown out of better places," Weil recalls. "Then Barrow told me to sit down. In 10 minutes I had bought Durocher for the waiver price ($7,500) and a minor league player."
The fact that Leo was waived out of the league by seven other clubs was undoubtedly the result of his unsavory reputation, although Connie Mack was later said to have been miffed at the way the waivers went through and to have been willing to pay as much as $30,000 to bring Durocher to the Athletics. At any rate, Leo had undergone his first major league crisis. There are those who still maintain he was lucky, under the circumstances, to have survived it.
The question of Leo Durocher's luck can be, and has been, widely debated. One recent afternoon down south, that venerable and knowledgeable observer of the baseball scene, Branch Rickey (SI, March 7), was considering the question. Being a self-made man himself, Rickey was inclined to play luck down. "Leo is an organized fellow," he said. "Now, anyway. But it was always there, potentially, his capacity for self-organization. He's where he is because of destiny. Good fortune and Leo came together. Luck is what's left over, the residue of design. He's prepared by reflex to grab luck when he sees it. He's got a genius for handling it."
Rickey, who was among the most fortunate things that ever befell Durocher, was perhaps leaning over backwards. Durocher's abilities undoubtedly include a highly facile and quick mind to match his fast hands, but in the spring of 1930, three years before Rickey himself undertook his famous reclamation project, Leo Durocher was a young man whose whole baseball future was in doubt. Certainly the element of luck was also present when, like a cat falling on its feet, he came under the protective wing at this moment of Weil, a close friend of Rickey's and widely regarded as one of the finest men ever to have been in baseball—one whose own bad luck, in the aftermath of the depression, cost him the ownership of his ball club.
Had it not been for Weil's patience, kindness and tolerance, Durocher might not have played a single game in 1930. No sooner had he made his deal to bring Leo to the lowly Reds, who were floundering around in the National League cellar, than Weil began receiving bills Durocher had left unpaid in New York. They poured in from everywhere—hotels, haberdasheries and night clubs—and his total indebtedness came to about $20,000. Weil went down to Orlando, Florida, where the Reds were training, and called Leo into his room. "I made a deal with him that I'd keep all his money and give him just enough to get along on, considerably less than $100 a week," Weil recalls. "I told him, T understand you're a smart dresser. You look it. I'm sure you've got enough clothes right now—so don't buy any more.' He promised me not to. Sure enough, three days later I get a bill from a Cincinnati clothing store for $385. I made him send everything back except the sweater he was already wearing."