By Scott A. Rowan
Nothing good can come of it when a member of the United States Supreme Court denounces your actions in public comments. And when members of the New York City Diocese of the Catholic Church join the clamor, you can bet that the final punishment will be bad. Only one person in baseball history has been banned for his marriage and the fallout that it caused—and, of course, he was a Cubbie.
Leo Durocher managed the Cubs for seven seasons (1966–72), making his presence felt from day one. Crusty, quarrelsome, and difficult, Durocher loved conflict, a trait that made him almost unanimously despised by everyone with whom he worked. Fergie Jenkins described Durocher’s demeanor very simply: “Tougher than a night in jail.”(1)
In his autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last, Durocher wrote: “My baseball career spanned almost five decades . . . and in all that time I never had a boss call me upstairs so that he could congratulate me for losing like a gentleman. I believe in rules. . . . I also believe I have a right to test the rules by seeing how far they can be bent.”(2)
As a player, that testing meant doctoring baseballs, stomping on opponents, and doing anything and everything to gain an advantage. As a manager, Durocher berated players, cursing them and trying to rile them up so they would play angry. It didn’t always work. In 1971, Durocher accused third baseman Ron Santo of arranging for the team to have a “Ron Santo Day” at Wrigley Field the following week. Quite fiery himself, Santo retaliated, going after Durocher. The team was lost to Durocher from that point forward.
“In those early days, he was a son of a bitch,” former Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse said of Durocher. “But he was a sharp son of a bitch. But by the time he was finished in Chicago, he was just an old son of a bitch.”(3)
Growing up playing pool and cards, Durocher didn’t hide his competitiveness. He tried to win at everything, and that included betting on horses, card games, and any gambling distraction he could find. He was also a man of great contradictions whose aggressiveness often made him both the center of conflicts and the person able to make conflicts disappear. When he learned that his Brooklyn Dodgers teammates had signed a petition against Jackie Robinson joining the team in 1947, Durocher called a midnight meeting and in his blunt fashion told the players that Robinson was a great player, he was going to join the team, and they needed to either get on board or get gone. “Take that petition, you know, wipe your ass with it,” Durocher told the Dodgers, before lauding the level of play that Robinson would bring to the team. He ended the meeting in typical Durocher fashion: “I don’t want to see your petition. I don’t want to hear anything about it. Fuck your petition. Meeting is over. Go back to bed.”(4)
Ironically, while Durocher helped pave the way for Robinson’s success in that watershed 1947 season, he wasn’t the Dodgers’ manager when Robinson joined the majors. Instead, Durocher spent the 1947 season banned from the game thanks largely to bigotries by a large group of people who wouldn’t accept Durocher.
Truculent and abrasive, Durocher was overly confident due to his status as a national name beyond the baseball field. He was a television personality who appeared on many shows, giving him access to a galaxy of stars such as Frank Sinatra and Danny Kaye, who were friends. He was also a friend of George Raft, a Hollywood actor known for playing gangsters in films.
Raft and Durocher were cut from the same cloth, and they knew it. They both loved gambling, girls, and baseball. During the offseason, Durocher often stayed at Raft’s massive Beverly Hills mansion so that they could carouse together at night after Raft returned from work filming at the studio, and Raft stayed at Durocher’s apartment in New York when the actor was on the East Coast. The two were close friends, which would have been fine if Raft hadn’t also been friends with much more sinister individuals. One such pal was Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, a ruthless member of the New York crime syndicate who used his power to open the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas—the start of the mob’s presence in the desert. Joe Adonis was another of Raft’s friend, as well as a powerful force in Lucky Luciano’s crime organization. Memphis Engelberg, a known bookie and racetrack handicapper, was another friend of Raft’s, as was Connie Immerman, a white bootlegger in Harlem who ran speakeasies that rivaled the famous Cotton Club. Durocher claimed in his autobiography that he only met Siegel once, didn’t know Adonis except to be able to recognize him when he visited the ballpark, but was friends with Immerman (“I had always liked him”) and Engelberg (“Whenever I went to the track, which wasn’t that often, I’d have Memphis mark my card”).(5)
Beginning in 1944, newspaper stories exposed the friendship between Raft and Durocher after the actor used Durocher’s apartment to host a gambling party while in New York on a media junket to promote his latest film, Follow the Boys. One wealthy gambler allegedly lost a reported $18,000 that night playing craps with Raft, who was accused of using loaded dice to win 13 straight passes. Newspapers loved the story, but the authorities did not. Th e Brooklyn district attorney had Durocher’s phone tapped. The recordings established a link between Durocher and a check-cashing scandal in Baltimore at the Mergenthaler Linotype Company. Durocher claimed in his autobiography that a few of his checks “had been routinely processed through” (6) the check-cashing house in Baltimore. It was enough to keep newspaper columnists and federal agents watching Durocher.
