Somehow I got myself on some list of people who might review sports books. I don’t know how that happened, since I’ve never reviewed a book, but it’s wonderful. Now people send me books all the time, for free.
Anyway, I’ve been meaning for a while to hold up my end of the bargain, since I usually do read the books and I often very much enjoy them.
One such book is Leo Durocher’s autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last, written with Ed Linn and recently re-released by University of Chicago Press.
I’m about to liberally excerpt from this book and I have no idea if that’s legal, so here’s my attempt at making good with the ol’ University of Chicago Press: Buy this book.
Seriously, it’s awesome. I’m only halfway through, but it’s the best baseball book I’ve read in a long time. It’s an amazing collection of grizzled old-man baseball stories, including tales of Babe Ruth, Dizzy Dean and Jackie Robinson, plus long-forgotten but inarguably hilarious drunks like Van Lingle Mungo and Boots Poffenberger. Those are both real people. Baseball players in the 1930s had far more ridiculous names than they do now.
Take that, Milton Bradley. Come back when you’re Boots Poffenberger.
It’s also fascinating to read the book now and consider what such an old-timey baseball guy would say about the issues we wrestle with today. He says, for instance:
When you’re playing for money, winning is the only thing that matters. Show me a good loser in professional sports, and I’ll show you an idiot. Show me a sportsman, and I’ll show you a player I’m looking to trade to Oakland.
Later, he adds, “Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it.”
So I wonder where he’d stand on the whole steroids thing.
He also demonstrates a sharp take on several of the issues I frequently grapple with here. He says, pretty explicitly, that talent is the only thing that separates a guy labeled a fun-loving buffoon that loosens up the clubhouse and a guy labeled a drunk.
But the book’s best parts, easily, are when Durocher details aspects of the games themselves. The guy managed for parts of 26 seasons, so I guess that makes sense; he probably knows his way around a game. And he sort of wraps his life story around baseball lessons, which I guess also makes sense, since his life story is sort of a giant series of baseball lessons.
It’s well-written, too. I don’t know if that credit should go to Durocher or Linn, but it makes for an enjoyable read.
Anyway, here’s an excerpt I transcribed, from his chapter about second-guessing himself while managing the Dodgers in Game 4 of the 1941 World Series. His best relief pitcher, Hugh Casey, had recently endured a series of bizarre meltdowns — some his fault, some otherwise — but threw four innings of shutout ball after taking the mound in the top of the fifth.
With the Dodgers leading 4-3, Casey retired the first two batters in the ninth, but the third, Tommy Henrich, reached base when catcher Mickey Owen dropped the third strike. Next, Joe DiMaggio singled, bringing up lefty-hitting Charlie Keller, and prompting Durocher to consider pulling Casey:
Given everything that had been happening, the situation screamed for me to replace Casey with French. I did nothing. I froze. Casey slowed himself down, made two good pitches, and once again we were only one strike away. And now I had a thought of going out to remind him to brush Keller back with the next pitch. Maybe even the next two pitches. Not because I thought he needed to be reminded but only, again, to slow him down. Just as quickly as I thought about it I dismissed it. With Casey seeming to have settled down so nicely, I told myself, what was to be gained by going out and getting everybody jumpy? Defensive, timid thinking, it will kill you every time. Instead of going out, I did what I normally did. I whistled sharply to get his attention and drew my hand across my chest.
Hugh wound up and threw the ball right down the middle, the kind of pitch that Keller saw about once a year. His eyes opened wide as watermelons, his bat came jumping forward and the ball ended up high against the right-field wall. Suddenly, we were a run behind. Right there was where we lost the ball game.
I don’t know whether Casey had grown mentally weary from the long, pressure-packed season or whether there was a latent instability in him that had been brought to the fore. Or whether he simply made a couple of very bad pitches at a very bad time. Except for that one stretch, he always seemed at least as stable as the average player, and I know that he had all the guts in the world.
The only thing I can tell you about Hugh Casey is that a dozen years later he committed suicide. Stuck a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
I love that even as Casey’s manager, Durocher couldn’t venture a guess as to whether it was some psychological meltdown or just a bad pitch.
The note about Casey’s suicide took the wind out of me, so I included it here. But looking at Casey’s baseball-reference page, I notice that he missed the 1943-1945 seasons. I’m no detective, but I’m going to guess what he was doing then provoked a whole lot more psychological trauma than anything that happened to him on the baseball field.
And I should point out that, while Durocher wonders if he should have brought in lefty Larry French in the spot, he didn’t actually have French to bring in. French pitched a third of an inning in the fourth. The memory is a funny thing.
Regardless, it’s an awesome book. Read it.