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Thief

September 20, 2014

It’s a great time for baseball fans. With a couple of weeks left in the regular season, a number of teams are still in the pennant race. Perennials, such as the Cardinals, Dodgers and Tigers are in the thick of things. I’m enjoying the Pirates’ return and newcomers such as the Royals, Orioles and Mariners.

Of course, it’s all about our Bay Area teams. The Giants’ fate seems to leave the Dodgers with the division title, but they are still pushing and can’t miss out on a wild card spot. Can they? The A’s, on the other hand, have many reaching for the panic button. With only nine games left, they are bunched up with the Royals and Mariners for the last playoff spots. They have been in an abrupt slide since mid-season and relinquished first place to the Angels five weeks ago. We will need more of their early season miracles to get through this.

Fortunately for Bay Area fans, we have two very fine managers at the helm. Bruce Bochy and Bob Melvin have the skill and experience to maneuver the games and the respect of their players to manage through difficult stretches. They are proven professionals, brought great results the past few years and their standing should not be questioned. Sports fans as they are, this safe harbor is challenged by some. Boos and cries for banishment will be heard in some pockets. Discontents in more than our beloved game, they just don’t know how good we have it.

At least that’s how I figured it this morning, when out of nowhere, I was haunted by the ghost of Leo Durocher. I had absolutely no intention of thinking about him today, let alone write about him. And now, the thought has taken way too much of my day.

Durocher started playing baseball in the 1920s. He was a teammate of Babe Ruth, a man who liked everyone except Durocher, it seems. He played until the mid-1940s and then went on to coach and manage. He was with the Dodgers and Giants and then named manager of the Cubs in 1966. I became aware of him in 1969 as a young boy who became hooked on baseball in a big way that year. That summer, the Cubs were life itself to many kids all around northern Illinois. Nothing seemed more important or bigger to us than watching and cheering for the team.

Wrigley Field was a mystical palace, where all our dreams were being realized. The players made it easy to cheer and we all had our favorites. If this was what it was like to be a baseball fan, we knew that we had a lifetime of enjoyment ahead of us. We just couldn’t imagine that the Cubs could lose. And then late in the season, life’s hard lessons began. After holding first place for more than five months, the Cubs were overtaken by the Mets and never caught up.

There have been books written on the topic. I haven’t read any of them. Just what went wrong? I put it all at Durocher’s doorstep. He wasn’t fit. Nothing was in order. He was the cause. He created chaos wherever he went and made the friendly confines of Wrigley Field a cesspool of turmoil and disorder. He had no honor or integrity in his personal life and brought the same to the yard. He had no respect for his players or the team itself.

The players are busting a bolier to win. I don’t like to see these upsetting things at this stage of the game.
– Phil Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs commenting after Leo Durocher lied to the team about being sick so that he could get away for the weekend with his wife.

This wasn’t the first time that Durocher abandoned the team during the 1969 season. A month or so earlier, the 62-year old Durocher left for his bachelor party. Just something he had to do before he married a woman 22 years younger than him. The fourth time a charm, you ask? Well no; that marriage failed also.

I remember reading in the newspaper that Durocher was AWOL and that seemed very odd to me. Here, I was investing a significant part of my youth to the team and he played hooky? It was unsettling, but I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of it. I do now. He wasn’t trustworthy or committed to anything.

As a child, I didn’t fully grasp the impact Durocher must have had on my beloved Cubbies. It was clear that this guy wasn’t like anyone I had encountered, but I didn’t know what it meant to the team’s prospects. He was constantly arguing with the umpires and trying to show them up in front of the players and fans. His behavior was unacceptable by any measure. These were different times. With the protection from beat writers and without the relentless demand for “content” by cable TV and computer outlets today, much of what we now know about Durocher was hidden from us then. The ugliest of his unbecoming ways were only known to the players and others in the game.

