Did Anyone In Your Family Play a Part in History?

Saturday, April 23, 2022

 Not everyone has a claim to fame but lucky for me - I do. I’m able to say, “Leo Durocher is my third cousin.” Depending on who I say it to affects the reaction I get. People over 40 are typically impressed. Younger folks who don’t know Leo Durocher aren't all that impressed.  Although growing up I knew enough to carry this claim to fame with pride, I had no real sense of what a big deal Leo Durocher was, and honestly I wasn’t all that interested. I knew the basics - that he was a some sort of baseball legend. Not being much of a sports enthusiast, I will admit I didn’t take much interest in knowing more. Like most of my family history, Leo’s fame and accomplishments wouldn’t achieve their proper significance or impress me much until I was much older, specifically until I researched him for this question in a memoir prompt. What that translates to is the fact that it isn’t until now, in my 60's, that I realize how the “Durocher Gene” has endured and been passed down through the generations. I’m not talking about baseball.

Leo Ernest Durocher was born on July 27, 1905 to George and Clarenda (Provost) Durocher in West Springfield MA. He was the youngest of 4 sons. George, Leo’s father, was the son of Leon and Rosalie (Poutre) Durocher - parents of my great grandfather, Henry Durocher, of Cohoes, NY.  To help illustrate....that makes Leo my grandfather’s first cousin; my dad’s second cousin, and my third cousin. Here's my grandfather's brothers, George and Harry, in Florida with Leo in 1973.   

Leo’s father worked for the Boston & Albany railroad. His parents were both French Canadian and French was often spoken at home. Leo attended Springfield Technical High School but in 9th grade after a scuffle with a teacher, he got suspended. He quit school and never returned. He went to work for an electric company and played baseball for their company team. Unlike many of the shorter Durocher clan, Leo grew to be the tallest of his brothers reaching the grand height of 5‘10”. David Redd, a black man, encouraged Leo to try out for the Hartford ball team, a Yankee farm club.  Leo tried out but failed. In 1925, again encouraged by Redd, Leo tried again and this time Leo was successful. He made the team as an infielder. He showed so much promise, he was sold to the NY Yankees for $5000. After two seasons with the farm system, he got a permanent call to the big leagues in 1928. He won his first World Series that same year as a teammate of Babe Ruth, and another Hartford Senators alumnus, Lou Gehrig. He would become known as one of baseball’s fiercest and most successful players. 

As a captain of the St. Louis Cardinals, “Gashouse Gang” (named after Leo's fiery personality), in 1934, Durocher started shortstop and won another world series. After the 1938 season with the Cardinals, Durocher became the Dodgers player-manager and became known for his dirt-kicking tirades against umpires. He claims he was fired and rehired by the general manager dozens of times.

Leo's went on to manage the Brooklyn Dodgers (1939-1946), (1948), the NY Giants from 1948-1955, Chicago Cubs from 1966-1972 and Houston Astros from 1972-1973. 

Despite his antics, there was no doubt about his record. In 1941 Durocher led the Dodgers to the franchise’s first pennant in 21 yrs. Leo is quoted as saying, “as long as I’ve got a chance to beat you, I’m going to take it”. During the seasons of 1939 to 1941, 1943 and 1945, he served as a player-manager with the Dodgers and guided Brooklyn to two consecutive 100 win years (100 in 1941 and 104 in 1942), including the National League Pennant in 1941. Prior to the 1947 season, Jackie Robinson was placed on the Dodgers’ big league roster shattering the baseball racial barrier. Durocher made the point of telling his team that they accept Robinson as a teammate or else they would be traded. His message transcended baseball and in a way helped ease the entry of African-Americans into professional sports. Durocher himself would not manage the Dodgers during the 1947 season, due to a suspension imposed by commissioner Happy Chandler for allegedly associating with gamblers and allowing gambling in the clubhouse.

He left NY after the 1955 season to become a commentator for NBC baseball broadcasts. He returned to manage the Cubs in 1966 and served his final 9 seasons in Chicago and Houston. He retired in 1973 as the fifth winningest manager in history, second only to John McGraw in the National League, with 2008 career victories. He was named Manager of the year three-times (1939, 1951 and 1954).

Leo, known as Lippy and Leo the Lip, was known as a ‘win at all cost manager’. He coined the phrase, ‘Nice guys finish last’ and in one article I read he was described as ‘as brassy as the trombone section in a swing era band’. He was also called loud, profane, and charming when he wanted to be. Hmmm, that description might also describe some other Durochers I know. Edwin Pope who wrote Baseball’s Greatest Managers wrote about Leo with this quote, “Benefactor or blackguard, genius or jerk, paragon or prodigal, Leo Durocher was the most beguiling figure to walk through baseball.” Tommy Lasorda said, “I took his #2 because of love, admiration and respect. We lost a wonderful man.”

In 1965 he co-authored his autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last. He spent his retirement years in Palm Springs, CA playing golf. He was married to Larraine Day, actress, and did a couple acting projects himself appearing in the Munsters, Mr. Ed and the Beverly Hillbillies. He appeared on What's My Line twice.  Leo passed away on October 7th, 1991 at 86 years of age. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown NY in 1994. John took my mom to the ceremony because my dad was laid up with heel spurs.  Some years later, John took me to visit Cooperstown to see Leo's plaque in person.

 Like some other Durochers I’m familiar with, Leo once said, “I’m a guy who has to do it my way, whether you like it or not.” Hmmm….the gene pool is pretty strong in this family.  Now I know where I get the 'attitude' from! 

Leo was not the best athlete to play baseball and some might not necessarily sing his praises but I'm particularly proud of Leo's contribution to paving the way to end segregation in sports. We recently watched the movie '42' about Jackie Robinson and seeing Leo (who was portrayed by Christopher Meloni of Law and Order fame) play such an instrumental role in Jackie's involvement with the Dodgers was a really neat thing to watch.  I’m no cooler by association when it comes to having someone famous in our family lineage, but I realized in researching Leo that despite my ignorance, he was a pretty accomplished and famous athlete as evidenced by the plethora of information that was generated in my Google search. It also makes me proud knowing that someone in my family was strong enough to stand up against segregation when it wasn’t the popular thing to do. It makes me wish I’d mustered up some interest years ago when my dad and great uncles who knew Leo could have told me more about him. At least now his history will live in my recorded history and hopefully my offspring will be proud to be related to such a legend.

Here's my grandfather with Harry & George....I think you can see the family resemblence....

Here is my Uncle George, playing ball for the Cohoes Orange Crush team in the late1920's...He didn't go on to play with the big leagues but he was a great man in many other ways.  

A story about Uncle George:  https://www.lifeasiseeitphotography.net/2014/11/a-tribute-to-special-veteran.html

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