Leo Ernest Durocher was a game changer.
Born in 1905, he played in the Old Era; with Babe Ruth and the other legends of that time. But he also played shortstop in the FIRST televised baseball games between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds in 1939.
Remember this, because it looms large in both his legacy and that of the Cubs.
He was a no hit (.247 lifetime avg.) good field shortstop, who is really FAR more famous for his exploits as a Manager than he was as a player. It was there that he was truly a game changer – and along with Branch Rickey one of the men blessed with the foresight that baseball needed to take it into the Modern Age.
He managed the Dodgers when Jackie Robinson was brought up. In 1947 he told players who were grousing about Robinson coming to the team this:
I don’t care if the guy is yellow or black or has stripes like a fuckin’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team and I say he PLAYS. What’s more I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money I will see that you are all traded’.
Classic Leo. From the guy Babe Ruth called ‘the all-American out’.
But Durocher was a savvy guy. He had a nose for the rich and famous, and became pals with many Hollywood types including Frank Sinatra. He also knew that the new medium – television – was going to be BIG.
He was the first televised player. And in Los Angeles in the 60’s he tapped into the TV medium big time. Appearances – which now have become the stuff of legend – were made on ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’, ‘The Munsters’ and most notably ‘Mr Ed’. Playing himself, the running gag was he would unwittingly stumble into a ‘phenom’ of sorts – Jethro Bodine with his possum fat fastball, Herman Munster with his prodigious home run power or Mr Ed, the talking horse – who knew Moose Skowron held his hands too low and called Durocher using his owner Wilbur Post’s name. He then proceeded to give inside information on the game, which Durocher was MORE than happy to receive, until they beat the hated Giants for the pennant.
This just fueled Durocher’s romance with the electronic media. Soon, in 1966 he found himself manager of the hapless Chicago Cubs, a perennial also-ran that featured TWO unique things. One being day baseball as Wrigley Field had no lights.
The second was television coverage of literally all of their games. Durocher’s first exclamation upon taking the job: ‘I am not the manager of an eighth place team’. He was right.
The Cubs finished TENTH.
But he was now on TV everyday. And the Wrigleys decided to open the wallet and bring in some players: Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins, Ken Holtzman, Randy Hundley and Bill Hands
And ‘Leo the Lip’ became a national celebrity once again. Not to mention the Cubs, who had a huge fan base – again thanks not to the team but to the power of WGN-TV – established the now commonplace instance of fans having instant electronic connection to their local team.
Up to then even the big guys – The Yankees, Dodgers and such – had limited TV coverage and the fans were limited to reading about it in the next day’s papers. This is the legacy of Leo Durocher, baseball manager and character par excellence.
What is now Buck Showalter or Bobby Valentine would not be if not for the old ‘gashouse gang’ shortstop who played with Ruth during the Silent Film Era yet intuitively understood that MEDIA MATTERS.
His greatest regret was not bringing a winner to Philip Wrigley. But blame that on the rigors of day baseball and the old notions of a ‘starting eight’. The Miracle Mets played at night and employed the platoon system; Their innovative manager Gil Hodges truly brought the game into the present.
But Leo knew the Camera. And he knew The Stars.
He should, he was one…