He belittled players, claiming that this would make them play better. Even if he did believe that this was motivation, it seems to me that he mostly berated people because he was a loud-mouthed bully and just plain mean-spirited. He was an anti-Semitic and made this known to Ken Holtzman, a devout Jew and one of the team’s best pitchers. He’d harass players who were Christians, didn’t drink or weren’t interested in the wild lifestyle that he preferred.

Durocher held himself out as the best and he had his admirers. But in hindsight, it’s clear that to me that he was blinded by his own ego and that we paid for it in the 1969 season. The Cubs pitching staff was overworked and they paid the price for his stubborn views. He would not use the bullpen and simply wore out the arms that were necessary in September to keep pace with the surging New York Mets.  Players said that the only thing that he that could be said about Durocher and pitching was that he knew nothing about it.

He wasn’t in it for the celebration of the game or benefit of the franchise either. When Ernie Banks, a Hall of Fame player and one of the North Side’s all time favorites started to slow down due to aging knees, Durocher made it known that he didn’t appreciate having to put Banks in the lineup just because fans held their Mr. Cub in such high regard.

In a world that has a “top list” for everything, Durocher was named as the number 16 hothead in baseball. He found a way to repel even the gentlest of the game’s gentlemen. Jack Brickhouse, the late baseball announcer, was known for his upbeat and positive look on life. He never cast blame on the players or said anything negative about them. The sunny disposition and joy for the game that he gave to us from the booth is still my high watermark. (Jon Miller and Dave Fleming are today’s standard bearers.) Vin Scully, the Dodgers’ announcer now in his seventh decade as a broadcaster, who doesn’t have a bad word to say about anybody, also disliked the guy. These two Ford C. Frick Baseball Announcers Hall of Fame watched Durocher for many years and called hundreds of games that he managed. For my money, which won’t come close to the bankroll that Wrigley’s family amassed for him, Durocher should have never been hired to manage my team. He was a mad man who didn’t deserve the honor.

In the early days Leo was an SOB, but a sharp SOB. By the time he finished in Chicago he was just an old SOB.
– Jack Brickhouse

It took the U.S. thirty-five years to get revenge for Pearl Harbor.
– Vin Scully, when he learned that Leo Durocher was hired in Japan

Durocher was proud of his sociopathic ways, coining the phrase “Nice Guys Finish Last.” I’m not sure how he explained away  the Mets’ overtaking the Cubs in September 1969, although I wouldn’t be surprised if he pointed fingers. The Mets were led by legendary nice guy and good person, Gil Hodges.

…epitomizes the courage, sportsmanship and integrity of America’s favorite pastime.”
– back of a 1966 Topps baseball card.

Gil Hodges is a Hall of Fame man.
– teammate Roy Campanella

He was a very special man, not just as a ballplayer in Brooklyn but a very special man in the community.
– Buddy Harrelson, 1969 Mets shortstop

If you had a son, it would be a great thing to have him grow up to be just like Gil Hodges.
– teammate Pee Wee Reese

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I prefer guys like Gil Hodges managing my favorite teams.

The 1969 Mets were a good team that pulled everything together to win games and ultimately the World Series. Nobody can take that away from them. Had I grown up in Queens, I would have happily adopted them as my team. Everybody loves a good story and theirs is hard to beat. But it wasn’t the Miracle Mets that ruined our childhood summer. Durocher was the thief that stole our dreams.

 

 

 

From → Baseball, Life

26 Comments
  1. 1969 was a special year in MLB, and “Leo the Lip” was one of its many memorable characters. As for the Giants this year, the loss of Matt Cain is going to hurt them in the playoffs. The A’s schizophrenic season seems normal for them. When they’re not soaring high, they’re often falling just as fast. Didn’t they set the consecutive win streak during the Billy Beane era?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Miracle Mets took the sports world by surprise and it was particularly disruptive in Chicago. Fans could not believe what they witnessed with the Cubs’ fall. A’s fans are in a stupor this year. It was not supposed to be like this. Everything was working so well early in the season. It’s not over yet, but everything is so tenuous.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You have a great way of sharing your memories so that your readers stay engaged. I enjoy hearing about your passionate childhood. Sorry you spent so much of the day thinking about this thief. Here’s hoping your brain’s done with the topic and will let you move on to more enjoyable memories.

