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  • Don’t Give Me No LipThe Cultural and Religious Roots of Leo Durocher’s Competitiveness
  • Jeffrey Marlett (bio)

I come to play! I come to beat you! I come to kill you!

Leo Durocher, Nice Guys Finish Last

All the stories of steroids and scandals aside, the American cultural imagination retains its faith in “the church of baseball.” Narratives of religiosity pervade the scholarship surrounding baseball. For example, the sport’s preference for tradition and ritual, the faith the sport and its teams inspire in fans, and the “green cathedrals” of ballparks themselves. Baseball possesses its own cognoscenti, an intellectual elite who appraise the game’s more nuanced aspects. This tension between being an insider and an outsider within baseball recalls Ludwig Wittgenstein’s argument that religious language resembles a kind of game. With both endeavors one learns by playing the game (or practicing the religion). Only later does intellectual affirmation provide new levels of deeper meaning.

But what about the dark side? Almost all religions possess some notion of evil; the dualistic Other serves several purposes: temptation, damnation, and an instructive place in narrative lessons about what not to do. Joseph Price writes, “Classically, the dualistic, cosmic conflict pits the forces of good against the forces of evil, light against darkness, creation against chaos, or it presents the Gnostic tension between flesh and spirit.”1 Baseball is no different; the 1919 Black Sox, Pete Rose, and now perhaps Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire stand as instructive examples of the harm baseball suffers when its practitioners sacrifice ultimate reward and salvation for short-term monetary gain and glory.

Then there’s Leo Durocher (1905–91), the many times married and divorced manager of the Dodgers and Giants who coined the phrase “nice guys finish last.” Durocher’s infamy in baseball enjoys many sources—and just as many [End Page 43] scriptural accounts. Rumors swirled about his rookie-year pilfering of Babe Ruth’s watch (untrue stories Ruth himself fueled out of dislike for Durocher).2 In every city Durocher played (New York, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Brooklyn), he rang up eye-popping gambling debts and often bounced checks when paying them off or buying fancy clothing. When not playing shortstop with grace and speed (albeit with a weak .247 batting average), Durocher ran around with a shady group of gangsters, Hollywood grafters, and pool hustlers. More than once he ended a ball game fighting with fans. These troubles followed Durocher throughout his baseball career. In 1947 things grew so bad that the Brooklyn Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) protested by withdrawing its numerous members from the Dodgers’ Knothole Gang. Frank Murphy, a US Supreme Court justice, and Westbrook Pegler, a widely-read columnist, also joined the rush to squelch Durocher’s style. Decades later, he was still at it, grinding away at his players and chasing women.

What really set Durocher apart, though, was his mouth. He stands as one of the greatest examples of a baseball “bench jockey.” His nickname “the Lip” came from Babe Ruth, frustrated with the younger Durocher’s inability to refrain from back talk. Baseball always held a role for verbal harassment of the other team, but Durocher took the role to unknown heights. Durocher yapped at everybody—off the field as well as on it. Jonathan Eig writes, “If Durocher spoke a sentence without curses, it was probably an accident, soon to be corrected. . . . Nowhere did he stay out of trouble, and nowhere did he shut up.”3 As a player, Durocher spouted off to everyone, including the game’s greats like Ty Cobb. When Detroit’s Bob “Fatty” Fothergill came to bat against the Yankees, the rookie Durocher brazenly called time from his shortstop position. Durocher ran in to the umpire protesting that Detroit was batting out of order. When informed that Fothergill was indeed the correct batter, Durocher responded flippantly that he had mistaken Fothergill’s girth for two players. Infuriated, Fothergill promptly grounded out on the next pitch.

Durocher played for four teams (Yankees, Reds, Cardinals, and Dodgers) from 1928 to 1945, and eventually managed four more (Dodgers, Giants, Cubs, and Astros). His managing career finally ended in 1973. During his tenure...