The Suspension of Leo Durocher

This article was written by David Mandell

This article was published in The National Pastime (Volume 27, 2007)

“I never questioned the integrity of an umpire. Their eyesight, yes.” — Leo Durocher


In September 1941 Brooklyn Dodger president Larry MacPhail was elated. His Dodgers had defeated the Boston Braves and were returning by train to New York City, the National League pennant safely in hand. To celebrate the Dodgers’ triumph, MacPhail waited for them at the city’s 125th Street railroad stop. MacPhail brought champagne for his victorious players and eagerly waited for their arrival. To his surprise, the train raced by without stopping, headed directly to Grand Central Station, 83 blocks south, and left MacPhail and his champagne buckets behind. MacPhail was convinced that his Dodger manager, Leo “the Lip” Durocher, son of a railroad engineer, had ordered the conductor not to stop. Durocher later maintained that he did not know MacPhail was even there. It did not matter to MacPhail. A major league feud was on. Six seasons later, MacPhail and Durocher met again, resulting in the suspension of Leo Durocher.

Born July 27, 1905, in West Springfield, MA, Durocher reached the majors in 1925, playing two games with the New York Yankees. Durocher spent the next two seasons in the minors, playing in Atlanta and St. Paul. In 1928, he rejoined the Yankees for two seasons, hitting .270 and .246. While teammate Babe Ruth shattered bat­ ting records, Durocher hit no home runs and picked up a reputation as a “good field no hit” player. In his memoirs Durocher recalled how the Babe labeled him the all­ American Out. During his time with the Yankees rumors circulated that Durocher had stolen Babe Ruth’s watch.

Durocher angrily denied them and decades later he was still indignant. As he put it, “Fresh, yes, Pool hustler, yes. But steal the Babe’s watch? Get out of here!” The Yanks sold Durocher to Cincinnati, where he spent three seasons before being sold to the St. Louis Cardinals. Playing with its famous Gashouse Gang for four seasons, Durocher hit his career-best batting average as a regular, .286 in 1936.

In 1938, he went to Brooklyn, and became player­ manager in 1939, replacing Burleigh Grimes. Durocher’s rival for the job was Babe Ruth, then a first base coach with the club. When Dodger boss Larry MacPhail selected Durocher, Ruth left the club. Durocher recalled his initial discussion with MacPhail about managing. MacPhail asked, “What makes you think you can man­ age?” When he replied that the only way he could prove it was on the ball field, MacPhail responded, “You a manager? That’s the funniest thing I ever heard.” The two tangled quickly over a bingo prize Durocher won at a pre-spring training workout in Hot Springs, Arkansas. MacPhail ordered Durocher to turn over his $660 win­nings and accused him of gambling. MacPhail “fired” Durocher, the beginning of a ritual where MacPhail would tell Durocher he was fired but never carry out the threat. By the end of his career Durocher joked that MacPhail had fired him 60 times.

Durocher phased down his playing time, becoming full-time manager in 1946. His 1941 team won the National League pennant, and the team finished the 1946 season two games behind the league champion St. Louis Cardinals. Durocher’s tenure included an arrest for fighting with a heckler who accused him of throwing a game. The fan told reporters that a furious Durocher said, “You’ve got a mother, how would you like to call her names?” before striking him. In Durocher’s version, the fan fell on wet cement.

Durocher became baseball’s best-known manager, and rumors flew that he might switch to the Yankees. On October 3, 1946, Durocher denied them. His fom1er president Larry MacPhail now ran and partly owned the Yankees. Durocher told reporters,

Larry MacPhail gave me my first chance to be a man­ager. He was a wonderful man to work for. Yes, I expect to see him now that the season is over. He is a good friend of mine and I expect to see him often.

Four weeks later Durocher arrived in Columbus, OH to meet Dodger president Branch Rickey and said no one had approached him about the Yankees job. Intrigue continued as Dodger coach Charlie Dressen resigned and joined the Yankee organization. In early November the Yankees settled the issue, naming Bucky Harris as man­ager. MacPhail decided against Durocher, saying, “I don’t think Leo would have been the logical choice for this job. Don’t get me wrong. I think he is a great manager, but there were other angles involved.”

On November 25, Durocher signed a contract with the Dodgers reported to be $42,000 plus a $20,000 atten­dance bonus. Durocher denied even reading the contract, saying,

I can make more money next year than I did last season under the bonus plan. Believe it or not I actually signed the paper without turning it over to see how much the salary was. Why shouldn’t I? Mr. Rickey has always been like a father to me.

Durocher naturally couldn’t let Larry MacPhail have the last word. He added that MacPhail had called him three times, offering more money, but he had said no each time. With the managerial issues settled, baseball looked forward to the 1947 season and the arrival of Jackie Robinson with the Dodgers.

