- Leo Durocher’s Last Stand:Anti-Semitism, Racism, and the Cubs Player Rebellion of 1971
Chicago Cubs fans, for whom the compound adjective "long-suffering" was coined, have an unfortunate and self-flagellating habit of referencing the year 1969 as empirical evidence of their unwavering loyalty to a lofty ideal in the face of a catastrophic reality. Like an army of William Faulkners, they echo in unison the Nobel Laureate's sentiments that to attach oneself to a grand cause requires a sacrifice born of the agony and sweat of the human spirit. The Cubs of '69 were such a cause. I would venture to argue, however, that 1969 has become so mythic in Cubs' lore that it often stands isolated from other years, like a disembodied limb looking for its owner or a lost migratory bird forlornly gazing into an alien horizon.1 I'd like to think of 1969 as the beginning of a larger tragedy, a tragic trilogy if you will, that ends in the dog days of August 1971, nearly two years after the conclusion of the most unforgettable year in Cubs history. In 1971 Leo Durocher was still the aging manager of the team that retained the nucleus of players who brought him to the brink of mythic stardom just two summers before. This time, though, Durocher would be playing the role of King Lear to the array of Cubs players who alternated between playing Regan and Goneril. And there would be no Cordelia to offer reconciliation or redemption.
On August 24, 1971, the day after Cubs' hurler Milt Pappas gave up an 0-2 checked-swing double to the Houston Astros' Doug Rader that resulted in a second straight loss for the home team at Wrigley Field, Durocher called a clubhouse meeting in which he berated his players for their lack of effort and sloppy play. In the much-chronicled closed-door-affair, Durocher singled out Pappas for his poor pitch selection but then surprised his team by suddenly softening his tone and inviting anyone who wished to clear the air to do so, adding that no repercussions would follow. One by one several veteran players rose to criticize Durocher's handling of the team, and the meeting soon escalated into a shouting match between Durocher and Cubs' captain [End Page 1] Ron Santo, who had to be restrained by Billy Williams and Jim Hickman. "I grabbed Leo and had him around the neck," Santo reminisced later. "I could have killed him."2 After Santo, Pappas, Joe Pepitone, and Kenny Holtzman took turns accusing Durocher of insensitive and feckless managing, Durocher announced that he was quitting and left the clubhouse for his office, only to change his mind when an apologetic but still seething Santo approached him with a peace offering. Ten days later on September 4, Cubs' owner Philip K. Wrigley took the unusual step of taking out a full-page ad to offer a public letter of endorsement of Durocher in each of the four Chicago daily newspapers. The eight-paragraph letter concluded with a slap at the dissident players, saying, "Leo is the team manager and the 'Dump Durocher Clique' might as well give up. He is running the team, and if some of the players do not like it and lie down on the job, during the off season we will see what we can do to find them happier homes. P.S. If only we could find more team players like Ernie Banks."3
Less than a year later, Durocher was no longer the Cubs' skipper, having been fired during the 1972 All-Star break, with the Cubs' record standing at 46-44—10 games back of Pittsburgh and in third place in their division. In the wake of his departure and the rebuilding of the team during the ensuing years, revelations about Durocher's degrading behavior toward his players became more specific and more public. Reports surfaced that Durocher frequently called Holtzman "kike" in front of his teammates, referred to third baseman Santo as "wop," and gave the college-educated Don Kessinger the moniker "dumb hillbilly."4 Other demeaning remarks, directed at other players...