Well, Leo liked Leo

Nice Guys Finish Last, by Leo Durocher with Ed Linn, The University of Chicago Press, 2009 paperback (originally published in 1975).

If you are a dyed-in-the-flannel Cubs fan of a certain age and I say 1969, you think first not of Joe Cocker at Woodstock or Neil Armstrong on the moon. You think of Don Young in center field.

The current dysfunctional season may challenge it, but 1969 stands as the most disappointing season in Cubs history. A fine team featuring four of the franchise’s all-time great players had a comfortable lead and blew it to the Mets, then a team with a short and laughable history. Two fly balls misplayed by the nondescript Young symbolized the collapse. And Leo Durocher presided over it.

If Durocher didn’t burn that season down, he certainly provided the kindling and matches.

Leo Durocher, a man small in both the physical and human relations senses, was a large presence in baseball for half a century. He was a success on the field and as a manager, and simultaneously a headache for teammates, opponents, umpires and baseball officials, for those who employed him and those who played for him. He hated the Chicago press and the sainted New York writer Red Smith. He scorned the players’ union and the escalating salaries ($60,000!) that stole his men’s hunger and made them hard to manage.

He was famous as a teammate of Babe Ruth in the 1920s, as a member of the St. Louis Gashouse Gang in the ‘30s, as the Dodgers manager suspended from baseball for a year in the ‘40s, as the ringmaster of the circus that the Cubs became in the late ‘60s.

Outside Chicago, he is probably better remembered for his role in the most storied pennant race in baseball history, in the year 1951 when the Giants team he managed came from 13.5 games back in August to win the pennant on Bobby Thomson’s last-at-bat-of the-last-inning-of-the-last-playoff-game home run.

His epitaph, though, is the quote that’s the title of this book. According his account, as manager of the Dodgers he told a group of newspaper reporters that the Giants of the time were “all nice guys,” unlike his favorite Dodger, Eddie Stanky. “They’ll finish last.”

As with many other anecdotes in the book, Durocher makes you work to figure out what season he’s writing about there. A little cross-referencing suggests that the year had to be 1946. The Giants indeed finished last. On the other hand, there’s no indication whether this conversation took place in April or when the standings were all but final.

Judging by the tales Durocher tells on himself in the book, by his standard he never should have finished anywhere near last. Outside of baseball, everyone who was anyone was “my close friend.” Spencer Tracy and George Raft. Frank Sinatra and Danny Kaye. Actress Laraine Day, the second of his three wives. When “good friend” Happy Chandler, politician-turned-baseball commissioner, called him to start the suspension wheels rolling (because big-time gamblers were at the least friends of friends), Durocher was rehearsing for Jack Benny’s radio show.

On the fields and in the front offices of baseball, though, Durocher knew few men he couldn’t badmouth. In his telling, he was traded from the Yankees to the Reds after telling New York owner Ed Barrow to perform a sexual impossibility. He was traded to the Cardinals because Branch Rickey needed him badly to play shortstop, but traded from St. Louis to Brooklyn because Cards manager Frank Frisch thought Durocher was after his job.

He told off Rickey the first time he met him, Durocher says, and fought constantly with his Dodgers boss, Larry McPhail (but always outsmarted him).

The book is full of juicy old-time baseball stories. You don’t have to—and shouldn’t—believe every detail to be entertained. Like a kung fu movie script, the account is enlivened with a fight every few pages. And—play on words intended—Durocher pulls no punches in his assessment of people he didn’t like; e.g., pitcher Jerry Reuss was “the a—hole of all time.”

Odds are good, dear reader, that I already was following the Cubs when your mother was born, so you’ll understand that I took particular interest in the Chicago part of the chronology. Durocher had an easy act to follow; he took over in 1966 after a particularly fallow period even for the Cubs of that era. They were coming off an eighth-place finish and a failed five-year experiment with a “college of coaches” running things instead of a manager.

In the book, Durocher doesn’t omit the oft-told story: He declared that the Cubs weren’t an eighth-place team. Right. His first year, they finished 10th.

This was not a team without talent. It included future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins (plus Durocher himself) and Hall shoulda-been Ron Santo. The trouble with the Cubs, though, Durocher writes, was all those home run hitters. In his view, Banks was too old, too hobbled, too admired by sports writers. Santo was too slow, too mouthy, too prone to fail in the clutch.

Banks, however, was and is regarded in Chicago as St. Francis is in Assisi. Santo was and is similarly adored. Durocher got no place with his bosses when he suggested trading them. So, he cooked up a deal for Williams, proposing to send him to the Orioles for a flock of Curt Blefarys. That didn’t fly, either.

Even though burdened with these mediocrities, by Year Two of Durocher the Cubs were in the first division, primed for the 1969 pennant race that would become legendary for both the Collapsing Cubs and the Miracle Mets.

The stories about that year revolve around Leo. He cut out in the middle of a midseason game for a weekend at a Wisconsin summer camp with his new wife and her child. (Durocher: The problem was the sports writers who ratted on him.) He played his regulars without rest, and they withered in September. (Five players, including catcher Randy Hundley and sore-legged Banks, played more than 150 games.) Young cost the Cubs a game against the Mets (and Durocher and Santo excoriated him in front of the press).

He spent three more years with the Cubs, fussing about the attitudes of Milt Pappas and Joe Pepitone, threatening to quit after a clubhouse shoutdown with Santo, generally turning lemonade into lemons. Then he managed Houston for one season and change. Then he wrote this autobiography. (He died in 1991.)

Often, publishers dress up a new edition of an old book with a fresh introduction or forward that adds the perspective of years. Not this one. If the original edition is on your shelf, you already know what’s in it. But if not, if you love the old baseball stories, embellished as they may be, if you like the romance and swagger and tough talk of baseball in the pre-corporate skybox era, this is fun. Especially if you skip the stuff about the Cubs.

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