PART I: BRIDGE TO YESTERDAY
He came up fighting, scrapping, spending, living it up; more than any other modern ballplayer, Durocher upholds the flying-spike tradition of Ty Cobb
Ever since he popped up and off as one of the freshest bushers on record, with the World's Champion New York Yankees in the spring of 1928, Leo Ernest Durocher, manager of the World's Champion New York Giants in the spring of 1955, has been baseball's most persistent and perplexing problem child. From the Yankee Stadium to the Polo Grounds is hardly more than a stone's throw across the Harlem River—Durocher's famous gravel voice almost carries across on a clear and sonic day—but in the 20-odd years since he has moved from one park to the other the man who many think has become the best field manager in the game has traveled a long and perilous path of alternate failure and success.
Durocher has been his own worst enemy—except for the players involved in the dismal Black Sox scandal of 1919, no one has come so close to having his career permanently and dishonorably ended. Yet some of his best friends have been baseball's biggest men, such as Branch Rickey, who have fathered and protected him through constant crises. A gambler all his life, cleaning up or going to the cleaners, Durocher, as one Giant official recently put it, "was born with a pair of dice in his hands, and every roll has always had to be seven." Winning at whatever he does has been his only true religion. Alternately jeered and cheered, he has won three pennants, had three wives, hates umpires, loves children and, in his 51st year, having reached his supreme professional goal, is still as unpredictable as he is full of almost agonizing enthusiasm and energy.
In some respects Durocher has become the incarnation of baseball itself. No man better bridges the gap between the era of flashing spikes, personified by the great Ty Cobb, who once threatened to tear the young Durocher limb from limb, and the far more genteel mood of today, when rookies are lured with bonuses and treated with kid gloves and fond persuasion. The progression of nicknames and descriptions of Durocher over a quarter of a century—from Lippy, Sharpie and the Gassiest of the Gashousers, to the Dandy Little Manager, Lovable Leo and the Little Shepherd of Coogan's Bluff—is a significant catalogue that reveals as much, if not more, about the change in the game as it does about the change in the man. While the latter may still be more apparent than real, and while Durocher, in moments of eruption, will chameleonically assume his earlier harsh colors, he has learned how to count 10 (or at least five) before blowing up. Nowadays, although he can still deal fulsomely in four-letter expletives, he has been heard to exclaim, in a fit of tempered pique, "Goodness gracious....!"
Simply because Durocher has been so many things to so many men (and women), and so many different things to himself as well, there have been more arguments about him than about any other player or manager in modern baseball, and they will undoubtedly continue until he hangs up his spikes. In his many manifestations Durocher has been a pool player, card shark, fashion plate, Lothario, Hollywood celebrity, TV star, topflight golfer, doting father and above all, of course, shortstop and manager. In spite of his current success and new aspect of maturity, he has been in trouble so often that even his best friends will agree with Branch Rickey that "Leo will never be out of the woods." Rickey, who retains the greatest respect and admiration for Durocher although his faith in him at times has been oddly demonstrated, recently remarked, not without a note of paternal sadness, "Leo has the most fertile talent in the world for making a bad situation infinitely worse." Contrariwise, both in baseball and, it would now seem, in his private life as well, Durocher can also improve on a bad situation with a marvelous combination of zeal and wit and charm. "Leo is the kind of manager who can take a fifth-place team and finish last with it," one of his admiring competitors says. "But, more importantly, he can take a team that ought to finish third and bring it in first."
Since this sort of pattern has marked his whole career, 1955 promises to be no exception for Durocher. Last year he could do nothing wrong: all the dice he threw were lucky. This year he already has his hands full with the Dodgers off to their incredible start, and the rest of the league, notably the Milwaukee Braves, strengthened. If the Dodgers are now favored for the pennant, however, that's just the kind of situation Durocher loves. His greatest thrill last year, he says, was watching the way New York slapped Brooklyn down every time the Dodgers threatened to take over the league lead. It seems doubtful, even if he loses, that Durocher will repeat his miserable personal performance of 1953, when his snarling pouts over the Giants' collapse would have cost him his job had not spates of angry press criticism led Horace Stoneham. the New York owner, to give him a new two-year contract in a sudden gesture of defiance. But one can never tell in advance how Durocher will behave under pressure, and up for reappraisal this summer, in what will undoubtedly become a tense race, will be the perennial question—how much has he really changed? [One early-season flurry has already taken place. In Brooklyn, late in April, with the Giants off to a bad start, Durocher kept reporters out of the dressing room and the next day refused to announce his lineup until the game started.]
THE SMOLDERING PAST
Admittedly, though, he has mellowed as he has grown older. Above all, he is happy professionally and happy in his home life with Laraine Day, a girl who complements him in a remarkable way; as shy and introverted as he is bold and extroverted, she is equally ambitious and shrewder in many respects. Their two adopted children are, along with Willie Mays, the pride and joy of Leo's life. But Durocher would not be Durocher if all the old rough-and-tumble in him, and some deeply ingrained personal habits, had simply been washed away. The past smolders in him like a dormant volcano. It has shaped him violently, and if he has become something of a Horatio Alger character, on the crest of a rags-to-riches ride that has surely altered if it hasn't altogether reformed him, it's a little as if the script had been written by Mickey Spillane.
One thing is certain—Durocher, who has always striven desperately for them, now has both prestige and money. He has also learned, with his wife's help, to hang on to his cash instead of throwing it away as he once did, and he won't easily back down from his twin peaks of status and affluence. He has said that he wants to stay with the Giants as long as they want him, maybe for the rest of his active life (he used to say the same thing about Brooklyn when he was manager over there), but if he does quit or comes another cropper he has made sure that continued glamour and wealth will be his. If there's one other place in which Durocher is at home outside a baseball park, it's in the bright sun and the purple neon glare of Hollywood, where he now lives and spends most of the off season. Graciously conducting the writer on a tour of his $260,000 house in Beverly Hills not long ago—a 16-room modern, ranchlike structure stocked with 10 television sets—he spoke uninhibitedly of a likely future there as a businessman and/or TV entertainer, with plenty of time left over for golf, if and when he leaves baseball. Throwing on the lights across the driveway at dusk, he swept his hand proudly over his domain.
"It's a long way from West Springfield, isn't it, Leo?" I commented.