Baseball's Top Managers and How They Got That Way
by Leonard Koppett
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LEO DUROCHER | Elder Statesman
When Leo left the Giants, he was out of baseball for five years. His home was Hollywood. He remained in the public eye as a television commentator for NBC's game of the week. His name was always mentioned when a managerial opening appeared, but no one hired him.
Finally in 1961, when the Dodgers were starting their fourth season in Los Angeles and preparing to move into their own Dodger Stadium the next year, O'Malley hired Leo as a coach. It created an awkward situation for Walt Alston, the manager, because Durocher outshone him as a celebrity (especially in the Hollywood environment) and was perceived as calling the shots for the very conservative Alston. Nevertheless, the system worked fine: the Dodgers (who had already won three pennants under Alston alone) won the World Series in 1963. But after the 1964 season, Leo severed his connection with the Dodgers for the last time.
The Cubs, having fallen on evil times and experimented with no manager at all for several years (using a committee of coaches), called him out of retirement in 1966. Leo was now sixty and facing a serious generation gap in communicating with twenty-year-olds of a particularly rebellious era eventually identified as "The Sixties." In 1966, he achieved something unprecedented: His Cubs became the first team ever to finish below the New York Mets, placing tenth and last as his former catcher, Westrum, lifted the Mets to ninth place for the first time as Stengel's successor.
But by the very next year, Leo had the Cubs in third (while the Mets fell back to last) and third again in 1968. The Cardinals dominated the league those two years, and Franks was finishing a four-year run of second-place finishes with the Giants, so Leo was flying high in Chicago -- where the White Sox were being managed by Stanky. (Did we mention that baseball is a small world?)
In 1969, the Cubs seemed on their way to a first-place finish in the brand-new two-division setup, only to run into a bigger miracle than 1951: the Miracle Mets under Gil Hodges, who closed with a rush in September and went on to win the World Series.
The Cubs just missed again in 1970, finishing second to Pittsburgh, and were a more distant third in 1971. With the team around .500 halfway through 1972, Durocher's welcome was worn out and he turned the team over to Whitey Lockman. A month later Leo was called to Houston, where the Astros were chasing Cincinnati, to replace Harry Walker with six weeks to go in the season. The Astros did finish second, and went 82-80 while placing fourth in 1973, but that was Durocher's last year in uniform.
He was sixty-seven years old, and the sharpness that had always given him his "edge" was not only dulled by time but less pertinent to a new world where many managers were equipped with charts, visual aides, statistics, research departments, and specialized coaches. For a man who played with Babe Ruth under Miller Huggins, an indoor ballpark with artificial turf in a two-division pennant race seemed centuries removed from his origins.
Still vigorous, still talkative, still a celebrity, Leo settled in Palm Springs, California, made the Oldtimers circuit, and, despite occasional illness, was going strong at eighty-five when he spoke at a New York Writers Dinner in 1991. He told stories about Mays and 1954. He died peacefully later that year.
But the true measure of his impact on baseball is simply the list of names of people who played under him who later managed major league teams:
Cookie Lavagetto. Fred Fitzsimmons. Billy Herman. Herman Franks. Bobby Bragan. Eddie Stanky. Clyde King. Gil Hodges. Bill Rigney. Whitey Lockman. Wes Westrum. Alvin Dark. Bob Elliott. Billy Gardner. Joe Amalfitano. Don Kessinger. Lee Elia. John Felske. Tommy Helms. Doug Rader.
That may not be a complete list. Durocher influenced some much more than others. Some managed a long time, some briefly. But all had teammates who were also affected by Leo, and spread Leo stories by word of mouth and personal contact to other teammates on other teams.
He remains the prototype, in baseball's memory bank today, of the in-game-decisive manager at his sharpest in smell of victory with players capable of executing his flashes of inspiration.
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.
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