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He Would Tell Them Where They Can Put Their Plaque

Leo Durocher must be livid someplace today. Probably kicking dirt on an umpire. Snarling, “Stick it in his ear!” from a dugout. Looking for a rival to bench jockey. “Did you get that belly from beer or pork, Hoss? When’s the last time you saw your shoes?”

He has achieved his lifelong dream. He’s in the baseball Hall of Fame. He got in Sunday.

Trouble is, it’s too late. Durocher wanted to get in while he could smell the roses, hear the applause, maybe get a license plate saluting his achievement.

As Durocher himself might say in two words he personally gave to the language of slang, “No way!”

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The last time I saw Durocher, a year or two before he died, he was bitter that he hadn’t been inducted into the Hall of Fame. He told me he not only would refuse induction if it were offered, but he would specifically instruct in his will that it not be accepted posthumously.

Durocher was baseball’s bad boy. He was noisy, contentious, boisterous, contemptuous. He came to beat you. He never did anything easily--except start the double play--in his life. So, why should getting in the Hall of Fame be an exception?

Durocher always figured it was him against the world. He simply wanted to be sure he won. The world was on its own. Durocher kept it on the defensive.

They got him out of a pool hall in Springfield, Mass., but in a sense, he never left it. Life was a hustle to Durocher. Sportsmanship was for English lords in monocles chasing foxes. Durocher wanted to beat you. How was another matter.

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Being around Durocher was like being inside a kettle drum. He had a voice that I once described as a cross between a train whistle and an air horn on an 18-wheel rig. It could keep ships from running aground in fog. Durocher never whispered in his life. He took the position everybody had a lot of con in him. So, Durocher beat them to it. He always cut the cards, checked the dice, looked up your sleeve. Durocher wanted the deal.

Trouble could always find him. It didn’t have to look very hard. Durocher went to meet it. He gave new meaning to the word brash . As a rookie, he tried to spike Ty Cobb. He called Ruth “Fatso,” and when the Babe’s watch was stolen, they suspected Leo. He wasn’t guilty. Durocher never stole anything in his life, including second base. He didn’t have to. He found other ways to beat you. When he once said of one of his players, Eddie Stanky, “He can’t run, he can’t field, he can’t hit--all he does is beat you,” baseball figured he was talking about himself.

Except Durocher could field. Oh, could he field. He was a magnificent shortstop. He had to be to stay in the big leagues 17 years with a .247 batting average.

That probably wouldn’t have gotten him in the Hall of Fame, although another shortstop, Rabbit Maranville, got in with a .258. But if his glove wouldn’t, his brain would.

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The Hall of Fame is a hybrid organization. For years, it was the sole prerogative of the baseball writers to decide who got in the Hall. But they left so many names out, they had to set up a separate but equal “Veterans Committee.”

The writers were too hard to please. They can vote for as many as 10 players a year. But most years, you’re lucky if one gets in. The required number of votes is 75% cast. We would never get a President in that election.

Joe DiMaggio didn’t get in in his first year of eligibility, to give you an idea. Bill Terry had to wait 13 years. All he had going for him was being the last National League player to bat better than .400 and he had a lifetime average of .341. Even two decades late, he got only 77% of the vote. Mickey Mantle got only 88% of the vote, and even though Henry Aaron got 98%, there were still nine writers who left him off their ballots.

But even given this eye-of-the-needle stuff, if Durocher’s glove didn’t quite merit inclusion, his managerial talents did. Durocher in the dugout--or the third base coaching box--was tough competition. Only six managers in the long history of baseball won more games. Hardly any of them did it with less. All Durocher really needed was a Willie Mays and eight guys in the chorus for him to win.

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There were 13 managers in the Hall of Fame before Durocher. Most of them came up well short of his 2,010 victories.

Keeping Durocher out of the Hall of Fame became a lifetime job for somebody. Durocher thought it was the former commissioner, Happy Chandler. When Chandler was commissioner, he had barred Durocher from baseball for a year for an all-but-invisible infraction of the rules. Since the commissioner’s power was absolute in those days, Durocher served the time but never lost an opportunity to deride the commissioner in and out of print.

The Durocher interpretation is, Chandler never forgave him--and made it the business of his life to keep Durocher out of Cooperstown.

If he did, he succeeded. Durocher never made the Hall of Fame in person and in voice. What a shame.

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Somewhere today, Durocher is looking for a helmet to throw, a water cooler to kick, an umpire to insult, a signal for his pitcher to hit somebody. I can hear him roaring, “You can’t do this to me!” It’s too little, too late.

It’s the ultimate irony. Durocher’s legacy to the world, his epitaph, as it were, his contribution to quotes to live by in Bartlett’s, is “Nice guys finish last.”

No way would Durocher let them get away with this form of finishing last. No way would Durocher let them get away with calling him a nice guy.


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