Checking in With a Couple of Dodger Legends

Checking in With a Couple of Dodger Legends
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Leo Durocher entered professional baseball as a player during the presidency of Calvin Coolidge and had his last job as a manager when Richard Nixon was in the White House.  In between, he did a lot of baseball.  He was also well-known outside of the sport, doing guest spots on radio programs in the 1930s and 1940s, going on USO tours and very, very briefly hosting his own television comedy/variety show.  In fact, Paul Dickson’s "Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son" (Bloomsbury, 2017) is the seventh biographical book on him.

Durocher was a New York Yankee in the days of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and he won a World Series ring with them in 1928.  He was then captain of the “gashouse gang” St. Louis Cardinals and won another ring.  He returned to New York as a Brooklyn Dodger where he was a player, coach and manager.  Durocher’s most important contribution to baseball came in managing the team when Jackie Robinson arrived in training camp and desegregated baseball.  Just before the start of the season, though, Major League Baseball Commissioner Alfred “Happy” Chandler suspended him from the game.  The common explanation was that Durocher had ties to organized crime and gamblers.  While that is clearly true, Dickson suggests—but only suggests—that his ties to the underworld were vastly exaggerated. 

After a short and unhappy return to the Dodgers, Durocher became manager of the New York Giants, where he helped Willie Mays make the transition to the major leagues.  He was with the Giants during the 1951 pennant race when the team won 37 of their last 44 games and took the National League title from the Dodgers with the “shot heard round the world,” the home run Bobby Thompson hit off Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca.  It would take until 1954 for the Giants to win a World Series, though.  After taking several years off from baseball, Durocher returned as a coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers before becoming manager of the Chicago Cubs.  He turned the team into a winner, but most people remember that the team collapsed during the 1969 pennant race.  The Cubs were in first place for most of the season, but lost that position to the New York Mets days before the season ended.  He managed the Cubs for another two-and-a-half years and then managed the Houston Astros for a year-and-a-half.  He had winning records with both teams, and gave the Astros its best finish to date, but after mid-1969 he basically won as many as he lost.  The game might very well have passed him by, but he was—and still is—among the top ten for career wins as a manager.

Durocher antagonized opposing players and umpires with a near-constant barrage of nasty verbal comments, earning him the nickname “Leo the Lip.”  Durocher always said he was playing a role, but many in baseball believed otherwise, finding him a loud, obnoxious, abrasive and confrontational bully.  Others who he mentored said he was a genius with a sense of humor who nurtured and supported their development.  When Tommy Lasorda became manager of the Dodgers, he wore Durocher’s number in his honor.  During his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Willie Mays called for Durocher’s election to the Hall. 

Dickson is a newspaper man and it shows.  This book was an easy read, and the grit and the glamour of Durocher’s life came through, but more of the grime than the glitz.  Durocher clearly had an antagonistic relationship with the media and got unfair news coverage from reporters, but it is also easy to understand why.  Dickson has done an impressive research job, drawing upon old news stories and feature profiles from deceased newspapers and magazines, but he seems reluctant to offer deep insight into his subject.  Durocher does not emerge as a confusing, confounding man who was both a hero and scoundrel; rather, he's just a jerk who had some good days.

While he never played or managed in Dodger Stadium as a Dodger, Durocher brought the Cubs and Astros to this ballpark multiple times.  Jerald Podair’s "City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles" (Princeton, 2017) is the story of the controversial origins of Dodger Stadium. It is also a timely story.  In the past 15 months, three National Football League teams have relocated to new cities for the same reason that Dodger owner Walter O’Malley brought his team to the west coast—want of a new stadium. 

This book has a number of strengths.  First, the research is deep.  Podair has consulted the sources on all sides of this controversial story.  It, like Dickson’s book, is an easy read, which is no small thing given the topic.  Building this stadium involved not only baseball issues, but other factors including local Los Angeles politics, finance, architecture and civil engineering.  That is a pretty broad range of topics, and Podair manages to present them in clear and understandable language. 

Podair also avoids taking sides.  He presents the views of all the key figures in this account in a fair, even manner.  O’Malley is a controversial figure in baseball.  While he might have brought the national pastime to the west coast, he broke the hearts of fans in Brooklyn.  Podair makes it clear that O’Malley did not want to leave Brooklyn, but he honestly needed a bigger and better stadium.  At a time when ticket sales were the main source of revenue for a sports team, Ebbets Field in Brooklyn was too small, and other factors like its distance from subway stops and its limited parking spaces (less than 1,000) worked against revenue.  O’Malley decided to leave New York when it was clear that Robert Moses, the city planner in New York who controlled a number of public authorities, would not approve the building of a new stadium in Brooklyn.  Podair even gives Moses fair treatment as well.  Moses had funds for building facilities that serviced a “public purpose."  Helping a private business did not fit the bill. 

O’Malley wanted to build a privately owned stadium with his own money and Los Angeles was willing to help.  Specifically, the city gave the Dodgers a chunk of under-developed land near downtown in return for other real estate that the team owned in the city.  Others in the city believed the same way as Moses; helping a private enterprise was not the job of a municipal government.  They had a point, seeing it as a form of corporate welfare.  In a referendum, however, the people of Los Angeles disagreed.  Lawsuits followed, because deed restrictions on the land required that it serve a “public purpose.”  The case reached the California Supreme Court and it ruled in a decisive 7-0 vote that the contract between the City of Los Angeles and the Dodgers met the legal requirements of the deed.  But opponents refused to bend to the obvious and kept challenging O’Malley in zoning commission meetings and city council sessions.

In retrospect, O’Malley’s vision seems to have had more merit than those of his critics.  The City of San Francisco built Candlestick Park, a municipally-owned stadium, for the Giants in a shorter amount of time, but it was a poorly designed, multi-sport facility, and it ended up taking the city 30 years to pay off the bonds. During that time, the Giants threatened to move twice.  Dodger Stadium also outlasted Shea Stadium, which Moses insisted on building in Flushing, Queens instead of the facility O’Malley wanted in Brooklyn.  Dodger Stadium also generated more tax revenue for Los Angeles than either San Francisco or New York got out of their municipal-owned stadiums.

In the end, Durocher and O’Malley were both elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  These two books make it clear that their honors were deserved.  They also make it clear why they were both awarded posthumously. 

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