Better hated than ignored
LEO DUROCHER: BASEBALL’S PRODIGAL SON By Paul Dickson Bloomsbury Books, $37, 357 pages
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.