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
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!