Prolific author Dickson (Contraband Cocktails: How America Drank When It Wasn’t Supposed to Be, 2015, etc.) digs deep into the controversial baseball career and spicy extracurricular life of Leo Durocher (1905-1991).
Durocher was a light-hitting, skilled infielder for the New York Yankees and other teams before achieving national renown as the unorthodox, flamboyant manager of a succession of Major League Baseball teams. Away from the baseball field, he hung out with Hollywood celebrities and alleged organized crime figures. Actress Laraine Day became Durocher's third wife, and their marriage made society headlines during rocky periods and even during calmer intervals. Dickson, who has authored numerous books about baseball, labors mightily to sort through the divergent opinions of Durocher: he was either selfish or generous, a talented manger or inappropriate leader of athletes, and worthy or unworthy of his rocky path to his posthumous election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The author pronounces Durocher's memoir, Nice Guys Finish Last, as broadly fraudulent, and he claims that previous biographies are sometimes questionable in both factual accuracy and evaluation of Durocher’s character. Although Dickson mostly eschews psychological analysis, the details of his subject’s life suggest at minimum a manic-depressive disorder, coupled with occasional psychotic behavior. Durocher's poisonous relationships with sports journalists seem especially inexplicable. As for his on-field and clubhouse managing skills, his public castigating of players, particularly Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs, qualifies as cringeworthy. Despite the Banks episode, however, Durocher acted honorably regarding racial segregation in professional baseball. After all, he wanted his teams to win, which meant recruiting the most talented players regardless of skin color. His nurturing of Willie Mays is perhaps the most inspiring of all the anecdotes presented here.
Baseball buffs will enjoy this well-researched, smoothly written biography of a complex man, but readers lacking interest in the MLB may be inclined to dismiss the mercurial Durocher as an unpleasant individual not worth trying to understand.