Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Ballad of Mr. Cub and Leo the Lip




It was one of the most intriguing matchups in baseball history. Ernie Banks and Leo Durocher--thrown together in the same clubhouse. Rarely have two more disparate characters been coupled outside of a lousy television sitcom. Smiling Ernie Banks, the perpetually glass-is-half-full line drive of sunshine; a man so outrageously optimistic that he actually claimed the Cubs had a chance each spring when everyone else in the western hemisphere knew otherwise; but a man unable to lift his team out of mediocrity, no matter how brilliantly he played. Leo Durocher, the consummate tough-talking, rule-bending, angle-playing wise guy, who never hesitated to break any person in his way; a man summoned to Chicago to try to rescue a moribund franchise.



While Ernie was loved by millions and, except for a few ex-wives, liked by virtually everyone else, Leo was . . .  well, I’m sure he must have once had a dog who acted like he liked him at dinner time.

Before he arrived in Chicago, Leo Durocher was already a baseball legend, an outsized caricature who dominated every scene by sheer force of personality. His baseball career had started with the Yankees of the late 1920s where as a hustling, under-talented shortstop, he famously had trouble getting along with Babe Ruth, who called him “the all-American out.” And he either did or did not steal the Babe’s watch, depending on whose version you're willing to believe. As a manager Leo had taken over losing teams in Brooklyn and New York and turned both into pennant winners.
Possessing a voice with the commanding ring of a Marine drill sergeant and a snarl savage enough to give even the toughest of badasses pause, Leo could captivate a group of men like few others. Learning at an early age that yelling was the way for him to get the upper hand in life, he had an explosive temper that begged for anger management therapy.
Durocher routinely used every vile invective and slur against both his players and opponents. Jews were Kikes, Italians were Dagos, and Blacks were, well, called much worse. And according to the grammatical rules Leo preferred, the slurs were most often used as adjectives, surrounded by other less-than-endearing terms, such as when he often referred to pitcher Ken Holtzman--to his face and in front of teammates--as a “gutless Kike bastard.”
But it could not be accurately said that Leo was racist. He hated everyone equally--regardless of race, religion or belief--who stood between him and victory. He had taken a stand for Jackie Robinson during Jackie’s first spring with the Dodgers, telling a late-night meeting of the team, “I’ll play an elephant if he can do the job, and to make room for him I’ll send my own brother home.”  With the Giants he had been a father figure to Willie Mays who adored him.
Leo never lacked for enthusiasm, especially when there was a microphone in his face or a photographer nearby. While he loved publicity in general, he hated media members personally. For their part writers uniformly despised the man, but loved the fact that he was in their city; if nothing else, he was always good for easy copy.
As a player and manager Leo Durocher was a master of the dark arts of baseball. Flinging dirt in infielders faces, kicking balls out of their gloves, stealing signs, beanballs, intimidation, nothing was too much if it helped him win a game. He would say virtually anything from the dugout to give his team an edge. When he yelled to his pitcher from the dugout, “Stick one in his ear,” no one doubted that he meant it with all his heart. No fan of sportsmanship, Leo said “Show me a good loser in professional sports, and I’ll show you an idiot.” And, “I believe in rules. Sure I do, if there weren’t any rules, how could you break them?” He wanted “scratching, diving, hungry ballplayers who come to kill you,” on his team. He freely admitted that if his mother was rounding third with the winning run he would trip her—but just to show that he did have a heart, he added that he would pick the old lady up and brush her off afterwards.

But few men could get more out of a team than Leo Durocher. While he knew baseball and knew how to win, he was extremely hard on his players. For those who won his approval, who showed their toughness through fire, they were his guys for life, or until the next loss. Only a certain type of ballplayer, with a certain tough hide, could play for Leo Durocher. His past was littered with the carcasses of players for whom he had no use; men he had broken. He loved letting his team know that no one’s job was secure, no matter the past. His favorite expression was to “back up the truck” as in loading up all the unwanted players and carting them away.
Brutally frank and decisive, if Leo ever had a doubt about anything he did, he never showed it. Confidence exuded from his pores and enveloped him like a bad cologne. He was absolutely certain deep in his heart that there was no man whom he couldn’t bluff out of a pot while holding a hand full of nothing and there was no dame he couldn’t talk out of her pants with a few well-chosen words and a fist full of charm.


