Leo Durocher travels memory lane, with a stop at Dusty Rhodes

Maybe six times a year you can catch Leo Durocher, flamboyant in a red vest and flashing a ring whose glare would not be out of place on the front end of a locomotive, watching the California Angels as the guest of owner Gene Autry. They are old friends who live within a few minutes' drive of each other in Palm Springs. For nearly half a century, of course, ``the Lip'' was one of baseball's most headline-provoking players and managers. And even today, long retired but still ramrod straight, he's a welcome link to that memorable era.

To run into Leo standing around the batting cage during pre-game practice, then, is to want to ask him about those bygone days. Of all the teams he managed, for example, which was the most amazing?

He doesn't hesitate a moment. ``The 1954 New York Giants,'' he says.

Surprised? A few million other fans would be surprised too. What about the 1951 Giants?

Durocher, who had managed integration pioneer Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn before moving his headquarters to the Polo Grounds, had a new rookie star on that 1951 Giant squad named Willie Mays. He also had a team that staged one of baseball's most famous rallies to catch the Dodgers at the end of the season and then win the three-game pennant playoff on a dramatic ninth-inning home run by Bobby Thomson.

But the 1954 Giants were quite a team, too -- not only winning another pennant but sweeping the favored Cleveland Indians in the World Series 4-0.

``Going into that Series I didn't think we had a chance,'' Durocher told me. ``Hey, the Indians had set an American League record by winning 111 games, which was one more victory than the 1927 Yankees had. They also had that great three-man starting rotation of Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, and Mike Garcia, plus a lot of bullpen strength in Don Mossi and Ray Narleski.

``We beat the Indians four straight, mostly because of a guy named Dusty Rhodes,'' Leo continued. ``Now Rhodes couldn't run, couldn't throw, and couldn't field, but he hit .341 for me as a part-time player that year, including 50 RBIs.''

``You know what Rhodes was? He was a buffoon, and I say that affectionately. I loved having him on my ball club because of his personality and the funny things he did that kept everybody loose. But I couldn't have stood two of him.''

Durocher said that on days when he started Dusty to give one of his other outfielders a rest, he could almost count on Rhodes misplaying at least one fly ball into a hit, or maybe a single into a double, usually by the fifth inning.

``You couldn't trust the guy in the field,'' Leo said. ``But then he'd come into the dugout after an inning like that and he'd say: `You better get me out of there, Skip, before I kill myself.' Now how could anybody get mad at a guy like that!

``I don't know why Rhodes hit so well, and I don't think he did, either. But I've been around a lot of ball clubs for a lot of years, and usually when you look down the bench for a pinch hitter, most of the guys are trying to hide behind each other. Oh, they'll pinch-hit if you ask them, but for most of them it's the worst kind of pressure.

``But Dusty was different. He'd anticipate the situation every time, and when you turned to look for him, he'd already have a bat in one hand, and he'd be pointing at his chest, like he didn't want you to even think about anyone else. Then more times than you could expect, he'd go out and get the clutch hit for you.''

Rhodes was extraordinary even by his own high pinch-hitting standards, however, in that '54 Series. His 10th-inning pinch home run won the opener. In Game 2 he had a game-tying pinch single in the fifth inning, plus an insurance home run in the seventh. Then in the third inning of Game 3, the Series having shifted from New York to Cleveland, Dusty came in cold off the bench and delivered a two-run single.

Somehow the Giants won the fourth game without any help from Rhodes, but his exploits (.667 batting average, two homers, and 7 RBIs in just six at-bats) had already made him a household name all across America.

Durocher himself had long since become a household name, first as a player, then as an aggressive manager.

A standout infielder and a pesky hitter known as a tough out in the clutch, Leo came up with the New York Yankees in the late 1920s and spent 17 years in the major leagues, achieving his best success with the ``Gas House Gang'' St. Louis Cardinal teams of the mid-'30s.

As a manager with those famous Dodger and Giant teams of the '40s and '50s, and later with the Houston Astros and the Chicago Cubs, Durocher always preferred speed, defense, and aggressiveness to power. Give him a poor club and he'd somehow make it better. Give him an established team and he'd immediately want to make it over in his own fiery image.

And his tiffs with umpires, especially Jocko Conlan, were monumental. Conlan liked to strut in front of a crowd as much as Leo did. They often went nose to nose. And although Conlan always had the last word, Durocher became a master at kicking the dirt around home plate so that at least some of it got up underneath Jocko's pant legs and into his shoes.

Time apparently soothed them both, however, and in later years they could be seen sitting next to each other at banquets.

And so it is now, on those occasional evenings at the ballpark where a calm but still memorable Leo Durocher can be seen staying close to the game he dearly loves.

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