Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son Review by Patrick Valentine
Paul Dickson, winner of Spitball’s 2012 CASEY award for Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick, tosses another gem with Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son. In Durocher, Dickson captures the essence of a highly controversial player/manager whose Hall of Fame career spanned the rough and tumble 1920s to the advent of free agency. If you fancy yourself even a casual baseball fan then this book is a must read. Mr. “Nice Guys Finish Last” defied categorization but his attributes included acrobatic shortstop, risk-taking manager, lifelong gambler, spell-binding raconteur, debt-ridden man-about-town, stage and TV entertainer, and unabashed scalawag. And those were some of his finer qualities.
Dickson’s thoroughly researched book begins where it should. Thanks to his fan-pleasing wizardry with the leather, Durocher the teenage dropout avoids a life toiling in factories. He soon catches the attention of big league scouts and, after a brief and fitful start with the Yankees, moves to the NL where he earns his way onto three All-Star teams while playing in over 1,600 games.
But his days on the field essentially ended in 1940 so readers best remember Leo the Lip (Dickson shows his original nickname was Lippy Leo) as a dirt-kicking, equipment-tossing, umpire-baiting, profanity-spewing manager of several storied teams, notably the 1951 and 1954 New York Giants and the 1969 Chicago Cubs. In total, Durocher managed a whopping 3,739 games (and won 2,008) for four different ball clubs from 1939 to 1973.
Stories fly off the pages as Dickson details the zeniths and nadirs in Durocher’s life. Yet the author is so even-handed the reader will alternate between loving and hating the man. For example, Durocher entertained hundreds of thousands of troops across the world during and after World War II (yes, you read that right). He then returned to the States to bash umpires, fans, players, coaches, managers, and even owners. He was a vocal supporter of black players in the major leagues and Jackie Robinson’s supportive first manager when he broke the color line. Then, as manager of the rival Giants, Durocher rode Robinson mercilessly. Further, the Lip was fiercely loyal to his baseball and Hollywood friends but he cheated on his four wives. A complicated man? Without question.
Dickson’s title is the key to Durocher’s story. Somebody up there always liked him. It started in his early 20s with Miller Huggins of the Yankees, picked up steam with Sidney Weil, the owner of the Cincinnati Reds, and took off with Branch Rickey (then with the St. Louis Cardinals) and Larry MacPhail (when his was both with the Brooklyn Dodgers and later the New York Giants). Even Philip Wrigley of the Cubs thought he could reform the incorrigible Durocher. Leo always proved them right – over the short run.
At the end of Dickson’s masterpiece, you’ll know how the members of MLB’s Hall of Fame Veteran’s Committee felt when they were asked to determine whether Leo Durocher’s accomplishments outweighed his faults. Thanks to the author, the reader is in a better position to judge than the Committee.