The following is excerpted from The Victory Season: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball’s Golden Age, available now on Amazon.
In the long, often fantastic history of baseball nicknames few have matched "The Lip" for pithy accuracy. Leo Durocher talked a mile a minute, alternately harassing and cajoling players, umpires, writers, fans, and management. And, of course, women, who flocked to Durocher. He splashed on the cologne with two full hands, and was always resplendent in $175 suits, custom-fit by the tailor to George Raft, star of The Bowery and They Drive By Night. Raft often played gangsters, and his real-life association with mafiosi helped inform his portrayals. Raft was also close pals with Durocher, an association that lent the skipper an aura of glamour and pizzazz.
Leo was ultra-intense, a forerunner to Billy Martin in many ways, mainly in his win-or-else attitude. He frequently humiliated his charges, such as pitcher Luke Hamlin, whom Durocher labeled a "gutless wonder" after Hamlin took a beating in a game. In 1943 Durocher's Dodgers had mutinied under Leo's unending abuse, threatening not to take the field unless Durocher eased up. The incident softened Durocher—a little. Second baseman Billy Herman nonetheless regularly fired balls from infield practice into the dugout, trying to peg Durocher.
Sportswriter Dick Young pegged the way most people in baseball felt about Leo. "You and Durocher are on a life raft," he wrote in the New York Daily News. "A wave comes and knocks him into the ocean. You dive in and save his life. A shark comes and takes your leg. The next day, you and Leo start even." Durocher's style could lift a team to heights unachievable under anyone else, but it could also cause blowback. Stan Musial said that Leo "tried to intimidate the other team, but I think it backfired on him more often than not. He was just stirring up a nest of hornets. When Durocher came to town, I was so charged up I could go up there and climb six fences. I wasn't the only one. Our whole team was up."
"Lippy" was a rogue, a hard-drinking, two-fisted braggart who loved to whip ass on the field then tell anyone who would listen all about it. There was little pretense at playing nice or being a family-friendly guy. Even though he worked in the outer boroughs, Durocher was made for Broadway, and he wasted little time combining sports and nightlife in the big city. Latter-day lotharios like Mantle, Namath, Frazier, and Jeter were merely following the blueprint Durocher laid down.
He grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, the son of a railway worker. His first sport wasn't baseball but pool, and his second was probably rock throwing. By the ninth grade, Leo had beaten up a teacher and been expelled. He played semi-pro ball for an electric company team, and was spotted by fabled Yankees scout Paul Krichell, who had signed Lou Gehrig a couple of years earlier.
Durocher was in the bigs by 1928, a great glove man who made up for his lack of hitting ability with ultra-competitiveness. As a rookie, he once hipchecked a runner trying to leg out a triple. Said runner was a shrinking violet named Ty Cobb. "If you ever pull a stunt like that again," the Georgia Peach screamed, "I'll cut off your legs."
Instead of shying away from the oft-psychopathic Cobb, Durocher got in his grille. "Go home, grandpa!" he yelled back. "You're gonna get hurt playing at your age. You've gotten away with murder all these years, but you are through. You'll get a hip from me any time you come down my way, and if you try and cut me, you'll get a ball rammed down your throat!" He would sometimes call time out when in the field so he could stroll closer to the batter and insult him. Hank Sauer of the Cubs was a favored target. Sauer's prominent nose reminded Leo of a hood ornament, so he would yell "Pontiac" at the Cubbie, who would call time to compose himself. Shocked by his audacity, his teammates were won over, save Babe Ruth, who relentlessly needled Durocher, calling him "The All-American Out."
Leo's other nickname was "C-Note" in honor of his highfalutin lifestyle and his incessant need for cash. He was forever welshing on bar tabs and haberdashery bills, which would get him a) the unwelcome attention of local legbreakers and b) summoned repeatedly to the Commissioner's office. Such was his charm that even the grim moray Kenesaw Mountain Landis offered to give Leo a loan.
Brooklyn's biggest victory of 1946 may have come off the field, in April. The season before, Durocher had been arrested for beating up a heckler beneath the Ebbets Field stands. Now he went before a jury of his peers to account for the assault. The courtroom saga was judged by Life as "The most sensational trial held in Brooklyn since the smashing of Murder, Inc."
Accuser John Christian was a huge Dodgers fan, a star athlete at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, and a veteran, with a sore knee that he hurt in a glider accident while in the Army. Sitting at Ebbets Field with another former Jefferson High star, Dutch Garfinkel, Christian let fly with some choice words for Durocher at top volume. "His voice could carry two or three blocks," Garfinkel remembered. Durocher testified that Christian called him a "bum" and a "thief," and accused him of throwing games.
A security man named Joe Moore pushed his way to Christian and ordered the fan to come with him. Moore, a gargantuan fellow who pushed 275 pounds, was legendary at Ebbets Field for whaling on kids who tried to sneak into the park. The two men made their way to a small room behind the Dodgers dugout.
Here the accounts diverged. Christian said on the stand that Leo came back, took a "black object" (most likely Moore's trademark cosh), and knocked him down. "Then he punched me in the face while I was down...Moore pushed me out and Durocher followed me and beat me again with his fists. I fell down again and Moore said 'I'm going to throw you outta the park.'"
Leo, unsurprisingly, remembered it differently. "Have you a mother?" he said he asked Christian. "Well, how would you like it if...I went to your house and called her the names you have been shouting out tonight?"
"You're still an asshole," Durocher testified Christian replied.
"I ran at him," the Lip continued. "I saw him fall against a wall. He fell into a water trough. I did not pursue him. I don't know what might have happened if...I had gotten my hands on him." Somehow, Leo managed to maintain a straight face during his time on the witness stand.
It took the all-male jury a mere 36 minutes to acquit Leo and send him triumphantly back to the dugout, where curious reporters would search in vain for the alleged "water trough" that supposedly bloodied the plaintiff. The courtroom erupted in cheers at the verdict. Several weeks later, Durocher quietly paid Christian $6,750 to settle a civil suit, although it was rumored that actor Danny Kaye, a Durocher buddy, paid the settlement.
Robert Weintraub has written about sports for The New York Times, Slate, Play, ESPN.com, The Guardian, Football Outsiders and Deadspin. He is also the author of The House That Ruth Built: A New Stadium, the First Yankees Championship, and the Redemption of 1923. You can follow him on Twitter @robwein.