Durocher Painted as Tribe Savior on Several Occasions
Vince Guerrieri | On 28, Oct 2015
Leo Durocher’s 45-year career in baseball included just three years in the American League – his first three as a player, with the New York Yankees.
Although he was a well-traveled coach and manager, it was entirely in the National League.
But for nearly a decade, he was regarded as the Indians’ savior in waiting.
Durocher’s playing career officially ended in 1945, but his days as an everyday player ended six years earlier, the season after he was named player-manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The team purchased Pee Wee Reese from the Red Sox, and Durocher, like Reese a shortstop, stepped aside in favor of the youngster (Red Sox player-manager Joe Cronin, also a shortstop, made it a point to get rid of Reese to keep himself in the lineup, but sure, let’s talk about curses).
He led the Dodgers to a pennant in 1941, but was suspended for associating with gamblers in 1947, when Brooklyn won another. In June 1948, he was released from the Dodgers, and went to Harlem to manage the Giants. While there, he led the Giants to two pennants and a World Series title (the infamous sweep of manager Al Lopez’s 111-win Indians in 1954).
After leaving the Giants following the 1955 season, he was without a managing job for more than a decade. He spent three years as a coach with the Dodgers – by then relocated to Los Angeles – but spent some time in Hollywood. His third wife, Laraine Day, was an actress, and actor George Raft was a friend – and rumored to have run a crooked dice game with him, precipitating his suspension. Durocher was also involved with broadcasting and did some acting, playing himself in episodes of “Mr. Ed,” “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “The Munsters.”
Lopez left the Indians after the 1956 season, and almost instantly, Durocher’s name was linked to the opening. It was the start of 40 years of wandering through the desert for the Indians, and over the next decade, with the constant churn of managers, Durocher’s name came up every year or two.
“Durocher told me he was interested in returning to baseball,” Indians General Manager Hank Greenberg said. “That came as a surprise to me since I had understood he was not interested in baseball anymore.
“I don’t even know whether I want Leo to manage the Indians,” Greenberg continued. “I do know that I want to get the best man available. I have two or three other candidates, all good ones in mind, but I’d never forgive myself if I passed up the opportunity to talk with Durocher now that I know he’s interested in returning to baseball.”
Earlier that year, the Associated Press reported that Durocher turned down the chance to manage the Indians unless he could buy into the team. Greenberg said rules prevented that kind of arrangement, but realized that the money he was making in television couldn’t be matched on the baseball diamond. “The radio and TV fields here, where he maintains his home, have benefits and security unmatched in baseball,” Greenberg said.
Durocher ended up staying in television, and the Indians looked to their farm system for the next manager, hiring Kerby Ferrell, the manager of the team’s Triple-A affiliate in Indianapolis (Lopez was in the same position before he was named Indians manager).
In 1957, Greenberg was fired as general manager, and in his place was installed Frank “Trader” Lane, who promptly fired Ferrell after a sixth-place finish (it turned out to be Ferrell’s only stint as a major league manager). He was replaced by Bobby Bragan, who only lasted for 67 games before he was fired (still the shortest non-interim tenure for a manager in Indians history) and replaced by Joe Gordon.
In 1959, the Indians finished in second in the American League – to Lopez’s White Sox – but Lane and President Nate Dolin fired Joe Gordon, ostensibly with the idea of hiring Durocher. And reports of the day indicated that he was offered the job and a three year contract. Plain Dealer Sports Editor Gordon Cobbledick said Durocher demanded $60,000 and the southwest quadrant of Public Square.
Durocher said he was offered a job with a salary of $53,000 after taxes (more than $434,000 today) and incentives to bring the total over $100,000. But he turned it down. “I’m sorry I didn’t take the Cleveland job in ’59,” he said later, also denying reports that had circulated that he had accepted the job before backing out. Gordon ended up coming back as the Indians manager for 1960. “He deserved another shot anyway after the great job he did,” Durocher said.
Gordon lasted about halfway through the 1960 season, when Lane, living up to his nickname, traded him to Detroit for Jimmy Dykes, who lasted through the 1961 season. By then, Durocher was a coach for the Dodgers, and had no interest in that job – or the Orioles position vacated by Paul Richards, who was headed to Houston to serve as general manager of the National League expansion team, the Colt .45s.
The Indians ended up hiring Mel McGaha, who went 78-82 before being fired with two games left in the season (coach Mel Harder managed the last two games, winning both). And again, Durocher’s name was mentioned. Bob Dolgan of the Plain Dealer went so far as to say if Durocher didn’t manage in Cleveland in 1963, he wouldn’t manage anywhere that year. He wasn’t wrong.
Durocher stayed a coach for the Dodgers, and the Indians hired Birdie Tebbetts, who kept the job for four years – despite missing the first half of the 1964 season after suffering a heart attack in spring training.
By the time the Indians were looking for a manager next, after Tebbetts’ resignation in August 1966, Durocher was off the market. He had signed on to manage the Chicago Cubs. He spent six seasons there before being fired, and spent a little more than a year as manager of the Astros.
The Indians, of course, continued to play mediocre baseball (at best) into the 1990s. It’s a tantalizing “what if” scenario for Tribe fans: Would Durocher have turned the Indians around? Or just been one more in the parade of managers the team had between World Series appearances?