Nice Guys Finish Lastby Leo Durocher, Ed Linn
“I believe in rules. Sure I do. If there weren't any rules, how could you break them?”
The history of baseball is rife with colorful characters. But for sheer cantankerousness, fighting moxie, and will to win, very few have come close to Leo “the Lip” Durocher. Following a five-decade career as a player and manager for baseball’s
“I believe in rules. Sure I do. If there weren't any rules, how could you break them?”
The history of baseball is rife with colorful characters. But for sheer cantankerousness, fighting moxie, and will to win, very few have come close to Leo “the Lip” Durocher. Following a five-decade career as a player and manager for baseball’s most storied franchises, Durocher teamed up with veteran sportswriter Ed Linn to tell the story of his life in the game. The resulting book, Nice Guys Finish Last, is baseball at its best, brimming with personality and full of all the fights and feuds, triumphs and tricks that made Durocher such a successand an outsized celebrity.
Durocher began his career inauspiciously, riding the bench for the powerhouse 1928 Yankees and hitting so poorly that Babe Ruth nicknamed him “the All-American Out.” But soon Durocher hit his stride: traded to St. Louis, he found his headlong play and never-say-die attitude a perfect fit with the rambunctious “Gashouse Gang” Cardinals. In 1939, he was named player-manager of the Brooklyn Dodgersand almost instantly transformed the underachieving Bums into perennial contenders. He went on to manage the New York Giants, sharing the glory of one of the most famous moments in baseball history, Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world,” which won the Giants the 1951 pennant. Durocher would later learn how it felt to be on the other side of such an unforgettable moment, as his 1969 Cubs, after holding first place for 105 days, blew a seemingly insurmountable 8-1/2-game lead to the Miracle Mets.
All the while, Durocher made as much noise off the field as on it. His perpetual feuds with players, owners, and league officialsnot to mention his public associations with gamblers, riffraff, and Hollywood stars like George Raft and Larraine Daykept his name in the headlines and spread his fame far beyond the confines of the diamond.
A no-holds-barred account of a singular figure, Nice Guys Finish Last brings the personalities and play-by-play of baseball’s greatest era to vivid life, earning a place on every baseball fan’s bookshelf.
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Nice Guys Finish Last
By Leo Durocher, Ed Linn
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1975 Leo Durocher
All rights reserved.
I COME TO KILL YOU
My baseball career spanned almost five decades—from 1925 to 1973, count them—and in all that time I never had a boss call me upstairs so that he could congratulate me for losing like a gentleman. "How you play the game" is for college boys. When you're playing for money, winning is the only thing that matters. Show me a good loser in professional sports, and I'll show you an idiot. Show me a sportsman, and I'll show you a player I'm looking to trade to Oakland so that he can discuss his salary with that other great sportsman, Charley Finley.
I believe in rules. (Sure I do. If there weren't any rules, how could you break them?) I also believe I have a right to test the rules by seeing how far they can be bent. If a man is sliding into second base and the ball goes into center field, what's the matter with falling on him accidentally so that he can't get up and go to third? If you get away with it, fine. If you don't, what have you lost? I don't call that cheating; I call that heads-up baseball. Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it.
In the olden days, when I was shortstop for the Gas House Gang, I used to file my belt buckle to a sharp edge. We'd get into a tight spot in the game where we needed a strikeout, and I'd go to the mound and monkey around with the ball just enough to put a little nick on it. "It's on the bottom, buddy," I'd tell the pitcher as I handed it to him.
I used to do it a lot with Dizzy Dean. If he wanted to leave it on the bottom, he'd throw three-quarters and the ball would sail—vroooom! If he turned it over so that the nick was on top, it would sink. Diz had so much natural ability to begin with that with that kind of an extra edge it was just no contest.
Frankie Frisch, our manager and second-baseman, had his own favorite trick. Frank chewed tobacco. All he had to do was spit in his hand, scoop up a little dirt, and twist the ball in his hand just enough to work a little smear of mud into the seam. Same thing. My nick built up wind resistance on one spot; his smear roughed up a spot along the stitches, and the ball would sail like a bird.
