The book: “Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son”
The author: By Paul Dickson
The vital statistics: Bloomsbury USA, 368 pages, $28, released March 21
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Barnes and Noble, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com, at the publisher’s website and at the writers’ website
The pitch: By all accounts, fair or foul, Leo Durocher was baseball’s beast of burden.
As a player, manager, a player-manager, a Hollywood wannabe and general sweet-and-sour pain in the horse’s ass.
With apologies to Mr. Ed.
It basically says so on his Hall of Fame plaque with the first two word that refer to him as “colorful” and “controversial.”
And that’s just finding a label for him as a manager, primarily for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s — minus the year of Jackie Robinson’s debut season of ’47 because, ahem, Durocher was serving a suspension. Which gave him time to pen his own ghostwritten book.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Everything you think you know about Durocher — and if you’re connecting historical dots, it’s not a stretch to put him and Pete Rose in the same sort of baseball social hardnose-to-a-fault category — the esteemed author Paul Dickson gives you so much more, the book is worth reading twice just to see what you may have missed the first time.
Like the story about what happened in January, 1976, as Durocher was recovering from heart surgery and a couple years removed from his last big-league managing job in Houston. He had burned so many bridges that any time he was offered a front-office position with a team, there was some hitch involved with who he would have to work with, it usually didn’t happen.
But somehow, a team from the Japanese Pacific League announced it had hired him to manage its squad, a six-figure deal that would make him the highest-paid skipper in the world.
“A disdainful Vin Scully said of the move, ‘It took the U.S. 35 years to get revenge for Pearl Harbor’,” Dickson notes on page 291.
After Durocher died at his Palm Springs home in 1993, still not elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame because he could never muster enough support from those who still held a grudge, L.A. Daily News columnist Joe Jares wrote at Durocher’s funeral at Forest Lawn in the Hollywood Hills that as Durocher’s casket was lowered into the ground, it was “where all of us finish, nice guys and Durochers alike.”
Dickson makes note of that on page 306, since Jares had made a skillful play off the quote most attributed to Durocher, that nice guys finished last.
A kid who followed the Dodgers in the 1960s would have gotten a whole different image of “Leo The Lip.” He was the Dodgers coach – apparently, because manager Walter Alston was too busy to notice he’d been hired by GM Buzzie Bavasi – who gave the talking horse, Mr. Ed, a tryout at Dodger Stadium. He was also the main contact for Herman Munster to see if he could help the Dodgers with his incredible long-ball hitting prowess. Then again, he wanted to sign up Jethro Bodine during an episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
If the Dodgers were to ever become a freak show, Durocher was the apparent go-to guy for the first look. It seemed it was only a matter of time before My Mother The Car was going to get a part of the action.
Durocher ends up again with the Dodgers because the new expansion Los Angeles Angels turned him down as their first manager. It caused New York writer Dick Young to note: “Durocher wants the spotlight for the nourishment it, in itself, gives his body. He sucks up attention. His ego must be fed more than his stomach or he will perish.” The combination of Alston and Durocher was odd to say the least based on their personalities.
But it gave Durocher a chance to brag about his Hollywood connections and be back in the gossip columns for his romantic connections.
But with all the noise that always surrounded Durocher, well-known baseball historian Dickson went ahead and uncovered the good, bad and ugly of him anyway, perhaps as a personal challenge for someone who, in his late 70s, felt this was the time and window of opportunity to take a crack at one the most complex figures in the game’s history.
Dickson, best known for the must-have Baseball Dictionary he fashioned in 1982 and has been updated three times already, as well as an epic bio on Bill Veeck in 2012, may not have found enough colorful words to properly define Durocher, one of the most-quoted people in baseball history and already having put out two autobiographies.
Dickson went ahead with this, as he explained in the acknowledgements, because “the author of this book believes he has said something new” with the assistance of some 50-plus people and organizations he thanked for the contributions. That he does.
It’s not a rewrite of history, but more that’s generally refined and deserving of hundreds of pages, with the thought that there were perhaps dozens more pages of material that could have been added had more people been alive these days to tell their stories about him.
It’s funny: We flashback to the Durocher character in the Jackie Robinson movie, “42,” played by Christopher Meloni, in some sort of dark, shady scenes where he’s being told that he was going to be suspended from baseball for the entire ’47 season for a variety of things, including gambling allegations and mob ties, that didn’t make commissioner Happy Chandler very happy.
But we also see a person who was so influential in Tommy Lasorda’s life that when Lasorda was named the Dodgers manager some 40 years ago, the story he tells is that he switched from No. 52 to No. 2, to honor Durocher.
Back in 1938, when Durocher became the player-manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, he didn’t want Babe Ruth as one of his coaches, and it crushed the home-run king. Not many knew the two were, no surprise, feuding.
Ten years later, the Dodgers management was tired of him. A year after his return from the ’47 suspension, the Dodgers basically allowed the rival Giants to negotiate him away halfway through the season. So he left, and would take the ’54 Giants to a World Series title with Willie Mays, three seasons after his Giants crushed the Dodgers with the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” playoff.
In a piece that Jeffrey Marlett wrote about Durocher for the Society for American Baseball Research’s biography project, Durocher is someone who “witnessed a great deal of social, political and international change, some of which he helped bring about.” But even with that bold statement, the first photo you see of Durocher’s face to face with an umpire at home plate, arguing a call.
That’s the dichotomy Dickson deals with deftly. He navigates the complications and more, for the record, so that the life of Durocher, which he often gave several versions to several writers depending on his motives, is now told as close to the truth as possible without any interference.
= A conversation with Dickson by Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf
= A conversation with Dickson by Colin Gunderson at LoveOfBaseball.com podcast
= From the Christian Science Monitor
= A New York Times review of this book along with Marty Appel’s book on Casey Stengel
= A review on Seamheads.com: “Durocher’s balancing act as he skirts chaos and infamy is enough to keep you reading in Paul Dickson’s book. It is a great read, make no mistake about it. But for much of it I wondered, ‘why Durocher?’ Was there a link between Durocher and Veeck, some common thread that drew Paul Dickson to write about both men. I suspect so. The two men have to rank near the top of all rebellious souls who ever haunted the game of baseball–certainly among those in the Hall of Fame. Veeck is still my favorite, but Paul Dickson’s book, Leo Durocher, Baseball’s Prodigal Son is worth every minute it will take you to read it. Enjoy it and be grateful we have Paul among us.”
More to know:
== Next Thursday, April 27, the Baseball Reliquary presents “Leo Durocher In Hollywood,” a discussion and screening in conjunction with an exhibit called “Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son.” TV archivist Dan Einstein will introduce three programs from the UCLA Film and Television Archive – a 1954 episode of “The Jack Benny Show,” a clip of the 1960 “Dinah Shore Show” and the 1963 episode of “Mister Ed” when Durocher meets the talking horse for a tryout. The night will be at the Burbank Central Library (110 N. Glenoaks). Signed copies of Dickson’s bio of Durocher will be available for purchase for $20 per copy.
The ongoing exhibition of photographs, artifacts and artwork next to the text of Dickson’s biography started April 8 and runs through May 25.