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!

First Rhubarb Blooms

Roy Campanella Heads for Home Plate as New York Giants Argue With the Umpire.

One of the fun things about collecting old photos is looking at them and imagining being there, watching live, experiencing the action the photo shows. Lots of times this is easy, posed swings or pitches, a guy warming up, or players chatting before a game. Other times the photo comes with the caption tag telling you exactly what’s happening. The real fun begins when there is a photo and some notes on the back, but not enough to be sure. 

A few years ago I got a photo of Roy Campanella strolling home against the Giants. The information on the back was interesting but not complete. The main draw was the fact that it was a shot of Campy, I collected him, and the Barney Stein stamp on the back. Asmany know Stein was the de facto official photographer for the glory days of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I often think his photos are undervalued; you sometimes see them get good prices but he has yet to reach the consistent prices you see from some of the other big names in baseball photography. 

It’s a fantastic photo, Campanella with a smile on his face heading home while a group of Giants surrounds the ump and others head to him. I loved it as soon as I got it in the mail but also wondered exactly what was happening. Thus, as Sherlock Holmes said, the game was afoot.

As simple as it seems I decided to try to figure out Who and Where, to get to the What and When.

The back of the photo gives some info, a quick description of the action, a location, a year, and some random notes that I believe describes the equipment used to take the photo. I have always found hand written notes to be misleading so I decided to basically ignore them.

The easiest first step was the Where. The photo clearly shows the “Dodgers” across Campanella’s chest. Based on this, I knew where: Ebbets Field. 

I went to Who. Campanella is easy, he is clearly recognizable. So the question is who else is in this photo? The photo shows three numbered Giants, and its the third that is the key. First is number 2, easy Leo Durocher. Next is 23, not too tough, Bobby Thompson. Then we get to 42 and the plot thickens. Anytime you are looking at a Dodgers game in the 50s there is one name that connects to the number 42, Jackie Robinson. I crossed his name out quickly though, can’t see any logical reason he would be running into a group of Giants arguing with the umpire. 

Next I took to twitter and licked out with some help from @HeavyJ28 and @vossbrink, the two esteemed heads of the SABR Baseball Card Committee.  With their help we learned that no Giant wore 42 in 1951 but soon found that one did in 1952, Max Lanier, a pitcher. 

From there it’s over to the game archives on Baseball Reference to look for a game in Brooklyn, that Campanella played, Thompson played 3rd, and Lanier pitched. I found April 19, 1952, all of them played but there was no Home Run by Campanella. Could be the game but not sure, better check the rest. Oddly nothing else matched so I enlisted some help and if you are going to ask for help figuring out a baseball photo you can’t ask for better help than a friend and fellow SABR member who also happens to be an archivist at the National Archives. It helps even more when you are asking for help in late November when half of DC is out of town. I texted him the info and was surprised that I got an answer the next day. Not only did he find the game but he also found a NY Times article describing exactly what the photo showed. 

In the bottom of the 4th Campanella came up with Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider on base. Facing Lanier he hit a ball down the left field line, started running and didn’t stop till he crossed home plate. Somewhere on its travels the ball ran into the hand of a fan and disappeared into the stands.Somehow this was completely missed by the umpire, you can insert any sort of umpire joke here.  It didn’t take long before third base umpire Augie Guliemo was surrounded by Giants protesting, the mistake was realized and the hit was ruled a ground rule double, sending Campy back to second. He would eventually come around to score on a Carl Furillo home run later in the inning. 

To say I was lucky would be an understatement. Lucky or not this was a lot of fun and quickly made this a favorite photo in my collection. 

Special thanks to Jason Schwartz and Nick Vossbrink for the help on twitter and Adam Berenbak for all their help and encouragement.