By Scott A. Rowan
Abrasive, combative, defiant, and loud, Leo Durocher was an unlikely candidate to become one of the first crossover television stars in baseball history, especially in comedy programming. This was the same man who received the longest penalty in baseball (outside of a lifetime ban) when he was banned from the game for a season in 1947 due to “conduct detrimental to baseball.” He also angered nearly every person he worked with in the sport, including the biggest names in the game.
Anecdotes about how hated Durocher was are nearly endless. In Cubs circles, Ron Santo wanted to fight him, Fergie Jenkins likened him to a bad night in jail, and Jack Brickhouse called him an “old son of a bitch.” Ty Cobb once waited after a game near the locker room to fight the young ballplayer, who had the audacity to ridicule Cobb mercilessly despite being new to the big leagues. Luckily for Durocher, Babe Ruth talked Cobb out of it. Ruth later tangled with this famous curmudgeon himself, dubbing Durocher “the All-American out” when the Yankees traded Durocher to the Reds in large part due to his surly disposition. Durocher’s constant jabber and hounding of opponents (as well as teammates and officials) earned him the well-earned nickname “Lippy” or “the Lip.” Even mild-mannered Dodgers announcer Vin Scully had a caustic comment about “the Lip”: asked about Durocher’s 1976 decision to take a job with Japan’s Yokohama Whales, Scully reportedly said, “It took the U.S. 35 years to get revenge for Pearl Harbor.”
So how did a mean-spirited, abrasive S.O.B. like Durocher manage to achieve a career in television comedies? It helped that he had influential friends, but it helped even more that his wife was a beautiful Hollywood actress. After Laraine Day and Durocher’s controversial marriage in 1947 (and subsequent remarriage in 1948), Day became known as “the First Lady of Baseball.” When her husband became manager of the New York Giants in 1948, she was hired to host a 15-minute pregame show called Day with the Giants (also the title of her 1952 autobiography). Though the network had hoped that having a beautiful starlet hosting a baseball show would entice more women to follow the sport, the real byproduct of the show was that male fans tuned in 15 minutes before the first pitch.
Many of Hollywood’s biggest stars had roots in New York, and thus rooted for the Giants. With Day hosting a television show about the team, the connection between Hollywood and Durocher became even stronger. In his autobiography Nice Guys Finish Last, Durocher underscored his many friendships with the most popular people in entertainment. Durocher claimed that NBC vice president Manny Sachs had been offering him a job for years; Sachs saw the gruff baseball man as a perfect character for Hollywood. Durocher finally signed with NBC in 1956 as the host of a weekly television show called Game of the Week. In addition to his weekly baseball show, Durocher appeared on 15 NBC shows in nonsports roles from 1954 to 1959, including The Bob Hope Show, the pilot for The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, and three appearances on The NBC Comedy Hour.
Durocher’s ties to the entertainment world had begun years earlier when he went overseas to entertain the troops after World War II, singing and dancing with his friend entertainer Danny Kaye to the cheers of soldiers who all seemed, Durocher said, to be from New York. Describing his attempts to sing and dance, Durocher joked in his autobiography, “You cannot believe how revolting I was, but I loved every minute of it.”
After the New York Giants won the 1954 World Series, sweeping the Cleveland Indians, Durocher’s connections to Hollywood were cemented by a roast at the Hillcrest Country Club. Few actors, much less a baseball lifer, have ever been feted the way Durocher was. He set the scene in his autobiography:
The dais was the most glittering I have ever seen: Danny Kaye, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Danny Thomas, George Burns, Milton Berle, Dean Martin . . . you name him, he was there. Ten million dollars worth of talent.
All of these celebrities were either born in New York or had worked their way to Hollywood through New York. As skipper of the World Champion New York Giants, Durocher was more than just a friend to these entertainers; he was a hero who, better yet, loved to gamble, curse, and have a good time.
When the Los Angeles Dodgers brought Durocher on as a coach from 1961 to 1964, the confluence of television stars, baseball, and the cranky Durocher was too much for producers to pass up. During the 1960s, Durocher appeared on ten more shows, including some of the most popular programs of the time: The Beverly Hillbillies (on which he tried to sign Jethro to pitch); Mister Ed (the horse offered Durocher hitting tips); The Munsters (Herman Munster got a tryout after hitting Durocher in the head with a baseball from eight blocks away); The Joey Bishop Show; The Donna Reed Show; and The Judy Garland Show.
From 1940 until his death in 1991, Durocher appeared in more than 40 television shows in addition to his work with NBC’s Game of the Week and All- Star Game broadcasts.
The players who had endured Durocher’s ugly behavior must have felt some vindication watching him taking pointers from a talking horse. After all, many players felt that they, too, had been forced to talk to a horse for years when dealing with Durocher—or, more accurately, the hind end of one.
Leo Durocher and Ed Linn, Nice Guys Finish Last (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), 327.
Durocher and Linn, Nice, 325.
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