We used to do everything in the old days to try to win, but so did the other clubs. Everybody was looking for an edge. If they got away with it I'd admire them. After the game was over. In a week or two. When Eddie Stanky kicked the ball out of Phil Rizzuto's hand in the opening game of the 1951 World Series I thought it was the greatest thing I'd ever seen. Not because it was the first time I'd seen it done but because it was my man who was doing it. Before the 1934 World Series began, the St. Louis scouting report warned us that Jo-Jo White of the Detroit Tigers was such a master at it that he would sometimes go all around the bases kicking the ball out of the fielders' hands. Sure enough, the first chance he had, he kicked the ball out of Frankie Frisch's glove and practically tore his uniform in half. A couple of innings later, Jo-Jo was on first again. "I got him," I told Frank.
"No you don't," Frisch said. "He's mine. I'll get him; you step on him."
White came into second, and while Frank was rattling the ball against his upper incisors I was dancing a fandango all over his lower chest. I guess Jo-Jo was no aficionado of the Spanish dance because he did nothing at all during the rest of the Series to encourage an encore. Or maybe he just didn't like the idea of having to make an appointment with his dentist every time he slid into second base.
When my man Stanky does it, he's helping me to win. When their man White does it, he's helping them. I can't be any more explicit about it than to say that you can be my roommate today and if I'm traded tonight to another club I never saw you before if I'm playing against you tomorrow. You are no longer wearing the uniform that has the same name on it that my uniform has, and that makes you my mortal enemy. When the game is over I'll take you to dinner, you can have my money and we'll have some fun. Tomorrow, you are my enemy again.
The Nice Guys Finish Last line came about because of Eddie Stanky too. And wholly by accident. I'm not going to back away from it though. It has got me into Bartlett's Quotations—page 1059, between John Betjeman and Wystan Hugh Auden—and will be remembered long after I have been forgotten. Just who the hell were Betjeman and Auden anyway?
It came about during batting practice at the Polo Grounds, while I was managing the Dodgers. I was sitting in the dugout with Frank Graham of the old Journal-American, and several other newspapermen, having one of those freewheeling bull sessions. Frankie pointed to Eddie Stanky in the batting cage and said, very quietly, "Leo, what makes you like this fellow so much? Why are you so crazy about this fellow?"
I started by quoting the famous Rickey statement: "He can't hit, he can't run, he can't field, he can't throw. He can't do a goddam thing, Frank—but beat you." He might not have as much ability as some of the other players, I said, but every day you got 100 percent from him and he was trying to give you 125 percent. "Sure, they call him the Brat and the Mobile Muskrat and all of that," I was saying, and just at that point, the Giants, led by Mel Ott, began to come out of their dugout to take their warm-up. Without missing a beat, I said, "Take a look at that Number Four there. A nicer guy never drew breath than that man there." I called off his players' names as they came marching up the steps behind him, "Walker Cooper, Mize, Marshall, Kerr, Gordon, Thomson. Take a look at them. All nice guys. They'll finish last. Nice guys. Finish last."
I said, "They lose a ball game, they go home, they have a nice dinner, they put their heads down on the pillow and go to sleep. Poor Mel Ott, he can't sleep at night. He wants to win, he's got a job to do for the owner of the ball club. But that doesn't concern the players, they're all getting good money." I said, "you surround yourself with this type of player, they're real nice guys, sure—'Howarya, Howarya'—and you're going to finish down in the cellar with them. Because they think they're giving you one hundred percent on the ball field and they're not. Give me some scratching, diving, hungry ballplayers who come to kill you. Now, Stanky's the nicest gentleman who ever drew breath, but when the bell rings you're his mortal enemy. That's the kind of a guy I want playing for me."
That was the context. To explain why Eddie Stanky was so valuable to me by comparing him to a group of far more talented players who were—in fact—in last place. Frankie Graham did write it up that way. In that respect, Graham was the most remarkable reporter I ever met. He would sit there and never take a note, and then you'd pick up the paper and find yourself quoted word for word. But the other writers who picked it up ran two sentences together to make it sound as if I were saying that you couldn't be a decent person and succeed.
And so, whenever someone like Ara Parseghian wins a championship you are sure to read, "Ara Parseghian has proved that you can be a nice guy and win." I've seen it a thousand times. They don't even have to write "Despite what Leo Durocher says;' any more.
But, do you know, I don't think it would have been picked up like that if it hadn't struck a chord. Because as a general proposition, it's true. Or are you going to tell me that you've never said to yourself, "The trouble with me is I'm too nice. Well, never again."
