Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Reflections on "42": Leo Durocher--Integration's Indispensable Manager

Casting the actor who plays Detective Stabler in TV's "Law and Order SVU" series to be Leo Durocher in the Jackie Robinson movie "42" was an inspired choice, since Durocher played a critical role in laying down "the law" with the southern contingent of the Brooklyn Dodgers who in spring training 1947 circulated a petition saying they refused to play with a black man on their team.  This Baseball Historical Insight looks at the importance of Durocher's role in the success of integration in the major leagues--and not just with Jackie Robinson.

Reflections on "42":  Leo Durocher--Integration's Indispensable Manager

Because integration was a revolutionary idea for major league baseball, its success was dependent not only on the talent, courage, and relentless will of the black players breaking the color barrier for the teams willing to make history, but also on the support of the manager.  The role of one manager in particular—Leo Durocher—should not be overlooked.  As Brooklyn manager, Durocher as early as 1942 had been called on the Commissioner’s carpet for insinuating that black players were being barred from major league baseball.  (It certainly didn’t help his case with Commissioner Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis that Durocher made his comments to a Communist Party newspaper, The Daily Worker, that like other New York City dailies at the time covered sports—particularly baseball—in addition to its focus on labor issues and politics.)  Though this was Branch Rickey’s initiative and he worked for Mr. Rickey (and, therefore, he could go along or move on along to somewhere else), Durocher genuinely recognized Robinson as an outstanding player who would help Brooklyn’s pennant chances.  It was Durocher who welcomed Jackie Robinson in the spring of 1947, and who in the strongest terms warned those Dodgers’ players who were threatening to refuse to play with a black man that if they didn’t like it, well then they were expendable.  

Contrast Durocher with the role of Muddy Ruel, manager of the St. Louis Browns, which became the third major league team to integrate in mid-July 1947 when they purchased the contracts of Negro League players Willard Brown and Hank Thompson from the Kansas City Monarchs in mid-July.  (Cleveland had brought Larry Doby on board less than two weeks earlier, but unlike Brown and Thompson, he was not put into the starting line-up.)  As was the case in the Brooklyn clubhouse when Robinson was breaking in, there was considerable hostility toward their new black teammates by the white Browns.  But Muddy Ruel was no Leo Durocher.  Instead of upbraiding Browns' players who objected to blacks on the team and making clear his full support for Thompson and Brown, as Durocher did to stymie the incipient rebellion in the Dodgers clubhouse that spring, Ruel did nothing but implicitly show his contempt for their presence by maintaining a studious  passivity, both in the clubhouse and with the media.  When Thompson (still a prospect) and Brown (a great player in the Negro Leagues) were released just five weeks later, Ruel said they had received a "fair trial" but lacked major league talent, while Browns General Manager Bill DeWitt proclaimed they "had failed to reach major league standards"--precisely the sentiment that most in organized (white) baseball were inclined to believe about black players and were not displeased to see seemingly validated.

Durocher did not get to manage Jackie in his rookie year because of his suspension by new Commissioner Happy Chandler for conduct detrimental to the best interests of baseball, but he stood by his beleaguered player when he returned in 1948 despite antagonizing Robinson by criticizing and hounding him for coming to spring training overweight and out of shape.  He also advocated for Roy Campanella to be Brooklyn’s catcher, inserting him into the starting line-up for good to replace sore-armed Bruce Edwards (who was shifted over to third) when Campy was recalled from Triple-A St. Paul in early July.  By mid-July, however, Durocher had worn out his welcome with Mr. Rickey, who arranged an offer for him to manage the arch-rival New York Giants, much to the amazement and chagrin of the Brooklyn faithful.

With the quite rational baseball philosophy of “as long as you can play good baseball, you can play for this team,” as he was quoted by Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, Durocher in 1949 helped ease the major league transitions of Hank Thompson, the same who had already failed his trial run with the St. Louis Browns, and Irvin, and in 1951 famously did so for Willie Mays.  Durocher, according to Irvin, made very clear during spring training that skin color made no difference to him.  Unlike Robinson, Campanella, and Irvin who were obviously great players from the Negro Leagues, Thompson’s prospects were uncertain when he and Irvin integrated the Giants on July 8, 1949, making them only the third major league team at the time--Brooklyn  and Cleveland were the others--to field black players. Durocher immediately made Thompson his second baseman, where he played in 69 of the Giants’ remaining 80 games of the season.  When the Giants traded for Braves’ second baseman Eddie Stanky in 1950, Durocher provided encouragement and support for Thompson to become the Giants’ regular third baseman—the position he held for most of the next six years, or until Durocher was gone as manager.  Thanks to Leo Durocher, Hank Thompson became the first black player who was not a potential superstar to become a long-term regular in the starting line-up of a major league team.  Willie Mays, meanwhile, of course had orders of magnitude more potential as an unproven player than Thompson, but it is conceivable that his resplendent career might never have taken off were it not for Durocher’s patience and refusal to give up on him when he was struggling badly after being called up as a 20-year old rookie in late May 1951.  The rest is history.

Thompson, given a second chance by Durocher (after failing under Ruel's rule) despite not being an elite player, and Mays, who Durocher carefully nurtured and protected through his early struggles, were excellent examples of the difference a supportive manager made to the success of black players coming into the historically closed society that was major league baseball.  Had Ruel and the Browns shown the patience and support for Willard Brown during his brief tenure in 1947 that Durocher and the Giants did when Mays struggled in his major league debut, he might have been as formidable a player in the major leagues as would have been possible for someone already at least 32 years old; Brown resumed a starring role in the Negro Leagues after his major league trial, winning a batting title in 1951.

So, call him a scoundrel, a rogue, unscrupulous, a cheat--whatever--Leo Durocher, who was a great baseball manager in any case, deserves recognition for his role in the success of Branch Rickey's great experiment of integrating major league baseball.

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