Leo Durocher Mentors Willie Mays!

By Gary Livacari

“Leo Durocher was like my father away from home.”–Willie Mays

“What can I say about Willie Mays after I say he’s the greatest player any of us has ever seen. If he could cook, I’d marry him!” – Leo Durocher

“Leo Durocher has the uncanny ability to make a bad situation worse.”-Branch Rickey

New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham (left) and manager Leo Durocher (right) help Willie Mays (center) put on his jersey.
New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham (left) and manager Leo Durocher (right) help Willie Mays (center) with his jersey.

A while back I wrote about Jackie Robinson and Leo Durocher. It always makes me sad whenever I think about how things might have been significantly better for Jackie if he had the bold and brash Leo Durocher leading interference for him back in 1947, the year Jackie broke the infamous color barrier.

Instead, Leo had been suspended for what many think were frivolous reasons by Commissioner Happy Chandler just as the season began; and so he was not around to protect Jackie. In my opinion, Leo never would have let anyone get away with giving his star player grief. Had they done so, Leo would have given it right back…and they would have regretted it.

That got me thinking about Leo Durocher and Willie Mays, and how Leo acted as a mentor and father-figure for Willie during his rookie year of 1951. In the case of Leo and Willie Mays, we don’t have to speculate. We know what happened.

Leo had his faults…lots of them. As many players hated his guts as loved him. But, as I’ve been saying for a long time, in spite of what you might think about him, his greatest and most lasting contribution to baseball was taking a young, homesick Willie Mays under his wing and guiding him during his difficult transition into the major leagues. In doing so, Leo allowed Mays to blossom into arguably the greatest player in the history of the game. I don’t know if there was anyone else around at the time besides Durocher who could have done this.

I always love to think about the wonderful scene in the Giants’ clubhouse after rookie Willie Mays got off to his disastrous start going 0-12 and eventually 1-26. Giants’ coach Freddie Fitzsimmons saw Willie sitting alone in front of his locker crying. “Leo,” Franks said, “I think you better have a talk with your boy over there.”

What would have become of the Willie Mays if Leo wasn’t there to console him at this crucial time? I still get goose-bumps whenever I think about it. Leo went over to Willie and asked, “What’s the matter, son?” Willie turned to his manager and with tears streaming down his cheeks, replied:

“I don’t belong up here…I can’t play here…I can’t help you Missa’ Leo. Send me back to the minors.”

Leo smiled, patted Willie on the back, and simply said:

“Look son, I brought you up here to do one thing. That’s to play center field. You’re the best center fielder I’ve ever seen. As long as I’m here, you’re going to play center field. Tomorrow, next week, next month. As long as Leo Durocher is manager of this team you will be on this club because you’re the best ball player I have ever seen.”

The rest, as they say, is history. On his 24th at bat, Willie hit a homer over the left field fence off Warren Spahn who later joked, “I’ll never forgive myself. We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I’d only struck him out.”

Years later, Willie was asked in an interview to expand on his relationship with Leo. Here’s what he said:

“I had such a good time with Leo. I met so many good people in Hollywood. Jeff Chandler used to come to spring training with me, Pat O’Brien, all the movie stars. Leo was like my father away from home. When I went to California I stayed with Leo in his house. His kid, Chris Durocher, was my roommate on the road. Chris would go to the black areas and stay with me. Leo trusted me. He knew that if his kid was going to stay with me, nothing was going to happen to that kid.”

Yes, Leo Durocher had his faults. He was “the All-American Out” as Babe Ruth so famously branded him. He was a scrappy, marginal player who couldn’t hit, but won three pennants and one World Series title as a manager. So you can debate back and forth whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame. To me, he’s a Hall-of-Famer just for the way he took care of a frightened and homesick rookie named Willie Mays.

If only he had had the chance to do the same for Jackie Robinson!

