The Lip

The Lip and the Babe

If I had to put together a list of the most interesting men to ever be associated with Major League Baseball, I’m certain that Casey Stengel would be at the top. I’m not sure of the order of the next three or four, probably Branch Rickey second. But I am sure that on the list, very high on the list would be Leo Durocher.

At this point Durocher is receding in the minds of most fans. It’s been a long time and he’s been gone for a long time. But he was brash, loud, opinionated (they called him “Leo the Lip” for a reason). He played with Babe Ruth and with Dizzy Dean. He managed PeeWee Reese and Willie Mays. He was, for years a fixture.

He wasn’t much of a player. Here’s his triple slash line: .247/.299/.320/.619 (OPS+ of 66) with 575 runs on 1320 hits and 377 walks. His WAR is all of 5.1. He was a decent, but not great, shortstop, his defensive WAR being 11.4. He spent time with the Yankees, Reds, Cardinals, and Dodgers.

What he was ultimately was a great baseball mind. He knew all the tricks of the trade, knew how to motivate players, knew how to get the most out of a modest roster, knew how to make the fans love him. He was, in other words, a Hall of Fame Manager. He took over a moribund Brooklyn team in 1939 and brought them to a pennant in 1941. They lost the World Series, then fell back behind a superb Cardinals team. In 1946, Brooklyn and St. Louis were tied at the end of the season. A three game playoff format lasted two games as the Cards swept the Dodgers and went on to a World Series title. It was during the 1946 season that Durocher uttered a comment about the Giants and Mel Ott that has come down to us as Durocher’s trademark, “Nice guys finish last.” That’s not the exact quote, but it does distill the meaning.

Contrary to popular belief, Durocher was not Jackie Robinson’s first big league manager. During the run up to the 1947 season, Durocher was suspended for a variety of reasons, most notably his inability to stay away from friends who were gamblers, mobsters, and bookies. Before the suspension, he did take swift action to quash the anti-Robinson petition being circulated by some of the Brooklyn players. Robinson later indicated he thought Durocher’s actions were significant in easing his (Robinson’s) path to the big leagues.

In 1948, Durocher was released by the Dodgers. Branch Rickey was running the team and he and Leo Durocher had very different philosophies on life (but not on integration and baseball). Bill James in his Historical Baseball Abstract tells the story of Durocher giving a nervous pitcher a drink before a game and Rickey going crazy over it. A paraphrase of Durocher’s comment led to the famous “There’s a W column and an L column. You pay me to put crooked numbers in the W column.”

It also contributed to Rickey releasing Durocher from his contract and allowing him to move to the Giants as manager. He led them to the NL pennant in 1951, this time winning a three game playoff against Brooklyn (the “Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant” series). They lost the World Series to the Yankees, but pulled off a famous upset in 1954 when they won the World Series against the 111 win Indians. It was the last Giants pennant and World Series victory in in New York, and their last world’s championship in the 20th Century. He left the Giants after the 1955 season.

Durocher had a long running affair with minor Hollywood actress Laraine Day. They were married in 1947 and divorced in 1960 (she was the third of four Durocher wives). The relationship got him some parts in movies and on television (he was in an episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies” playing himself) and he was considered pretty good for someone not trained in acting.

He coached a little, did some acting, then in 1966 took over the Chicago Cubs. He stayed into the 1972 season, captaining the collapse of 1969 that led to the “Miracle Mets” championship. The Cubs had a long history of futility when he took over, but he kept them above .500 in each of his seasons as manager, except the first. In 1972 he moved on to Houston after being fired by the Cubs for not winning a pennant. He had a winning record with the Astros and retired after the 1973 season with a managerial record of 2008-1709 (a .540 winning percentage).

He managed a little in Japan, wrote a book (which is pretty good), and died in 1991. He was enshrined at Cooperstown in 1994. He deserved it as a baseball man and as one of the more famous people to be involved in the game.

 

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6 Responses to “The Lip”

  1. glenrussellslater Says:

    Yes, I would have to agree that Leo The Lip was one of baseball’s most unforgettable characters.

    V, have you ever read Durocher’s autobiography “Nice Guys Finish Last”? It’s an excellent book, in my opinion.

    Glen

  2. glenrussellslater Says:

    As far as interesting people in baseball, besides Leo, Branch, and Casey, I’d have to put Jackie himself, as well as Yogi, Jimmy Piersall, Joe Pepitone, and many many others.

    And let’s not forget Minnie Minoso.

    Glen

  3. Steve Myers Says:

    What a diverse career! It’s remarkable that he and Rickey managed to work together at all or maybe it was a bit like the mild-mannered Christy Mathewson and the more rugged John McGraw being so effective together? I think I have that right? I think it was Mathewson and McGraw? I read about them in a Frank Deford Book. I can’t remember the title. Maybe you read it? I remember it being a good one.

  4. wkkortas Says:

    I would agree that Nice Guys Finish Last is pretty good, certainly better than I would have expected it to be. I would also argue that Leo doesn’t (and, at the time, didn’t) take enough grief for punting the Cubs ’69 season.

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