Gambling influences invading baseball was the personal peccadillo of MLB’s first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Happy Chandler, who replaced Landis in 1945, was intent on proving that he was equally hard on criminal influences. Having a man like Raft, whose friends went to the apex of the crime world, as close friends with a manager was precisely the thing that baseball brass wanted to avoid. Having that same manager wire-tapped by the government and connected with a check-cashing crime was even worse. Though Durocher did not apparently profit from the scheme, he was too close to the illegal activity for Chandler to ignore it.
On November 22, 1946, Chandler had a meeting with Durocher at the Claremont Country Club in Berkeley, California. Chandler demanded that Durocher no longer have any contact with Raft and his cronies, Adonis, Siegel, Engelberg, and Immerman. Durocher agreed, realizing that it was necessary to break ways with his notorious friends in order to stay in baseball. The matter appeared to be settled until Durocher shared a personal note with Chandler that would prove to be a bigger problem than his associations with underworld figures: he was in love with Hollywood actress Laraine Day, who was married to Ray Hendricks, a band leader and manager of a Santa Monica airport. While neither of them realized it then, that small admission would eventually force Chandler to suspend Durocher for the 1947 season.(7)
The problem was that Day was not yet divorced. Months later, when the story hit newspapers across the country that Durocher, who was twice divorced and 15 years older than Day, was planning to wed the Hollywood actress, reporters and church leaders alike considered his “immoral actions” to be worse than any gambling associations.
On January 20, 1947, California judge George A. Dockweiler issued an interlocutory divorce to Hendricks and Day. This meant that under California law, Day and Hendricks had to wait one year before they could legally marry anyone else. But Day had been around Leo the Lip too long to follow anyone’s rules. She gave Hendricks $10,500 and a Ford sedan (8) as settlement and married Durocher in El Paso, Texas, just 24 hours later. By California law, that meant Day could be charged with adultery.
It took months for the legal system to rule on the Durocher-Day marriage, but church leaders needed much less time to offer their own judgments. Justice Frank Murphy, a devout Roman Catholic and member of the Supreme Court, as well as the former mayor of Detroit and governor of Michigan, made his displeasure known to Chandler and the rest of baseball’s executives.(9) An influential figure in the church, Murphy turned the pressure up on baseball because of Durocher’s actions, which the justice considered immoral.
At the end of the 1946 season, in the wake of stories linking Durocher to Raft and his criminal associates, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn had warned the Dodgers that if something wasn’t done about the degrading situation in baseball, they would take action. Priest Vincent J. Powell oversaw the Brooklyn Catholic Youth Organization, sponsors of a Dodgers’ fan group called The Knothole Gang that allowed young fans into games for free on slow days in order to fill the stands. Estimated to have 50,000 members, the CYO was a massive group of future ticket buyers that the Dodgers could not afford to offend. The situation was growing worse on the national level as well. Justice Murphy threatened Major League Baseball with a national boycott by CYO members across the country if Durocher wasn’t punished.
Meanwhile, Durocher and Day had returned to her 16-bedroom mansion in Santa Monica, worth $200,000 (10) (roughly equal to $2.1 million in 2013). Durocher spent his days clearing brush from the six-acre yard and socializing with Hollywood celebrities rather than fretting about the looming threat from the CYO and Justice Murphy. “You’d have thought he would be moody, morose, and sullen,” Danny Kaye told Sports Illustrated, “but actually he wasn’t.”(11)
On the other side of the continent, Durocher’s happiness with Day was creating a furor. On March 1, 1947, Father Powell went through with his threat. “The Brooklyn Catholic Youth Organization is withdrawing from the Dodgers’ Knothole Club,” Powell’s press announcement proclaimed, explaining that Durocher was “undermining the moral training of Brooklyn’s Roman Catholic youth. The C.Y.O. cannot continue to have our youngsters associated with a man who represents an example in complete contradiction to our moral teachings.” (12)
Durocher began to realize the seriousness of the situation after Powell’s press release, but years later, he still explained his point of view in a wonderfully sarcastic manner: “I had never claimed to be in any danger of sprouting wings,” Durocher wrote in his autobiography. “From a very casual observation of the young men of Brooklyn, I had every confidence that they were quite capable of corrupting themselves without any help from me.”(13)
The situation only got worse when Durocher reported to spring training with the Dodgers in Havana, Cuba. Realizing that Cuba was a quick plane ride from Florida, American-based organized crime had begun to infiltrate Cuba during the 1940s. So it should come as no surprise that on one of his first days in Havana, Durocher ran into two of the men with whom he was forbidden to associate: Engelberg and Immerman.