Revisiting the 1910 Brooklyn Superbas

By Ken Samoil

The December 2018 issue of the SABR Pictorial History Committee newsletter included an article about two images of the Brooklyn National League baseball team from the first decade of the twentieth century.  One of those images was from a real photo postcard (RPPC of the 1910 Superbas:

George Bell –Tim Jordan –Ed Lennox –Red Downey –Elmer Knetzer –Frank Schneiberg –Paul Sentelle –John Hummel–Doc Scanlon–Harry Lumley–Bill Bergen
Rube Dessau –? King –Nap Rucker –George Hunter –Kaiser Wilhelm –Harry McIntyre–? Ulrich
Otto Miller –Tex Erwin –Zach Wheat –Pryor McElveen –Al Burch –Bill Dahlen –Tommy McMillan–George Schirm –Jake Daubert –Hi Myers

The article stated that “We had last names only for the RPPC.  It took a bit of research, but we figured out the first names for all but two of those present in the photo, including a few who did not make the roster.  We still need first names for King and Ulrich.”

Searching the archives of the Brooklyn Standard Union and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle provides the identity for these two players.  (The Standard Union is archived at https://fultonsearch.org/, along with many other newspapers.  The Daily Eagle is available online at https://bklyn.newspapers.com/#.)  The Standard Union edition of January 22, 1910, has an article titled “Thirty-One Players the Nucleus for Dahlen’s First Division Hopefuls”, about the players who will train with Brooklyn in Hot Springs, Arkansas.  Ulrich is described as a catcher from New Bedford in the New England League.  That identifies him as Fred Ulrich (also identified as Randolph Ulrich in the news reports), who had played for New Bedford in 1909.  Another catcher that was reportedly set to train with the team was “little Johnny King, the Brooklyn boy”.  Later articles in these newspapers, from March, 1910, confirmed that Ulrich and King were with the Superbas when the team was in Hot Springs.  King, who had previously played semi-professional ball, did not make the major league team that season.  An article in the Daily Eagle on April 11th stated that he was going to play for the York (Pennsylvania) team (in the Tri-State League), but he does not appear on the York team’s records for that season and (according to a later Daily Eagle article) instead played for the Brooklyn Edison Electric Company team.  Ulrich was kept on the Brooklyn roster at the start of the season, but he did not accompany the team on road trips nor did he appear in a home game, and he eventually went back to play for New Bedford.

That information would seem to complete the identities of the personnel in the RPPC, but there are more uncertainties to resolve.  This photo of the 1910 Brooklyn team was printed in both the Standard Union and the Daily Eagle on March 20, 1910, with the players’ last names (the same names that were indicated in the PHC newsletter article):

Look closely at the newspaper photo.  The images of the players identified as Lennox, Sentelle, and Lumley (third, seventh, and tenth players from the left, respectively, in the back row) have been pasted in over the faces in the actual photo. The clarity of the image in the RPPC makes it apparent that this was the original image, and that it had been altered before being published in the newspapers.

By perusing the baseball articles from March, 1910, in these papers, we know that the Brooklyn team arrived in Hot Springs on March 4, 1910, with all of the players identified in the newspaper caption except Harry Lumley and Ed Lennox.  Lumley was delayed by floods near his home and joined the team on March 9th, and Lennox was ill and joined the team sometime after Lumley.  It is likely that the original photo was taken before the arrival of these two.  Paul Sentelle (also spelled Sentell) was with the team at this time; we can only guess why he missed the group photograph.  The players listed in the caption are the only ones who are mentioned in the articles as training with the team that month.  One other person is indicated as being with the team during that time–trainer Dan Comerford (also spelled Commerford).  He appears in a well-known photo of the team that was published in the Daily Eagle on April 10, 1907, in the bottom row at the far left:

When we compare Comerford from the 1907 photo to the man in Sentelle’s position in the back row of the 1910 photo, we have a match:

That leaves two men to be identified in the RPPC; third from left and second from right in the back row.  The man who is third from the left appears to be wearing dark pants with a light-colored shirt; this may not be a baseball uniform.  It is entirely possible that he was not a ballplayer, but was instead a clubhouse man or groundskeeper at Hot Springs.  The man who is second from the right appears to have on a shirt with a 1909 New York Highlanders logo on his left sleeve.  This person could be someone who had been on the Highlanders’ roster and was trying to catch on with Brooklyn for 1910.  (At that time, ballplayers typically wore their uniforms from a previous season during spring training.)  It is also possible that a minor league team had a similar logo, or that the logo isn’t what it seems from the angle that we see it in the RPPC.  The identity of these two men remains a mystery.