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Biography explores Durocher's place in baseball

Dickson offers compelling look at the sport's 'all-time leading character'
MLB.com

In the first line of "Leo Durocher: Baseball's Prodigal Son," author Paul Dickson offers an audacious proposition. The subject of this book, he asserts, is nothing less than the sport's "all-time leading character."

Then, having challenged himself with an outlandish and bold statement, Dickson backs it up with a compelling and superbly readable biography.

In the first line of "Leo Durocher: Baseball's Prodigal Son," author Paul Dickson offers an audacious proposition. The subject of this book, he asserts, is nothing less than the sport's "all-time leading character."

Then, having challenged himself with an outlandish and bold statement, Dickson backs it up with a compelling and superbly readable biography.

Durocher is a guy, after all, who began his career as a Yankees teammate of Babe Ruth … and is widely believed to have stolen his watch. He ended it managing an expansion team that played in an air-conditioned domed stadium with plastic grass. Talk about connecting generations.

In between, Durocher did it his way, just like his buddy Frank Sinatra. He feuded with then-Commissioner Happy Chandler, not to mention owners, general managers, reporters and even a grounds crew. Durocher openly disrespected Ernie Banks, one of the most respected players in the game. He baited umpires for decades. Durocher fought with opposing players and teammates. He gambled openly, hung out with questionable characters and was suspended for a year for conduct detrimental to baseball. As a manager, Durocher reportedly showered one of his pitchers, Ken Holtzman, with anti-Semitic slurs.

But he won.

Durocher scuffled with fans and was sued for assault. More than once, his players revolted against him. On multiple occasions, Durocher simply left his team without telling anyone. He said he'd knock his mother over if she got in his way on the field.

But he won.

Durocher lived a lavish lifestyle, even when he couldn't afford it. His third wife was a movie star, actress Laraine Day. Durocher transcended baseball and became a part of pop culture, playing himself on popular sitcoms of the day. He bent the truth when it suited his purposes. Durocher was dismissed repeatedly, but he never lacked for another offer. He could be rude. He could be crude. And Durocher never actually said the line most attributed to him -- "Nice guys finish last" -- but he lived it.

And, yet, Durocher won. At least, until he didn't. Durocher's 1969 Cubs finished a distant second after taking a five-game lead into September, losing 18 of their last 26. And when it was all over, Leo the Lip was fingered as the cause of the collapse both for his treatment of the players and the fact that he went AWOL. Still, Durocher subsequently managed the Cubs for three more seasons and then the Astros for two years after that and had to leave a lucrative offer to manager in Japan on the table for health reasons as he neared 70.

Think for a moment of how different last season might have been at Wrigley Field if there was a 1969 World Series championship flag fluttering over the bleachers.

Dickson, who has written more than five dozen books, doesn't pile on. He meticulously documents each incident that shows Durocher in an unflattering light. Dickson highlights occasions in Durocher's formative years that could help account for his later behavior. He points out when certain actions could have been premeditated tactics to try to gain an edge.

In this way, Dickson chronicles what one obituary writer referred to as "the dichotomy of Durocher." Another reporter who covered him noted his death was like losing an old friend or an old enemy. Take your pick.

The flip side includes going overseas with entertainer Danny Kaye to visit servicemen during World War II and helping to raise millions of dollars in war bonds.

It includes the fact that long before Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947, Durocher was openly supportive of his arrival. When he managed the Giants, Durocher helped nurse a young Willie Mays through a slow start to his career. One sign of how enlightened he was on the subject of race is the fact that he was elected to the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1976 … 18 years before being inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Given the emphasis placed on the Hall of Fame's "character clause" these days, it's interesting to wonder how his candidacy would be received in this era. What is beyond dispute is that Dickson made his case. Leo Durocher -- "cocky, flamboyant and galvanizing" -- was at least one of the most colorful characters baseball has produced.

Paul Hagen, a reporter for MLB.com, won the J.G. Taylor Spink Award in 2013 for a lifetime of excellence in baseball writing.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.