Durocher claimed in his autobiography that when the men came to say hello, he ran the other direction. But he was only leaping from the frying pan into the fire when he tried to hide in the lounge outside. A young stranger asked him to come say hello to a group of men who were playing cards, one of whom was “dying to meet” him. Durocher politely refused. The stranger returned again and again, each time being politely rebuffed by Durocher, who was with Day and Branch Rickey Jr. Finally, Rickey went over to find out who this persistent fan of Durocher’s was. It turned out to be none other than Lucky Luciano,(14) the crime kingpin who had been deported from the United States back to Italy months earlier. Between October 1946 and March 1947, Luciano attempted to control his American crime syndicate from Cuba. United States officials pressured Cuban authorities to deport Luciano, whose brief stay in Cuba coincided with Durocher’s.
At the same time, tempers flared between the Dodgers’ Branch Rickey and the Yankees’ Larry MacPhail throughout spring training that year. When Durocher and Rickey saw Engelberg and Immerman enjoying a game in a Yankees’ suite, they exploded, claiming to reporters that a double standard existed that forbid the Dodgers manager to speak to the same people who the Yankees general manager entertained as guests. In a newspaper column he ghost wrote with Dodgers traveling secretary Harold Parrott, Durocher claimed that MacPhail had tried to lure him to the Yankees during the offseason, but that he was loyal to Brooklyn. MacPhail was furious about the revelation. Durocher was equally furious about the double standard that forbid him to associate with the same people who enjoyed games in the Yankees’ suites. Chandler was furious that the Roman Catholic community was still boycotting baseball games. All of this acrimony seethed around Durocher.
After a brief investigation, Chandler ruled on April 9, 1947, that both the Yankees and the Dodgers would be fined $2,000 apiece for club interference. Durocher’s column (which was written by Parrott, and which Durocher rarely actually read) was ceased. And Durocher was suspended for one season for “conduct detrimental to baseball.”(15)
Generations of baseball fans still question the extreme punishment Durocher received. Gambling and sports have been in bed since the first days of baseball, but Durocher’s relationship with Day was what actually led to his punishment as much as or more than his friendships with Raft and his underworld associates. Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, who limply defended Durocher during Chandler’s investigation, has been suspected for decades of sacrificing his manager as a scapegoat to save the team’s relationship with the CYO, the Roman Catholic Church, and all the fans they represented. After all, once Durocher was punished, there was no more mention of any boycotts, something that O’Malley, a “devout Catholic,”(16) undoubtedly had prayed for in the months leading up to Durocher’s suspension.
1. Jimmy Greenfield, 100 Things Cubs Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2012), 96.
2. Leo Durocher and Ed Linn, Nice Guys Finish Last (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), 11.
3. Greenfield, 100, 125.
4. Roger Khan, The Era 1947-1957: When the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers Ruled the World (Winnipeg:Bison Books, 2002), 36.
5. Durocher and Linn, Nice, 238.
6. Ibid., 243.
7. George Raft as told to Dean Jennings, “Break With Durocher Was Painful,” St. Petersburg Independent, January 26, 1958.
8. “Laraine Day Divorce Upheld In California,” UP, May 9, 1947.
9. Lyle Spatz, The Team Th at Forever Changed Baseball and America: Th e 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), 53.
10. Robert Shaplen, “The Nine Lives of Leo Durocher,” Sports Illustrated, June 6, 1955.
12. Khan, Era, 30.
13. Durocher and Linn, Nice, 244.
14. Ibid., 245.
15. “Albert Benjamin ‘Happy’ Chandler,” MLB.com, http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/history/mlb_history_people.jsp?story=com_bio_2, accessed June 18, 2013.
16. “Mary’s Hour,” Walteromalley.com, http://www.walteromalley.com/biog_ss_maryshour.php, accessed June 18, 2013.