    Like

  3. Wonderful piece…thanks for sharing.

    Like

    • Thank you, Gary. Hoping now that the A’s will endure the race and find their way again once they are in the playoffs.

      Like

  4. It’s never over till it’s over, right Bruce. My Giants friends are getting a wee bit antsy, however. Thanks for the history lesson. –Curt

    Like

  5. Your love for baseball makes for enjoyable reading, even if this post is about a guy who had his priorities mixed up! How I wish I’d grown up with a love for baseball. During my younger years, my father was often away at sea (Navy Captain) and my mom didn’t really have an interest.
    Somehow football became the family sport, and while I love the sport (all negatives aside), I do wish we’d paid attention to baseball. There’s a romance and a passion that my baseball loving friends share.

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  6. I think the 1969 season could be a 10,000 page analysis. Every player…..the entire legend of Hodges….the oddball seasons leading the Mets up to 1969, and just the ending of the season and World Series being unbelievable. Nothing…..absolutely nothing…..compares to the magic of the story told.

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    • Lots to be told about that season. I was too young to appreciate some of it – the nuances and back stories were lost on many of us. We watched everything unfold right there in front of us and still could not believe it.

      Like

  7. Durosher sounds like such a jerk, our blood was boiling just reading about his antics. thanks for the excellent story, LMA

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    • LMA – You two can rest easy now. He’s been gone a long time. I didn’t need to dance on his grave Saturday and have no idea how these things come up out of nowhere so many years later. (Well, maybe I do.)

      However, they say that dancing is good exercise. Maybe it was okay to write about him, after all.

      Like

  8. Ah Bruce who from Chicago could forget Leo the “Lip” Durocher. Even though you can’t take anything away from the Miracle Mets that year. They finished strong. I do believe Durocher wore out the starting rotation especially near the end of the season which could of been a factor for their failure to win the pennant that year. I do remember that baseball card of him. Well like we say in Chicago “Wait till next year” Enjoyed reading this and Ram On!

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    • Good to see you over here on Ram On, Jim. Who knows? Maybe I got those cards in a front porch baseball card trading session.

      It may be better that I didn’t have the proper context to evaluate Durocher with that team. Even thought we saw the team lose, we could watch in dismay and disappointment. A bliss perhaps – at least compared to the emotions that would come with knowing the real Leo Durocher. Anger, outrage and other no good ways to feel along with the dismay and disappointment. An awful combination.

      As for “next year,” absolutely. I think the Cubs are on to something with their youngsters.

      Like

  9. What happened to my comment?

    Like

  10. Johnjohn permalink

    The Cubs had six consecutive winning seasons under Durocher (’67-’72) and to date have not been able to repeat that kind of consistency in the 40 plus years since “The Lip” has been gone…..is Leo a thief?….according to legend he was caught stealing from the”Bambino” who promptly beat the holy crap out of him when he caught him in the act….or so the story goes

    Like

    • I love that legend and since I don’t care for Durocher, choose to believe it. I am not close enough to know why the team can’t win consistently. I watch them form a distance and am familiar with the hopes they now have with the many highly-rated prospects. Maybe this will be the start of a winning tradition.

      Like

  11. This is a great post, Bruce. I knew about the Babe Ruth bit, and I knew about the womanizing, but some of the other stuff is new to me. Thanks for sharing!

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  12. “At least that’s how I figured it this morning, when out of nowhere, I was haunted by the ghost of Leo Durocher. I had absolutely no intention of thinking about him today, let alone write about him. And now, the thought has taken way too much of my day.”

    I love that caught by durocher and riding it. Why not? What else is there? Rhetorical.

    Like

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