In the Miracle of 1951, climaxed by Bobby Thomson's playoff home run off Ralph Branca, Durocher's stewardship reached full flower. He had gathered a coaching staff geared to his needs. Herman Franks, who had been a second-string catcher for him in Brooklyn, was his first lieutenant. Freddie Fitzsimmons, who had pitched for McGraw and then for Leo in Brooklyn, and who had managed the Phillies for a couple of years, coached at first, with Leo himself at third. The third coach was Frank Shellenback, a Pacific Coast legend for almost twenty years, still licensed to use the spitball until he stopped pitching in 1938, and subsequently a major league coach in Boston and Detroit. Among these three, the knowledge of pitching and the handling of pitchers was of the highest order. And in running the ball game itself, Leo needed no help.
What also emerged is what Rickey had foreseen: To a younger generation of players, Leo was becoming someone to listen to, not resent. With Mays in particular, he formed a warm and supportive relationship from the first moment. (Leo's detractors would say, "Why not? He could see what Willie could do for him." But the fact is, in this and many other cases, Leo could be thoughtful and considerate and generous and truly helpful -- when he wanted to be.) But more than anything, they admired his grasp of the game and his response to situations. They developed absolute faith in his ability to guess right and stay ahead of the opposing manager's thinking. Even those who found his lifestyle and personal manner distasteful, like Dark and Thomson, felt wholeheartedly that his leadership made winning possible.
Leo was known as profane in language, ruthless in competition (he believed in the knockdown pitch and mayhem at second in breaking up double plays), unconcerned about even his own players getting hurt if it might win a game now. But when the 1951 season started out with 11 losses in 14 games, he didn't abuse anyone and kept confidence high -- a basic attribute of good managing. He left his mature pitchers, Jansen and Maglie, alone; he babied and urged those who needed it, like Hearn. He switched people around until he got the best combination, moving Lockman from left to first and Irvin from first to left just before Mays arrived; and after Mays had taken over center field from Thomson, put Bobby at third base in July. The great pennant run, which started with a 16-game winning streak from 11 1/2 games behind the Dodgers in mid-August, really began when Thomson, at third, started hitting .357 for the rest of the year. His homer off Branca had been the difference in the first playoff game at Ebbets Field, and the historic 3-run shot with one out in the bottom of the ninth of the third game, erasing a 4-2 Dodger lead, was only the last and crowning blow of a two-month-long fantasy.
In short, all his moves worked, and that's what impressed his players. Stanky, the second baseman and leadoff man who played baseball more with brains and bravery than physical gift, was his delegate on the field. (In receiving an award from the New York Baseball Writers, Stanky thanked them for "recognizing my intangibles.") Eddie called him "Leo the Lion," and tackled him in the third base coaching box as Thomson approached on his homer, to make sure Leo wouldn't make it illegal by grabbing Thomson in celebration. The press, notably Red Smith in his columns and Willard Mullin in his cartoons, started calling Leo "The Little Shepherd of Coogan's Bluff," noting his new role as true leader of the flock entrusted to him, not simply a gambling play caller. (Coogan's Bluff was the cliff that overlooked the Polo Grounds.) And, better still, the "practically peerless leader," a delicious play on the Peerless Leader label that had belonged to Frank Chance of those great 1906-10 Cubs.
The 1951 miracle could not be repeated in 1952, as the Dodgers won by 4 1/2 games, and whatever else may have been involved, one reason was explanation enough: Mays left in May to serve his time as an army draftee. He was gone all of 1953, too, while Maglie and Jansen were showing signs of age, and Irvin was slowly recuperating from a leg injury that cost him most of 1952. Stanky had gone over to manage the Cardinals in 1952, so a lot of rebuilding was in order.
At this stage, two of Leo's persistent flaws surfaced. His turbulent personal life led to Stoneham's disenchantment with him as a person. And his tendency to lose interest and not pay attention when it was obvious he had no chance to win asserted itself as 1953 wore on. The Giants finished fifth, and Stoneham was getting fed up.
Excerpted and reproduced From The Man In The Dugout, Expanded Edition: Baseball's Top Managers & How They Got That Way by Leonard Koppett, by permission of Temple University Press.
Copyright © 2000 by Temple University. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be printed, reproduced, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including any information storage or retrieval system, without written permission from Temple University Press.