National Post (National Edition)
The best book I read this year — an electrifying book, a book whose effect I was not prepared for — was Leo Durocher's classic autobiography Nice Guys Finish Last (1975). Durocher is at the heart of 20th-century baseball. He played with Babe Ruth on the Yankees, was Jackie Robinson's first bigleague manager (“I don't care if he has f—in' zebra stripes!”) and was boss of the New York Giants in their final phase of glory.
If you know baseball history you have some sense of Leo Durocher: profane, bad-tempered, dissolute, vain, and competitive like nobody else. The word “unscrupulous” is not nearly strong enough to fit him. He stole from teammates, bounced cheques constantly to pay for one of the nicest wardrobes in the United
States, and was suspended — as a manager — on suspicion of swindling players in a rigged crap game.
You read his account of himself and come away admiring Durocher, though he makes very little apology for any of this behaviour. I had seen his name a thousand times and never spotted the blatant Canadian-ness of it; the son of Québécois emigrants in Massachusetts, he started school in Springfield without speaking English. By his own account he did not possess true major-league talent. Mostly through sheer ferocity, he made the All-Star game three times, and then won three pennants and a series as a manager, hobnobbing with Hollywood stars and gangsters all the while. And becoming a bit of both himself.
His book was written with Ed Linn, who also co-wrote Bill Veeck's books. To have captured two such dissimilar baseball personalities for the benefit of the ages is an incredible achievement. I read Nice Guys Finish Last while the Michael Jordan/Chicago Bulls documentary The Last Dance was airing, and concluded that in the annals of North American sport, there may be exactly one person whose will to win resembled Jordan's.