Durocher’s offseason was one of the most memorable in baseball history. On January 21, 1947, his private life became very public. Durocher had developed a relation­ship with actress Laraine Day. Born in Roosevelt, UT, the 29-year-old beauty had already acted in 32 movies, beginning with a small part in the 193 7 film Stella Dallas. She was best known for her role as a nurse in the Dr. Kildare series. The couple married in El Paso, TX.

Marriage is normally a happy event, but Leo’s had a problem. In California, Day was still considered a married woman by Judge George A. Dockweller, who presided over her divorce case from her first husband, airport administrator Ray Hendricks. Unwilling to wait until California courts concluded her divorce, Day crossed the Mexican border and divorced in Juarez. After her Mexican divorce, Day and Durocher found a justice of the peace in El Paso to marry them.

Judge Dockweller was irate when he heard the news. Durocher phoned him twice, proclaiming his love for Day. Dockweller was skeptical, saying, “He is a very facile talker, but this is one umpire he will have a hard time con­vincing.” The Durochers agreed not to live as husband and wife until Dockweller completed Day’s marital litigation. The press reported that Durocher had moved to actor George Raft’s home, but Durocher claimed to have checked into the Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica.

Day’s lawyer, Isaac Pacht, demanded Dockweller’s removal, accusing him of bias. Husband Ray Hendricks preferred to keep Dockweller. His attorney, Joseph Scott, told another California judge considering the matter, “This particular judge, [Dockweller], has serious and wholesome views on family life and the sanctity of marriage. I don’t blame this wretched girl. I blame this Durocher — this long distance chatterbox.” Compared to the other things he had been called, chatterbox was mild for the Lip. The divorce litigation eventually ended, and Durocher and Day married in California to avoid any further allegations of adultery or bigamy. The contro­versy continued to follow Durocher.

His boss, Branch Rickey, announced his support for Durocher. “Never for a moment have I considered the possibility that Leo might not continue as manager,” he announced and denied that the Day marriage would have any bearing on his status. He emphasized, “We will talk about a dozen things, but not one of the dozen has to do with what happened in California.”

Others were less forgiving. On February 28, the Catholic Youth Organization withdrew from the Brooklyn Dodger Knothole Club. The Dodgers feared the loss of its 125,000 members and fans. Reverend Vincent J. Powell of the Brooklyn Diocese accused Durocher of undermining the moral and spiritual training of young­sters. Powell said the “present manager of the Brooklyn baseball team is not the kind of leader we want for our young people.”

Retired pitcher Harry Coveleski didn’t even wait for the marriage controversy to become public. From his Pennsylvania tavern, Coveleski said, “Durocher’s another smartie like John McGraw of the Giants. Durocher thinks he can win by out talking the other fellow.” Coveleski wasn’t finished. The “Giant Killer” added, “That bum, Durocher! He can’t manage a coal mine team for my money.”

Durocher soon had more problems than complaints from baseball’s old-timers. He got an inkling of what was coming when commissioner A. B. “Happy” Chandler gave him a list of reputed gangsters and gamblers to avoid. Durocher agreed and considered the matter closed. Unfortunately for him, Larry MacPhail did not. MacPhail erupted over an article published under Durocher’s name in the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper. Actually written by Dodger traveling secretary Harold Parrott, it teased MacPhail about his hiring of Dodger coach Charlie Dressen. With the Dodgers and Yankees playing in Havana, Cuba, confrontation was inevitable.

Dick Young, the sportswriter who went on to a long career covering or creating feuds, asked Durocher what he thought about two of the men that commissioner Chandler had ordered Durocher to avoid, appearing in MacPhail’s box at the Dodger-Yankee games. Did he agree with Branch Rickey that baseball had different rules for MacPhail than it had for Durocher? Durocher proved his nickname Lippy was appropriate. In his memoirs he wrote, “Did I agree? Well, you know me. Ask me a question and you get an answer. You’re damn right I agreed.”

MacPhail announced that he would file a complaint with commissioner Chandler. Durocher learned of the complaint while he was in the Panama Canal Zone. Chandler asked MacPhail to think it over, but he was adamant. Durocher defended himself, telling reporters that MacPhail had tried to run him out of baseball for turning down his offer of $75,000 to manage the Yankees. The hearing was held in a Sarasota, FL, hotel with Yankees officials MacPhail and Dan Topping on one side and Dodger directors on the other. Durocher recalled that the most important Dodger official, Branch Rickey, was away at a family funeral and Leo’s request for a delay was denied.

