Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Lip

It's been a lousy year for me and reading books, so I've got to claim this one, even though it's a cheapie: Nice Guys Finish Last, by Leo Durocher as told to Ed Linn. It's a 1975 publication, apparently out of print. I came across it at a used book store in Chapel Hill.

I had heard this was one of the better baseball memoirs, and I would agree. Durocher was a really vivid character, and he was present for a huge swath of baseball history. His early life fits what to my mind is the dominant mold of the early days of major league baseball: he was an "ethnic" kid from New England. Durocher's family spoke French at home in Springfield, MA, and an early mentor of Leo's was Rabbit Maranville, a fellow French-American from Springfield. But his career reaches forward into the modern era: the 40s-50s heyday of baseball in New York City (definitely the heart of the sport in the literary imagination), network television and West Coast expansion. Leo was on the spot for many of the big episodes of baseball history: Murderers' Row, the Gas House Gang, Jackie Robinson's debut, the Shot Heard 'Round the World, the Miracle Mets. Early on in the book Leo is a wiseass rookie getting cussed out by Babe Ruth. By the end he's the sexagenarian manager of the Astros getting cussed out by Cesar Cedeno.

The narrative voice is so lively and there are so many good anecdotes in the book, it carried me along for quite awhile before I stopped to wonder whether Durocher was sanitizing his own story at all. In the first chapter Leo explains that, unaccountably, despite his humble son-of-a-railroad-man background, he got a taste as a teenager for fashion and expensive tailor-made clothes. From that I guess we're supposed to infer a whole lot about Durocher's life, the whole high-living and envelope-pushing strain: the pool sharking, the high-stakes gambling, his close friendship with George Raft, dating and marrying Hollywood actresses. There's got to be a lot that was left out of the story. What broke the spell as I was reading was Durocher's long, impassioned defense of Frank Sinatra's reputation. (Sinatra was a friend who offered to invest in the Los Angeles Angels if it would help Durocher land the Angels' manager's job. I suspect there is more to the relationship than that.) Then later Durocher resorts to some fairly crude score-settling with umpires and some of the players from late in his managerial career with the Cubs and Astros. He has some harsh words about Ernie Banks, which are striking since Banks was Mr. Cub, and which was exactly Leo's problem: Banks was such a favorite of the Cubs' owner, fans, and beat reporters, that it was hard for Leo to bench him even if he deserved it.

It would be interesting to check out a good Durocher bio, as opposed to autobio, and try to reconcile the rakishly charming hero of Nice Guys Finish Last with the ruthless SOB that others have portrayed Durocher as being. In his book on managers Bill James relates how the sportswriter Dick Young characterized Durocher:

You and Durocher are on a raft. A wave comes and knocks him into the ocean. You dive in and save his life. A shark comes and takes your leg. Next day, you and Leo start out even.

Of course, Dick Young was one of the meanest sons of bitches who ever lived himself, so factor that in.

As a footnote, the title of the book is the famous saying of Durocher's that he didn't exactly say. It seems he was actually discussing at some length Mel Ott and the New York Giants, a bunch of nice guys who didn't win as many games as Leo thought they ought to, and a sportswriter punched the quote up. And Durocher embraced the inaccuracy; he appreciated good PR as much as anyone. The pedigree of "Nice guys finish last" made it into this Luke Menand review in the New Yorker, of the Yale Book of Quotations:

“For lack of a better word” spoils a nice quotation—the speech is about calling a spade a spade, so there is no better word—and “Play it again, Sam” is somehow more affecting than “Play it, Sam.” But not all emendations are improvements. What Leo Durocher actually said (referring to the New York Giants baseball team) was “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place.” The sportswriters who heard him telescoped (the technical term is “piped”) the quote because it made a neater headline. They could have done a better job of piping. “Nice guys finish seventh” is a lot cleverer (and also marginally more plausible) than the non-utterance that gave immortality to Leo Durocher. But Leo Durocher doesn’t own that quotation; the quotation owns Leo Durocher, the way a parasite sometimes takes over the host organism. Quotations are in a perpetual struggle for survival. They want people to keep saying them. They don’t want to die any more than the rest of us do. And so, whenever they can, they attach themselves to colorful or famous people. “Nice guys finish last” profits by its association with a man whose nickname was the Lip, even if the Lip never said it…

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