- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003

In the wee small hours of July 16, 1948, the telephone rang in the Manhattan apartment of Bill Corum, a popular sports columnist for Hearst’s afternoon New York Journal-American.

The caller did not identify himself, nor did he need to. In what Corum later described as “clear, piercing tones that I could recognize anywhere on Earth,” the man said, “You are now talking to the new manager of the New York Giants.”

The voice belonged to Leo Durocher, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Corum phoned his newspaper, then sat down at the typewriter. A few hours later, the early edition screamed the news with a huge, red headline: DUROCHER TO MANAGE GIANTS. It was, and remains, the most startling managerial change in baseball’s first 128 seasons.

For an emotional parallel, consider if Robert E. Lee had switched to the Union army during the Civil War. If Franklin D. Roosevelt had become a Republican during the Depression. Or if President Bush were to select Hillary Clinton as his running mate for 2004. In the supercharged New York baseball atmosphere of 1948, Durocher’s move across the Harlem River was just as much a shocker as Harry Truman’s presidential upset of Thomas Dewey 3 months later.

The Dodgers and Giants were the bitterest rivals in sports history. Every fan hated the other team — and the other team’s fans. When the teams met, as they did 22 times a season, fights frequently erupted in bars, on the street and in the stands at Ebbets Field or the Polo Grounds during games.

Moreover, Leo “The Lip” Durocher was a controversial, galvanizing figure whom everybody loved or detested. As a light-hitting shortstop known as the “All-American Out” with the New York Yankees, he once punched out Babe Ruth, of all people, during a disagreement — the biggest hit he ever had, some observers insisted.

As a brash, profane and egotistical manager, starting with the Dodgers in 1939, Durocher taunted the enemy mercilessly and instructed his pitchers to “stick it in his ear” whenever an opposing batter crowded the plate. He got into fistfights with umpires and even fans. His associations with gamblers prompted commissioner A.B. “Happy” Chandler to suspend him for the entire 1947 season. He dumped his first wife to marry Hollywood star Laraine Day, an action that prompted the CYO to declare Dodgers games off limits to its youth.

Durocher returned to the Bums for the ‘48 season, replacing his replacement, gentle Burt Shotton, who had led Brooklyn to the World Series the previous year. Leo was sure he could recapture the touch that had won him a pennant in 1941 and gotten the Dodgers into baseball’s first pennant playoff in ‘46. But now it was early July, and Brooklyn was in last place.

Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ Bible-thumping general manager, had been an unlikely supporter of Durocher’s for years — surely they were baseball’s oddest odd couple — but now he decided Leo had to go. So Rickey, a prize student of Machiavelli, began to work his magic on Horace Stoneham, owner of the Giants and a heavy drinker. Stoneham was sick of Mel Ott, a 22-year veteran with the team who had been a marvelous slugger (511 lifetime home runs) but a mediocre manager. With the Giants not doing much better than the Dodgers, Stoneham wanted Shotton, who remained under contract to the Dodgers after Durocher returned to the dugout.

Durocher himself told the story in Peter Golenbock’s 1984 book “Bums”: “When Mr. Stoneham asked permission to talk to Burt Shotton, Mr. Rickey, of course, gave it. And then, Mr. Rickey told him he could have his choice, Shotton or Durocher.

“‘I have a choice?’ Stoneham asked. ‘Then Durocher is the man I want.’”

Rickey also maneuvered it so he wouldn’t have to fire the still popular Durocher, telling him, “You don’t have to go. You are the manager of the Dodgers.”

Now Durocher had a question: “Will I be the manager of this ballclub tomorrow, next week, next month and until the close of the 1948 season?”

Chomping on his ever-present cigar, Rickey stared out his office window at nothing but nightfall and did not answer.

“I don’t know what you expect to see out there,” Durocher said. “Where is [Stonehams] phone number?”

Mission accomplished.

Not all the Dodgers were dismayed at Durocher’s departure. He had feuded all season with Jackie Robinson, who hit the banquet circuit after his pioneer 1947 season under Shotton and reported to spring training vastly overweight. By July, these two fierce competitors couldn’t stand each other.

“It’s gonna be a lot different now,” Robinson said. “I loved playing for Shotton last season. When he bawls out a player, he takes him aside and does it in private. If Leo has something on his mind, you hear about it in front of everybody.”

Shortly after Durocher came to the Giants, Stoneham asked him over a drink, “What do you really think of this team?”

Durocher’s reply was typically blunt: “Back up the truck.”

Despite Durocher’s reputation as a winner, it was the Dodgers who benefited first from the big switch. Shotton returned to the Dodgers, got them up to third place by season’s end and won a pennant the following season. The Giants finished fifth in both ‘48 and ‘49 and third in ‘50 while Durocher was building “my kind of team” — one that relied on pitching and defense rather than slugging.

After a terrible start in ‘51, the Giants brought up Willie Mays from the minors and won 37 of their last 44 games. Then they captured the third and deciding game of a pennant playoff on Bobby Thomson’s fabled “Shot Heard ‘Round the World — against the Dodgers, of course.

In 1954, with Mays back after a two-year Army stint, the Giants won another pennant and swept the favored Cleveland Indians in the World Series. In spring training that year, Durocher told beat reporter Roger Kahn, “Write good, positive stuff, kid, and I’ll teach you how to get movie stars to go to bed with you.” Obviously, increasing years did nothing to zip the Lip.

Ott, the subject early in the 1948 season of Durocher’s famed “nice guys finish last” dictum, never managed again after being fired by the Giants. He became a baseball broadcaster and was killed in a New Orleans auto accident in 1958 at the age of 49.

Durocher resigned as manager after the Giants slipped to third in 1955 and returned to the Los Angeles Dodgers as a coach in the early ‘60s. He later managed the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, finishing with a career winning percentage of .540 (2,008-1709) for 24 years and joining Ott in the Hall of Fame in 1994, three years after his death.

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