As commissioner, Chandler had extraordinary powers. According to Professor Jeffrey Standen of Willamette University College of Law, an expert in sports law, Major League Baseball’s constitution grants the c01mnissioner authority over clubs and employees. The commissioner may take action that he finds is in the best interest of baseball. Baseball rules 21 and 2lfallow the commis­sioner to discipline employees for misconduct. Chandler’s decision would be final. Professor Standen points out that baseball’s rules give its commissioner the power to suspend and courts will generally not intervene unless the commissioner’s decision is arbitrary or capricious, a heavy burden to meet.

Durocher described the hearing room as resembling a courtroom, but his rights were limited. MacPhail recited the article that had infuriated him, and Durocher told him he hadn’t meant anything by it. Durocher wrote that he thought he had patched things up with MacPhail when MacPhail ripped the article up and told him to forget it. Chandler’s questioning focused on allegations that as manager he played high-stakes card games with a pitcher. Durocher denied it, saying he never collected anything from the player. Rickey spoke to Chandler several days later, and the hearings ended with the participants waiting for the decision.

The announcement came April 9 as Durocher and the Dodger management met at the team’s Brooklyn office. Durocher was suspended for the season and the suspension was extended to cover the World Series. Major League Baseball secretary-treasurer Walter W. Mulbry defended the suspension saying, “A long time ago the commissioner told Durocher that he already had too much unfavorable publicity and that the next offense would be his last.” Durocher spent Opening Day watch­ing his wife act in the movie Tycoon at RKO Studios in Lone Pine, CA. He considered suing Major League base­ball but decided against it. The Dodgers hired Burt Shotton to manage, and he directed the club to the National League pennant.

Durocher said little publicly during the season, play­ ing golf in California and hoping for reinstatement. On September 25 he flew to New York to meet Branch Rickey during the World Series. Mulbry announced that once the series ended, Durocher’s suspension was terminated and he could negotiate with any club. Rickey and the Dodgers would not rehire Durocher without a letter signed by Commissioner Chandler. In December, the Dodgers decided. Durocher was named manager again and Burt Shotton was appointed farm system director. Rickey stressed his objections to Durocher’s suspension, after saying he did not want to re-open the controversy. “The Commissioner knows I felt that Durocher had not done wrong.”

Durocher began the 1948 season with the Dodgers, but his tenure wasn’t long. Despite Branch Rickey’s restoring him as manager, Durocher suspected that Rickey wanted him out. Given Rickey’s treatment of Dodger Eddie Stanky, Durocher had good reason to won­der about his loyalty. Stanky requested a salary increase to $20,000. Five days after signing Stanky for $18,000, Rickey traded him to the Boston Braves. After sending Durocher on a scouting trip to Canada during the All­ Star break, Rickey summoned him to his office but refused to commit the Dodgers to retaining him for the season. Instead Rickey told Durocher that Giants owner Horace Stoneham wanted him to manage the Giants.

Not getting a commitment from Rickey, Durocher met with Stoneham, and on July 16 he replaced Mel Ott as Giants manager. Burt Shotton returned to manage the Dodgers. Given the rivalry between the Dodgers and Giants, the swap was shocking. It was Mel Ott’s Giants who were the object of Durocher’s trademark remark that nice guys finish last. Durocher remained as Giants manager through 1955, winning two pennants and the 1954 World Series. His most memorable moment came when the Giants defeated the Dodgers on Bobby Thomson’s home run in 1951.

Durocher left the Giants after the 1955 season, saying he was fired because owner Horace Stoneham knew he was quitting. He became a broadcaster and the host of The NBC Comedy Hour for three episodes in 1956. In 1961 he rejoined the Los Angeles Dodgers as one of manager Walt Alston’s coaches. As a coach he remained as feisty as he had been as manager. It didn’t take long for the old Durocher to surface. In his first week he got into a heated exchange with umpire Jocko Conlan, end­ing it with an exchange of kicks. Durocher ended up in a familiar place, under suspension, although only for three games.

Durocher stayed with the Dodgers to 1964 and then became Cubs manager in 1966. In midseason 1972 he was fired but soon became the Houston Astros manager for the remainder of 1972. He retired after the 1973 sea­ son. Throughout the 1960s and 70s Durocher regularly appeared in television shows, usually playing himself in episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies, The Donna Reed Show, The Munsters, and others. His final role came in a 1987 movie about the Yankees, once again acting as him­ self. He died October 7, 1991, in Palm Springs, CA. Three years later, Leo Durocher was admitted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Laraine Day and Durocher divorced in 1960. Day acted until her retirement in 1986, last appearing in a two-part episode of Murder, She Wrote. Larry MacPhail died October 1, 1975, in Miami, FL. MacPhail was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1978, and is remembered for introducing night games to baseball.

To paraphrase the Lip, nice guys end up in the Hall of Fame.

DAVID MANDELL is an attorney in Connecticut and has fol­lowed the Giants since Herman Franks was the manager.