One of the more highly anticipated baseball books of 2017 is Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son, the latest effort from prolific author Paul Dickson. It is out now from Bloomsbury USA.
An in-depth study of a complicated man, Dickson’s biography is the most comprehensive volume ever written about Durocher, perhaps the most controversial manager in the history of the game. The book covers his playing days with the New York Yankees (including his feud with Babe Ruth), the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Brooklyn Dodgers, and his many managerial stops with the Dodgers, New York Giants, Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros.
Dickson also devotes space to debunking Durocher’s “false childhood,” while exploring his love affair with Hollywood, his multiple marriages, and his many, many feuds, including battles with Walter Alston, Ernie Banks and Marvin Miller.
Last month, Dickson answered questions about the Durocher biography.
Markusen: Durocher is a subject that has been tackled before, by Leo himself in an autobiography. Why did you feel the time was right for a new biography of Durocher?
Dickson: I picked him because of his complexity and because of the events he was part of and his role on the teams he played for and those he managed. Durocher cast a shadow across several eras, from the time of Babe Ruth to the Space Age Astrodome, from Prohibition through the Vietnam War. For more than 40 years, he was at the forefront of the game with some of the greatest teams and defining baseball moments of 20th century. He was a rugged, combative shortstop and a three-time All-Star, he became a legendary manager, winning three pennants and a World Series in 1954.
As a manager, his players either loved him or hated him. Twice—in 1943 as manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and in 1970 with the Chicago Cubs—he is faced with clubhouse revolts. He is also unique in his having one foot in baseball and the other in show business. Also, much of the story of his suspension and his overnight transfer from the Dodgers to the Giants in 1948 has remained untold and I was looking to find answers to these questions, which I was able to do using primary source material.
Leo’s autobiography is fascinating but totally unreliable. It includes a faux childhood during which, among, other things he brags of ice skating to Boston and back to Springfield in a day, which is impossible since the Connecticut River goes north to south not east to west.
Markusen: Tell us more about the relationship between Durocher and Ruth. We know that Ruth didn’t much care for Leo, but how did Leo feel about The Babe?
Dickson: As a rookie for the Yankees, Leo took an immediate dislike to Ruth and [also] Ty Cobb, who then played in Philadelphia. He thought Ruth was a clown and called him “Dummy.” Ruth in turn disliked Leo and went to his grave believing that Leo had stolen his watch. A theme that runs through my book is that Leo often had the greatest disregard for anyone who was more popular than he was. When he managed the Cubs, he went out of his way to disparage Ernie Banks.
Markusen: It was Durocher who was supposed to manage Jackie Robinson during his first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but a suspension prevented him from doing so. Before the suspension, what was the relationship like between Leo and Jackie during spring training in 1947?
Dickson: The two men got along extremely well and Leo headed off a famous petition drive by certain players who did not want to play with Robinson. The scene in the movie 42 with Durocher confronting the team on the matter of Robinson is accurate. Durocher had spoken out in favor of the integration of baseball as early as 1939 and seemed to be color blind. Little known is that an African-American man named David Redd was instrumental in getting Leo to try out for the Hartford Senators. He made the team, which led to his [Durocher’s] signing by the Yankees. For decades to come, Leo made sure David Redd had World Series tickets.
Markusen: As a manager, Durocher had perhaps his greatest success with the Giants, where he got along exceedingly well with Willie Mays. Why do you think that Durocher and Mays were so compatible?
Dickson: Durocher’s greatest moment came with the Giants. It began when he signed Monte Irvin and Henry Thompson in July of 1949. Both these men were African-Americans who had been in combat zones in World War II—Irvin during the D-Day invasion and Thompson during the Battle of the Bulge. He knew he could not treat these men without deep respect for what they had been through. When Mays came up a year later, he realized that Mays needed nurturing rather than badgering. He stuck with Mays during an early slump. His treatment of these three men may have been his finest hour. Mays was the only ballplayer to speak at Leo’s funeral.
Markusen: Durocher developed a huge love of the Hollywood lifestyle and culture. Tell us more about his relationship with George Raft, the actor known for his ties to the gangster world.
Dickson: Leo met Raft in 1928, when Leo was with the Yankees and Raft was a song-and-dance man in the speakeasies along Broadway. They became close friends and even began to dress alike, black suit, black knit tie. But Raft was accused of cheating a man out of a large sum of money in a dice game at Leo’s apartment. Raft’s association with known gamblers forced Commissioner Happy Chandler in 1946 to forbid Leo from ever being seen with Raft again.
Markusen: Zsa Zsa Gabor, who recently passed away, was sued by Durocher. Why did that happen?
Dickson: It had to do with a commercial for Aamco transmissions in which Zsa Zsa said, “Tell ‘em Leo sent you!” In those days everybody knew who Leo was, and he sued her and the advertising agency that produced the commercial for $1 million. It was settled out of court, but what made it so big a story was that Leo and Zsa Zsa hashed it out on the Tonight Show, which was then hosted by Johnny Carson. Like so many things Leo did, the battle with Zsa Zsa got Leo headlines which were not on the sports page.
Markusen: As a fan of the old Munsters television show, I have to ask you about Leo’s appearance on the show in 1965. In your research for the book, what did you uncover about that?
Dickson: Other than the fact that it was one of his funniest sitcom appearances there was nothing special about the appearances on that show. Leo went to work for NBC after he left the Giants in 1955 and did much work on television including hosting the Colgate Comedy Hour. He appeared on many shows on radio and television, with the most famous probably being on Mr. Ed where he plays opposite the famous talking horse. Leo loved Hollywood and was very close to a number of stars, including Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye, Spencer Tracy and so many others. I think my book on Durocher may be one of the few baseball books ever which includes Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, John Wayne and “Mr. Ed” in the index.
Markusen: Back to baseball. A number of historians have blamed Durocher for the Cubs’ second-half fade in 1969. Is that fair? Was he past his prime as a manager by that point?
Dickson: Leo made a lot of mistakes in 1969 including the fact that he did not use his bench when the regulars needed a break. He was also expressing his dislike for certain players, including Ernie Banks, who was the clear fan favorite in Chicago. In 1969, he treated his players unevenly down the stretch, deserting them during two key moments, creating turmoil in the clubhouse and callously degrading them in defeat. “Our offense went down the toilet, the defense went down the drain, and I’m still looking for a pitching staff,” he said of his 1969 team after they lost the pennant. “I could have dressed nine broads as ballplayers and they would have beaten the Cubs.”
Was he past his prime? You could make the argument that Leo was past his prime, although the Cubs kept him as manager until 1972, when he went to the Houston Astros.
Markusen: Not much has been written about Durocher’s last managerial job, with the Astros, but you detail it in some depth. Did he fail in Houston because he had become old and bitter, or was it simply a case of refusing to change with the times?
Dickson: At the end of his career in Houston he expressed his disdain for the new breed of players with their high salaries, union representation, and ability to talk back. His record with the Astros was 98-95. Not to be forgotten, however, was that at the time of his death in 1991 only five managers in major league history had won more games than Durocher’s 2,008.