That's what I meant. I know this will come as a shock to a lot of people but I have dined in the homes of the rich and the mighty and I have never once kicked dirt on my hostess. Put me on the ball field, and I'm a different man. If you're in professional sports, buddy, and you don't care whether you win or lose, you are going to finish last. Because that's where those guys finish, they finish last. Last.
I never did anything I didn't try to beat you at. If I pitch pennies I want to beat you. If I'm spitting at a crack in the sidewalk I want to beat you. I would make the loser's trip to the opposing dressing room to congratulate the other manager because that was the proper thing to do. But I'm honest enough to say that I didn't like it. You think I liked it when I had to go to see Mr. Stengel and say, "Congratulations, Casey, you played great"? I'd have liked to stick a knife in his chest and twist it inside him.
I come to play! I come to beat you! I come to kill you! That's the way Miller Huggins, my first manager, brought me up, and that's the way it has always been with me.
I'm just a little smarter than you are, buddy, and so why the hell aren't you over here congratulating me?
After the Dodgers had lost the final playoff game to San Francisco in 1962, I couldn't even bring myself to do that. And I wasn't even the manager, I was only the coach. Still, I should have been the second Dodger over there, right behind Walter Alston. Alvin Dark, the Giants' manager, was one of my boys. He had played for me and he had been my captain. Many of the Giants players were close friends, and there was Willie Mays, who is as close to being a son as it is possible to be without being the blood of my blood and the flesh of my flesh.
But, dammit, we had gone into the ninth inning leading by two runs. With the ball club we had, we should have run away with the pennant. All right, that's baseball. I could remember that Jackie Robinson, whom I had been feuding with all year, had been the second Dodger player in our locker room in 1951 after we had beaten them on Bobby Thomson's home run. I knew Jackie was bleeding inside. I knew he'd rather have been congratulating anybody in the world but me. And still Jackie had come in smiling.
But I sat there without taking off my spikes, and I just couldn't do it. We had lost with one of the best teams I had ever been associated with. My kind of team. This was the year Maury Wills stole 104 bases and won the Most Valuable Player award. Tommy Davis, who hadn't broken his ankle yet, had the most incredible year in modern baseball. (Would you believe .346, 230 base hits and 153 rbi?) Plus 27 home runs. Willie Davis, who could outrun the world, had 21 home runs and 85 rbi. Frank Howard was giving us the long ball, 31 home runs and 119 rbi. And good pitching. Don Drysdale was having the best year of his life, 25 victories and the Cy Young award. Sandy Koufax had been going even better until he was knocked out by a circulatory blockage in his finger shortly after the All Star game. And still Koufax led the league in Earned Run Average. Ed Roebuck was having a fabulous year in relief.
Seven key players having the best seasons of their career, and we couldn't shake the Giants. Three guys who could run like ring-tailed apes, and we had a manager who sat back and played everything conservatively. Forget the signs. Speed overcomes everything. Let them run.
After Koufax went out, I just thought, To hell with it. Alston would give me the take sign, I'd flash the hit sign. Alston would signal to bunt, I'd call for the hit-and-run. They were throwing the first pitch right in there to Maury Wills, knowing he was willing to get on with a walk. "Come on," I told him. "Swing at the first one, don't let them get ahead of you. You're not just a runner, you're a hitter. Rip into it." Goddam, when he wasn't bouncing the ball over the third baseman's head he was ripping line drives down the right-field line, something he had never done before. I was letting him hit on the 2–0 and 3–1 counts, something he had never done before either. The more he hit, the more he ran, and before you knew it his fielding had got better. I never "saw" a take sign from Alston with any of the speedsters—and how they loved it. The whole team knew what I was doing, and they were saying, "Just keep going, Leo. Goddam, we never played like this before. It was always played tight to the vest around here before but now, Christ, we're playing wide open."
All that talent wanting nothing more than to express itself. The players were so loose; oh, God, that's the way it's supposed to be, everybody laughing, everybody relaxed. We won 17 out of 21 games and took a 51/2-game lead with maybe five or six weeks to go. And then we lost two games in a row and Alston called a meeting. "As of tonight, starting with this ball game," he said, "I will take complete charge of this ball club. And Leo, that means you. If I give you the bunt sign, that's what I want. The bunt. And if I give you the take sign, I want that hitter to take. Any sign that I give and you miss," he said, "I will fine you two hundred dollars and the player at bat two hundred dollars."
