Palm Springs, Calif.
I never thought I'd see the day when anybody would be able to button up the Lip. But it's happened! Leo Durocher, whose baseball career as a player, manager, and often controversial figure spanned nearly a half century (1925-1973 ), has silenced himself.
Durocher says he no longer gives interviews, even if one tries to change the subject from baseball to his extensive and expensive collection of oriental art. Microphones and television cameras bore him. Sports writers had better keep their distance -- and their questions to themselves.
Why would someone who was once maybe the best unrehearsed sports interview in America, I asked Leo, suddenly become the Great Clam? If Durocher would only talk to me, I would even let him kick dirt on my shoes, his favorite way of getting in the last word -- er, foot with umpires after they had thrown him out of a game.
Just how I was going to accomplish this on the marbled lobby of the new Sheraton-Plaza Resort and Racqut Club in Palm Springs I wasn't sure. But maybe if Leo and I stood in a potted plant together, we could both get the job done.
"I am retired, I am no longer in baseball, I have no opinions on anything, and I no longer give interviews," explained Durocher, who managed in four big league cities -- Brooklyn, New York, Chicago, and Houston -- and won pennants with the Dodgers and Giants. "I feel at home here in the desert with my wife and friends [he reportedly lives next to Frank Sinatra] and I don't need any publicity.
"Not that I couldn't have it if I wanted it," Leo continued. "I get calls every day from newspapers and magazines in New York and other parts of the country, and I turn them all down. You say you don't want to talk anything current, you only want to talk nostalgia. Well, I don't want to talk nostalgia. I live quietly. I'm a different person. I'm telling you, I don't want to talk."
Among the things Durocher didn't want to talk about was his rookie year with the 1928 New York Yankees, when he showed a glove that could stop bullets at shortstop. At the plate he was no Babe Ruth -- in fact it was the Babe who nicknamed him "the All-American out" -- but his .270 average was at least adequate considering his defensive contributions. Yankee Manager Miller Huggins treated him like a second son, and his teammates marveled when Leo opened his suitcase and took out a tuxedo! Most rookies in those days were lucky if they had two pairs of matching socks.
Although Durocher always claimed that Branch Rickey deserved the credit for breaking baseball's color line by signing Jackie Robinson to a major league contract, one thing Leo did may have helped Robinson a lot more than he imagined at the time.
The Dodgers were in Panama in the spring of 1947 for a weekend series with a squad of Caribbean all-stars when Durocher began to hear rumblings. Word came that his players were getting up a petition saying they would never play with Jackie.
This was before Robinson had been called up to the big leagues by Rickey. Leo, however, had seen Jackie play at Montreal, was convinced that he could make it with the Dodgers, and wanted him badly.
Suddenly in the middle of the night during that Panama trip, Durocher got out of bed, rounded up his players with the help of his coaches, and herded everybody into the hotel's kitchen. While they sat on counters and chopping blocks, Leo told them in street language what they could do with their petition.
He also reminded them that Jackie Robinson was a great player, that he was going to make them all a lot of money by helping the Dodgers win pennants, that he would be only the first of many great black players and that they had better get used to the idea.
The petition never surfaced, but the Dodgers did win the 1947 National League championship with Robinson at first base. However, Durocher, who had been suspended prior to the start of that season by Commissioner A. B. (Happy) Chandler for conduct detrimental to baseball, sat out that year on the West Coast.
Although Leo often lipped before he looked, he saw enough of Willie Mays in a 1951 Florida exhibition game to ask owner Horace Stoneham of the New York Giants (for whom he was managing) to bring the kid up to the parent club immediately.
Stoneham rejected the idea on the basis that Mays wasn't ready, that his 20th birthday was still ahead of him, and that the US Army would soon have him anyway. But when the Giants got away poorly and Willie's batting average climbed to .477 at Minneapolis, Horace finally said OK.
The ballad of Willie Mays promptly hit a sour note when the first two National League pitchers he faced were Philadelphia's Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons. In fact, Mays was 0-for-24 when one of Durocher's coaches came to him after a game and told him that Willie was sitting in front of his locker crying.
"Look, son," Leo is quoted as saying, "I brought you up here to do one thing. That's to play center field. You're the best centerfielder I've ever looked at and as long as I'm here, you'll be here. Go home, get a good night's sleep, and forget everything that's happened."
In his first time at bat the following day, Mays hit Warren Spahn's first pitch into the light towers for a home run.
My advice to you, Leo, is to stop being a ship lying at anchor in some cozy harbor. Although ships are always safe at dockside, that's not what they were built to do.