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Durocher Digs In

By Rick Kaempfer

I knew a few things about Leo Durocher before I cracked open the pages of Nice Guys Finish Last (just re-released in paperback by University of Chicago press).

I knew that he was such an irritant as a player and manager in the 1930s and 1940s that he once provoked Cubs pitcher Hi Bithorn to throw a pitch into the Brooklyn Dodgers dugout.

I knew that his language was so foul it would have made Bobby Knight blush.

I knew that he was essentially an unlikable guy. When Vin Scully, a man who never has a harsh word for anyone, heard Leo took a job in Japan he said: "It took the U.S. 35 years to get revenge for Pearl Harbor."

But most importantly, I knew Leo Durocher was the manager and wore No. 2 for the team of my childhood; the late 60s and early 70s Chicago Cubs.

What I didn't know about Leo Durocher was his almost sociopathic motto: "Do whatever you feel like doing whenever you feel like doing it, and everything will turn out just fine."

I learned that in Nice Guys Finish Last.

LeoD.jpgI also learned that despite his unlikable personality and foul mouth, Leo Durocher personally witnessed and experienced nearly every important event in baseball between the late 1920s and the early 1970s. Imagine getting behind-the-scenes reports from someone who absolutely doesn't care about stepping on toes.

That's Nice Guys Finish Last.

*

Durocher was a bench warmer on those great Babe Ruth-Lou Gehrig Yankee teams in the late 1920s, a spark plug for the legendary "Gas House Gang" in St. Louis in the 1930s, the manager of the Dodgers when the color line was broken in the 1940s, and the manager of the Giants in the 1950s when Willie Mays came to the majors and Bobby Thomson hit the shot heard 'round the world.

His stories about his run-ins with the baseball executives of the day, including Yankees owner Ed Barrow (Leo told him to "Go fuck yourself"), Cardinals owner Branch Rickey (the tightwad Bible-thumping baseball genius), Dodgers owner Lee McPhail (the manic-depressive lunatic), and Giants owner Horace Stoneham (the distant drunk), are almost inspiring in their iconoclastic furor.

But I'm a Cubs fan first and foremost, and for me the most interesting parts of the book were the little tidbits about some of the all-time Cub greats like Pat Malone, Charlie Grimm, Billy Herman, Bill "Swish" Nicholson, Rabbit Maranville, and of course, the Cubs that Leo managed in the late 60s and early 70s.

Those Cubs years were still fresh news when Nice Guys Finish Last first came out, and while I love the inside look at my childhood heroes, this entire section does make Leo sound like he's attempting to settle some scores. He calls out Ernie Banks as a phony, and implies Ron Santo was an overrated dimwitted baby. He calls Milt Pappas an agitator, and implies Joe Pepitone was God's punishment for Leo's own behavior as a player.

Perhaps the most shocking part of the book for me, though, was Leo's portrayal of Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley. Durocher, who has almost nothing nice to say about anyone (except Willie Mays and Eddie Stanky), calls Wrigley "The finest man to work for in the world" and "The most decent man I've met."

I did not see that one coming.

In fact, the entire Cubs section of the book made me question everything I once believed. Wrigley was a sweetheart, but Jack Brickhouse was a jerk? (Leo actually writes: "Up yours, Brickhouse.") Ernie Banks and Ron Santo were the reason the Cubs didn't win it? ("We were too slow in the middle of the lineup.") For cryin' out loud, Leo tried to trade Santo for Cesar Tovar - and Billy Williams for Mike Epstein. The only reason neither trade happened was because the other team said no. You've got to be kidding me!

*

Nice Guys Finish Last was co-written with incredible flair and style by Ed Linn, who also co-wrote one of my other favorite baseball books, Bill Veeck's incredible autobiography (Veeck . . . as in Wreck.). But while it doesn't pull many punches, and it's never ever boring, there are a few parts of the book that just don't ring true.

For instance, Durocher's run-ins with baseball commissioners Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Happy Chandler, and Bowie Kuhn make those men sound like absolute idiots who fined and suspended him for no reason whatsoever. It's hard to dispute that some of their rulings were a bit random, but it hardly seems likely that Durocher was the unluckiest man in baseball history. There's certainly more to those stories.

The other part of the book that seems a bit whitewashed is the first season Jackie Robinson played with the Dodgers. Durocher was suspended that entire season so he didn't actually manage him until Jackie's second season, but Leo really downplays the unrest in the Dodgers clubhouse before Jackie's arrival. Durocher claims to have held a late-night meeting with the players to warn them that Jackie was coming and if they didn't like it, they could take a hike. He doesn't mention that the commissioner had to step in to issue a more direct threat.

While I absolutely love the baseball tales in Nice Guys Finish Last, I'm not wild about the Hollywood stories. For all the down and dirty criticism of baseball players and executives, Leo is downright sycophantic when it comes to Hollywood. Perhaps the most ridiculous part of the book is the five page ass-kissing of his pal Frank Sinatra. Leo's head is so far up Frank's butt you can actually see Durocher's bald head when Frank says hello. He does the same thing to Danny Kaye earlier in the book.

It's unbecoming.

I like my irascible curmudgeons to be pure.

On the other hand, that kind of ass-kissing led to quite a few cameos and guest spots. Durocher was on Mr. Ed, The Munsters, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Judy Garland Show, among others.

Maybe I shouldn't question Leo. It hasn't turned out well for anyone else that has.

Don't believe me? Just read Nice Guys Finish Last and see what I mean.

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Read an excerpt.

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on August 25, 2009


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