There was not a thing I could do any more. "I'm gone, fellows. All I can do is stand there like a wooden Indian and give you the signs. If he gives me the bunt you got to bunt. Because it won't just be me who'll be fined if you don't. You'll be fined, too."
And, boy, he took the bats right out of their hands. He took the bats out of their hands and, brother, their assholes tightened so that you couldn't drive a needle up there. In the pressure of a pennant race you can really tighten them up, and the tighter they got the more conservative he became.
And every day he held a meeting, which is the worst thing you can do when a team is going very bad or very good. If they're going good, who needs a meeting? "Just keep going, fellows," that's all the meeting you need. If they're going bad, you can only look for the opportune moment to relax them.
Whenever I held a meeting on a team that was that tight it would be to say, "Come on, for chrissake, you're playing like a lot of two-dollar whores. Swing the bat if you hit the ball ten feet in the air. If I didn't know you fellows and I wasn't seeing it, I wouldn't believe this. I know you're a good ball club, what the hell are you doing? Come on, let's slash and rip at 'em. And no curfew tonight. Go out and get drunk. I don't care what you do. Just show up at the park in time for tomorrow's game."
Every day Alston would hold a meeting and go over the opposition. You know what they say at meetings? On seven of the eight starters, they say, "Push him back and curve him on the outside." The eighth guy is hitting .220 and they say, "Throw it by him."
Day by day it got worse and worse. The only reason we didn't blow the lead was that San Francisco was losing right along with us. With eight games left we were still four ahead. We lost four out of five—couldn't score a run—and with three games left we were two ahead. All we had to do was win one of them. We lost all three. With a team like that, it was criminal.
In the third game of the playoff series, we were leading by two runs in the last of the ninth. And that was the inning that almost got me fired.
Ed Roebuck had come into the game in the sixth inning and pitched out of a jam. Got by the seventh and struggled to get through the eighth. Pitching has always been one of my strong points, and I could see that his arm was hanging dead. "How do you feel, buddy?" I asked him, as he was coming off.
He said, "My arm feels like lead. Man, I am tired."
I didn't go to Alston. I went to the pitching coach, Joe Becker, who was standing practically alongside him at the corner of the dugout near the bat rack. That's the right way to do it. You don't go over the pitching coach's head. "Get somebody ready," I said to Becker. "Don't let this fellow go out in the ninth inning. He can't lift his arm."
Becker didn't say a word. Alston didn't say a word. It was like I wasn't there.
I said, "Walt, he told me he was tired. He's through." And Alston said, more to Becker than to me, "I'm going to win or lose with Roebuck. He stays right there."
All right, I went out to the third base coaching box, we got the bases loaded with two out and Roebuck is supposed to be the hitter. I was so sure Alston was going to send up a pinch hitter, that I was making hitting motions from the coaching line. And here comes Roebuck out of the dugout with his batting helmet on.
When I came back in and took my seat at the other end of the bench, Drysdale, Koufax and Johnny Padres—who had started the game—were standing right there. "Don't let them send Roebuck back out," they pleaded. "Tell him he's got to make a change. Don't let him do it, Leo."
Don't let him? "What the hell do you want me to do, I'm not managing the club. There's not a goddam thing more I can say than I've said."
Worst inning I ever saw in my life. The first batter singles, and he's forced at second. One out. And now Roebuck is so tired that his control deserted him. He walked Willie McCovey, who was pinch-hitting, and then he walked Felipe Alou. The bases are loaded and here comes Willie Mays. Alston didn't make a move and I'll be a sonafagun if he almost didn't get away with it. Willie hit a bullet back at Roebuck. Waist high, practically into his glove. If it had stuck it probably would have been a double play. As it was, the ball was hit with such force that it tore the glove right off his hand. A run was in and the bases were still loaded, but we were still one run ahead.
Excerpted from Nice Guys Finish Last by Leo Durocher, Ed Linn. Copyright © 1975 Leo Durocher. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author
Leo Durocher (1905–91) spent nearly fifty years in the major leagues as a player and manager. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994. Ed Linn (1922–2000) was the author of seventeen books, including VeeckAs in Wreck.
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