`Nice guys finish last' -- the theory strikes out

IT is the week after the coup at Yankee Stadium -- too late for more hot and partisan musings about Billy Martin vs. Yogi Berra, or maybe both against George Steinbrenner. Whether the New York Yankees will win the pennant now that George the First has restored Billy the Fourth to his royal pin stripes will also be considered beside the point here. Is that restraint or is that restraint? The question before the house is more general: As Mr. Nasty replaces Mr. Nice, why do even the gentlest of us bystanders tend to assume that ``nice guys finish last''?

Mr. Steinbrenner recognized this larger issue with a respectful bow toward the late Vince Lombardi and a rhetorical question. As his many ex-managers know, Mr. Steinbrenner's questions have a way of turning rhetorical. ``Do you think Vince Lombardi was popular with his players?'' the Yankee tycoon asked, and then answered, quick as a Ron Guidry fastball: ``He treated them all the same -- like dogs.''

Poor Yogi! The friendly head-patter never stood a chance in Mr. Steinbrenner's tail-kicking world.

The treat-'em-like-a-dog school of coaching did not, of course, originate with Vince Lombardi, or even Leo Durocher, the old St. Louis Cardinals and Brooklyn Dodgers manager, who coined the phrase ``nice guys finish last.''

Historians of the winning snarl can trace it back at least as far as John Joseph (Muggsy) McGraw, also known as ``Little Napoleon,'' who managed-by-terror the generations of New York Giants from 1902 to 1932.

The premise of unnice-guy managers like McGraw is that by treating 'em like dogs you turn your athletes into a pack of growlers who will go out on the playing field and treat the opposition like dogs -- just tear them to bits with scowls and brushback pitches, not to mention those high-kicking spikes on the base paths.

This is known in baseball, and in life, as ``being aggressive,'' having the ``winning attitude'' -- fiercely frowning your way to victory.

But do nice guys really finish last? To paraphrase Tolstoy, are all happy teams the same while unhappy teams win the championships? It is time to confront the myth, if not bury it. While Muggsy McGraw was serving as role model for all the uncouth winners to come, Connie Mack was forming the paradigm of the gentleman manager. Mr. Mack, as his players know him, never swore, never spat tobacco, never kicked dust on an umpire's shoes. He wore a business suit with a stiff white collar and sat in the dugout, looking like a clergyman on his day off, genteelly positioning his outfielders with a wave of his score card.

McGraw was a big winner, but so was Mr. Mack.

Leo Durocher was a big winner, but so was the late Walter Alston, a nice guy who seldom finished second, to say nothing of last.

As managers, nice-guy Yogi and hard-case Billy have had about the same degree of success.

Yet in baseball, and in life, the legend persists that nice guys finish last. When the Muggsy types run out of their winning ways and get sacked, nobody constructs a theory that mean guys finish last, although plenty of them have. But let a Yogi go into exile, and the explanation pops up everywhere: The guy was too sweet to be a winner.

This is revisionist history. From Attila the Hun to Hitler, unnice guys have done a lot of striking out, and let's not forget it.

As everybody knows, Yogi's throne took the final totter when his son Dale, the Yankee shortstop, was observed by Mr. Steinbrenner to smile during a game the Yankees were losing. That did it! If there's anything Mr. Steinbrenner can't stand, it's a cheerful loser. He wants his managers to be sore even as winners, and so it's back to Billy Martin -- for the fourth time.

When Yogi was fired, he asked his own rhetorical question: Doesn't anybody think nice guys want to win, too? Doesn't anybody think nice guys also give their all?

At that instant, a Great Moments replay of Yogi's career as a winning player should have appeared before his listeners' eyes. No Yankee batsman ever performed better in the clutch.

Then, in the Berra family tradition, Yogi smiled as he walked off the job. The picture appeared in all the papers. It was the smile of a nice-guy winner -- and nobody is talking of just the box score.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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