Bet­ter hated than ig­nored

LEO DUROCHER: BASE­BALL’S PRODIGAL SON By Paul Dick­son Blooms­bury Books, $37, 357 pages

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By James Srodes James Srodes cov­ered the last two sea­sons for the Washington Sen­a­tors for United Press In­ter­na­tional.

Paul Dick­son is the Washington area’s most pro­lific and ver­sa­tile his­to­rian of ma­jor fig­ures and events rang­ing from the space pro­gram to pol­i­tics to base­ball. In this multi-lay­ered bi­og­ra­phy of big league bad boy Leo Durocher, he tells three sto­ries at once and all of them com­pelling read­ing.

If this were just a tale of a man who was most de­spised by nearly ev­ery one of his team­mates or by nearly ev­ery team he man­aged it would be a pretty thin read. I mean, what can you say about a man who may have stolen Babe Ruth’s wrist watch and was sued for sav­agely at­tack­ing an el­derly fan in the bleach­ers?

But Mr. Dick­son serves up a thor­oughly re­searched, com­pellingly writ­ten book of a com­plex char­ac­ter, and also about the im­por­tant part of Amer­i­can culture he helped change. He also pon­ders the very na­ture of celebrity and why we are so ad­dicted to cult fig­ures whether they are ad­mirable or out­ra­geous.

First, it is worth re­call­ing just how im­por­tant the sport of base­ball of all vari­a­tions was to Amer­ica for nearly a cen­tury span­ning the late 1800s on through the 1960s. Col­lege sport­ing events were the province of the elite. Pro­fes­sional foot­ball and bas­ket­ball were mar­ginal at­trac­tions. Box­ing and horse rac­ing were for gam­blers.

But base­ball was truly the Amer­i­can pas­time for the work­ing and mid­dle classes. Ma­jor cities of­ten had two big league teams. Else­where there were mi­nor leagues, fac­tory leagues, church leagues and sand­lots for any child with a stick, a ball and a dream. Ma­jor league stars were not only true celebri­ties, they were of­fered up as whole­some role mod­els for the young. Babe Ruth apoc­ryphally de­fended de­mand­ing a salary from the Yan­kees dur­ing the De­pres­sion that was greater than that of Pres­i­dent Her­bert Hoover by say­ing, “Any­way, I had a bet­ter year than he did.” And Amer­ica nod­ded at the wis­dom of the quip.

Part of the lure of the sport was that it gave life to the fan­tasy that each boy could rise from hum­ble ori­gins to wealth, fame and adu­la­tion if we could just pitch, hit or catch a small ball fly­ing around at tremen­dous speed. One might not be small enough to ride a thor­ough­bred horse or strong enough to pum­mel the day­lights out of another boxer, but we all might have what it took to make it to base­ball’s ma­jor leagues

That cer­tainly was the lure that drove Leo Durocher out of his sketchy work­ing-class back­ground (his mother sewed base­balls on piece­work) and into the lo­cal leagues around West Spring­field, Mass., shortly af­ter World War I. By the time, he was 20 in 1925 he had been re­cruited into the New York Yan­kees farm sys­tem, and there he learned a great truth about all sports — it is not enough just to be good at what you do or even bet­ter than most. You have to stand out to suc­ceed.

Durocher was small in size and never a very good bats­man. How­ever, he was a su­perb short­stop, a po­si­tion that is the linch­pin of any team’s in­field de­fense. The catcher may be the nom­i­nal cap­tain, but with­out a good short­stop to tie the three other in­field­ers into a seam­less web, no team can suc­ceed. Durocher was so good that he was a star for the Yan­kees 1927 team, which won its sec­ond straight World Se­ries in an in­field that in­cluded Lou Gehrig, Joe Du­gan and Tony Lazzeri. And he did it again in 1934 with the St. Louis Car­di­nals World Se­ries champs in­field of Rip­per Collins, Frankie Frisch and Pep­per Martin.

Partly be­cause it was in his na­ture but clearly also Durocher de­lib­er­ately set out to make him­self the most flam­boy­ant and con­tro­ver­sial char­ac­ter he could in a sport noted for its over­ween­ing egos. These he taunted — that gar­gan­tuan ap­petite Babe Ruth, the ag­ing but still dan­ger­ously nasty Ty Cobb — and the rest he out­raged.

He dressed in the lat­est fash­ions and be­came scan­dalously in­debted to gam­blers in an era when base­ball still strug­gled out of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox de­ba­cle. He quickly be­came known as Leo the Lip for his in­sults and provoca­tive quips to news re­porters. He courted Broad­way celebri­ties and Hol­ly­wood stars with a mix of gen­uine charm and a whiff of dan­ger­ous no­to­ri­ety.

Yet he could be a gen­er­ous friend and was one of the ear­li­est advocates of bring­ing African-Amer­i­can base­ball play­ers up from the frag­ile Ne­gro Leagues to the ma­jors; he was a coun­selor and friend to Jackie Robin­son and then pub­licly feuded with him. Along the way he led the trend that has changed base­ball from the only game in town to the hy­per-me­dia ex­trav­a­ganza it is to­day. Whether he was brawl­ing on the field or host­ing his own tele­vi­sion va­ri­ety show, Leo Durocher was a mod­ern culture shaper, and Paul Dick­son tells this com­pli­cated story with verve, sym­pa­thy and a keen eye. Fair dis­clo­sure: Mr. Dick­son and I once worked for the same busi­ness mag­a­zine four decades ago.

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