In a red brick church on the side of a gently rising hill, Leo Durocher was remembered Friday morning as a caring yet cantankerous figure, one of baseball’s most colorful characters whose place is secure in baseball lore, if not the Hall of Fame.
A group of about 40, many of them Durocher’s baseball contemporaries, attended a memorial service at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills. Durocher, who died Monday in Palm Springs at 86, kept his keen sense of timing even at the end, according to former Dodger Bobby Bragan.
“Wouldn’t you know he would just swagger into God’s Hall of Fame when the playoffs are going on,” said Bragan, who delivered the eulogy.
Dodger owner Peter O’Malley, former Dodger general manager Al Campanis, coach Joe Amalfitano and broadcaster Don Drysdale represented the franchise with which Durocher began a managing career that produced 2,008 victories. Among those also in attendance were Buzzie Bavasi, Herman Franks and Willie Mays, whose voice broke as he spoke of his relationship with Durocher, the Giants’ manager when Mays broke into the major leagues in 1951.
“You heard a lot of things about Leo Durocher, how evil he was, how he didn’t like this person or that,” Mays said. “Maybe some of it was true. I don’t know. He never treated me anything but perfect.
“All I can say is that I have lost a dear father.”
Mays wiped away tears as he sat down in a chair near the casket, which was covered with flowers. One of the many floral arrangements on display was in the shape of a giant baseball glove with a baseball. In the left corner of the glove in red roses was the number 2, Durocher’s uniform number during his career as manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros.
A painting of Durocher by LeRoy Neiman was displayed behind the casket. In the painting, Durocher is being ejected from a game by an umpire. It seemed an appropriate representation of the former manager, who cultivated a reputation as a genius of baseball and an enemy of umpires while earning the nickname, “Leo the Lip.”
A.C. Lyles, a longtime friend of both Durocher and Ronald Reagan, said the former President would have attended the service, but was flying to Morocco. Lyles read a letter from Reagan praising Durocher.
“He had the will to speak his piece--boy, did he,” Lyles read from the Reagan letter, before adding a personal note. “I am just a courier between two great friends: Ronald Reagan the Gip and Leo Durocher the Lip.”
It was Durocher who earned fame for irascibility when he uttered one of the most famous phrases in sports: “Nice guys finish last.” Bragan, who played for Durocher’s Dodgers in the 1940s, said he still vividly remembers a story that typified Durocher’s brashness.
Durocher told Bragan about an incident early in his playing career with the New York Yankees when he called several times for the pitcher to try to pick off runner Rabbit Maranville at second base.
“Maranville told Leo, ‘Kid, you can stop trying that, I’m always going to beat the throw--that’s why they call me Rabbit,’ ” Bragan said.
“Leo replied: ‘Oh, yeah? I thought it was because of your ears.’ ”
Now an official with the Texas Rangers, Bragan revealed how he was able to lure Durocher to Arlington, Tex., for several old-timers’ games.
“I called Leo on the phone and said, ‘I’m going to get you $1,500,’ and Leo would say, ‘I can’t hear you Bobby,’ so I said, ‘I’m going to get you $2,500,’ and Leo would say, ‘You’re coming in loud and clear,’ ” Bragan said.
Howard B. Anderson, president of the Los Angeles Stake, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, officiated the service.
He relayed a story he had been told by screen actress Laraine Day, the third of Durocher’s four wives. In the 1951 National League playoffs against the Brooklyn Dodgers, Durocher wasn’t sure whom he should start on the mound for the New York Giants in Game 2. Day told him to consider offering a prayer for guidance. Durocher accepted his wife’s advice.
Durocher decided to start Sheldon Jones, who was promptly beaten by the Dodgers, 10-0. After the game, Day waited nervously for her husband in the car. Anderson said Durocher slipped behind the wheel and said: “Well, I wonder if your Friend has any other bright suggestions for me.”
Chris Durocher attempted to say a few words about his father, but was overcome by emotion. He was comforted by Anderson, but managed only a few words before he broke down again. Chris Durocher, his sister, Melinda Michele Thompson, and 10 grandchildren are Durocher’s survivors.
Mays said he remembered when he had a conversation with Durocher about dying. “He told me, ‘When I’m gone, don’t feel sorry for me. You live your life . . . I’ve had a wonderful life,’ ” Mays said.
From the loft in the rear of the church, entertainer Tony Martin sang, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Martin finished singing and said to his friend of more than 40 years, “So long, Leo.”
As the service ended, Mays was the last one to pass by the casket, where he paused briefly, then moved on slowly.
The organist signaled the end of the service by playing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”