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In the best of worlds, Jackie Robinson’s first Major League manager would have been Leo Durocher.
Durocher was, in fact, in charge of the Brooklyn Dodgers during the early spring of 1947, before Robinson was to join the team, thereby integrating the Major Leagues. And during spring training, before Robinson arrived, a rumor reached Durocher that the he’d be receiving a petition from the Dodgers who objected to the integration of the team.
"He told them what they could do with the petition, which was an act of sanitation. Personal hygiene," baseball historian Paul Dickson says.
'I Don't Care If He's Green Or Yellow Or Pink'
Dickson says Durocher made his point in dramatic fashion, which was typical of the manager.
"He gets them all out of bed in the middle of the night," Dickson says. "He calls them down to the kitchen in the hotel. He shows up in his bathrobe and he starts yelling at them and says, 'You guys have to take this guy, and I don’t care if he’s green or yellow or pink. He’s gonna win for us, he’s gonna make us a winning team. And if you guys don’t like it, you can do such and such and such.' And then he got quite profane."
Durocher’s efforts on behalf of Robinson and — not coincidentally — on behalf of improving the ballclub and earning himself more money were not limited to one blue night in the kitchen of the hotel where the Dodgers were staying. Durocher, who had recently wed movie star Laraine Day, continued those efforts throughout the remainder of the preseason, while the Dodgers were playing exhibition games in the Dominican Republic.
"He would leave the games early, and she would leave with him," Dickson says. "And the paper’s saying, 'Leo’s going back to the hotel for a little extra innings with his new bride,' and all this stuff. And Leo was going back there to take one player at a time and convince him that he had to drop this racial attitude toward Robinson. He basically sold one player after another on why they had to do this. And why — if they didn’t — they were doomed. It wasn’t Robinson who was doomed."
So no matter that in 1947, some of the Dodgers weren’t ready for integration. Leo Durocher was. In fact, he’d been ready for some time.
"As early as 1939, Durocher had told a reporter for the Daily Worker, which was the Communist newspaper in New York City, that he really wanted to draft some 'Negro players,' as he put it," Dickson says. "He actually scouted a couple guys in Cuba. He wanted to bring them up, but he was told he couldn’t, and even blamed the commissioner in '39 — started blaming the commissioner for this."
Durocher’s freedom from racial prejudice could be traced back a lot further. Well before he’d seen a Major League ballpark or first kicked dirt on an umpire’s shoes, Durocher was holding down a factory job and fielding ground balls on weekends for a semi-pro team in Western Massachusetts, uncertain if he’d ever play anywhere else.
"There's a guy named David Redd, who’s a black man, who pushes and pushes and pushes Durocher to go try out for the Hartford team, which in those days was a semi-Yankee farm club," Dickson says. "And Durocher does. Tries, fails once."
Having failed, Durocher must have found it impossible to imagine that he’d soon be teaming up with Babe Ruth to win pennants with the Yankees. But his friend wouldn’t let him give up.
"This David Redd pushed him again, and this is an African American man who Durocher befriends for the rest of his life," Dickson says. "For many, many, many years, he sends David Redd World Series and playoff tickets, brings him down to New York or wherever he’s working at the time."
Durocher, who began managing the Dodgers in 1939, should get credit for helping to prepare the Dodgers for Jackie Robinson’s arrival.
Unhappily for the manager, he was not on hand for that historic occasion. By associating with gamblers, gangsters, and actor/bad guy George Raft, Durocher had made Commissioner Happy Chandler unhappy enough to suspend the manager for a year.
If he had been in the Dodgers dugout when Robinson first arrived, perhaps the two of them would have gotten along well. The Dodgers won the pennant that season and led the National League in attendance. Times were good.
Admiration Turns To Hate
But when Durocher returned to the club after serving his suspension, he was not pleased with Robinson’s appearance.
"He had been on the banquet circuit all winter," Dickson says. "He was a popular after-dinner speaker. He’d put on 20 pounds. Durocher immediately started insulting him, telling the press that, 'Jackie Robinson had gotten fat, just for me.' Called him 'fatso.' Robinson really learned to hate Durocher. He referred to him along the lines of 'a cologne-soaked bully.' It got worse and worse. So for years, they were at each other’s throats."
In retrospect, perhaps the tension between the two men wasn’t surprising. Throughout his career, Durocher had been an instigator, a fighter, a fellow who thumbed his nose at authority and convention. When Robinson came to the Dodgers, he was ordered to refrain from responding to the insults and epithets that came his way. Perhaps, at least at first, he couldn’t play the way Durocher had always played himself, the way he expected everybody to play.
And there was more. According to Paul Dickson, Robinson was a homebody. Durocher felt most at home in nightclubs. As Dickson puts it in his recent biography, "Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son," "it was almost like two different lifestyles were fighting with one another."
"He went to one of the newspapers and said, 'How can they boo this guy? What he’s done for this game is impossible to understand, and he’s really a great player and a great hero.'"Paul Dickson
The two men didn’t have to tolerate each other’s lifestyles for long. On July 4, 1948, Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey sent word to Durocher that he wanted him to resign. Durocher refused. But 11 days later, Rickey asked the owner of the rival New York Giants how he’d feel about Leo Durocher moving from Brooklyn to the Polo Grounds to manage the Giants. As the Giants’ manager had recently resigned, the path was clear for one of the oddest deals ever concluded between two Major League teams.
"People were horrified," Dickson says. "It was like Lee had won the Civil War. Or that David had hugged Goliath. The story was broken by the World Telegram. The World Telegram ran what they called in the newspaper business, or they used to, 'Second Coming Headline,' which was a nine-inch head that said, 'Durocher To Giants,' or 'Leo To Giants.' It was in red ink. There was nothing like it."
A year later, Robinson and the Dodgers would win another pennant. But the feud between Robinson and Durocher burned ever brighter. Both of them were accomplished at needling opponents, and each targeted the other when the Dodgers and Giants would meet. Monte Irvin, who befriended Robinson and played for Durocher, told Paul Dickson that, “Leo used to tell Jackie he was swell-headed, and Jackie would call Leo a traitor for leaving the Dodgers.”
Hate Turns To Admiration
There was evidence that the relationship could change at the All-Star Game at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park in 1952. Durocher was managing the National League stars, and on a wet, muddy field Robinson made a couple of errors. He was booed for it. But when Robinson apologized, Durocher shook his head and said, “Jackie, you were great.” That was the story he stuck with after the game.
"He went to one of the newspapers and said, 'How can they boo this guy? What he’s done for this game is impossible to understand, and he’s really a great player and a great hero,'" Dickson says. "And so he starts reversing. And Robinson does, too."
Durocher’s admiration for what Robinson had done was genuine, and over time he was more comfortable expressing it. As Paul Dickson has written, "Sometime late in Durocher’s time with the Giants, the two men met in Philadelphia. ‘He rushed up to me and hugged me and was genuinely friendly,’ said Robinson. 'I was so moved by the gesture that I wrote him a letter, telling him what it meant to me.'"
Jackie Robinson died in 1972. He was only 53.
Leo Durocher died in 1991. By then he’d been passed over by the electors of the Hall of Fame enough times so that he’d announced he was no longer interested. Perhaps that was all the electors needed to hear. In 1994, he was voted in. At the induction ceremony, Durocher’s former wife, Laraine Day, mentioned the men who were Leo’s favorite players, because they had “shared his kind of fire.” At the top of her list was Jackie Robinson.
This segment aired on April 15, 2017.