Although Leo had not managed a baseball team since 1955 he had remained very much in the public eye by coaching, commentating on televised games and being a general celebrity. He was perhaps the only man who could boast of achieving the 1960s cultural trifecta of appearing on the Mr. Ed, Munsters and Beverly Hillbillies television shows (as himself of course). When Fred Flintstone was wooed by a no-nonsense big league manager named Leo Ferocious of the Boulder City Giants, no one doubted who the cartoon character represented. 

Ernie Banks was in many ways the polar opposite of Leo Durocher, exactly the kind of nice guy Leo famously said finished last. While Leo spent a lifetime refining how to get what he wanted by climbing in faces and forcing uncomfortable situations, Ernie was a walking conflict-avoidance seminar. He refused to allow himself to be goaded into a forceful face-to-face disagreement with another human being. Want to know the essence of Ernie Banks: a 1967 clubhouse encounter with teammate Ron Santo tells you all you need to know. Santo played with Banks for more than a decade and knew him as well as anyone, which is to say he didn’t have a clue what made the man tick. When the hot-headed Santo entered the clubhouse the day after a tough loss and flew into a tirade, Ernie calmly pleaded, “Don’t let the past influence the present."

Santo turned on Banks and exploded, “What the hell’s wrong with you? You like losing?”

Ernie merely walked away while saying something about it being a lovely day—the fact that it was cloudy and drizzling at the time did not matter—and that it was time to “beat the Pirates, beat the Pirates.” That day, the Cubs did beat the Pirates, winning 8-4 and  Ernie’s two doubles and Santo’s home run accounted for four RBIs.

Avoidance of conflict, avoidance of controversy, show the world only happy thoughts, put a positive spin on virtually everything; this was the protective hard-shelled candy coating in which Ernie Banks had successfully encased himself. It was a philosophy born of a combination of the optimism of Ernie’s Negro League manager, Buck O’Neil, and the ultraconservative don’t-ever-show-anybody-what-you-really-think and, above all, don’t-stand-out, Ernie’s father preached as a way to survive the uncompromising Jim Crow life of Dallas in the 1930s and 1940s.




 And where Leo loved talking to the media about himself, Ernie could not be forced to talk about himself by any means. Unfailingly polite with the media, he would hold forth at length spouting his well-worn clich├ęs and meaningless optimistic proclamations and at the end of a half hour, the writer would have absolutely nothing. Even when young Ernie was copping consecutive MVP awards in the late ‘50s, writers approaching him for a personal story would come away with only, “Yessir, yessir, quite an honor to be included with these guys. That Willie Mays, what a great player. And, my, Henry Aaron. What a fantastic year he had.”

By the mid-1960s Ernie had perfected a smiling two-step whenever a writer got too close: “Thank you, thank you, it’s a beautiful day for baseball here at the friendly confines,” he would say while walking the writer to the other side of the clubhouse. “And the guys you want to talk to are right here, Donnie Kessinger and Glenn Beckert. Two of the next stars. The best young double play combo in baseball.” And when the writer turned around, Ernie would have vanished. It was a polished, seemingly effortless, shtick and always left Ernie looking like a good guy, while both giving young players some exposure and saving Ernie from any truly prying questions.
By 1966 Ernie had been in Chicago a dozen years, the face of the franchise, not only a perennial All-Star but recognized as one of the game’s great gentlemen off the field. He never turned down a request for an autograph or a speaking engagement, often appearing gratis at Little League banquets and the like throughout the upper Midwest. He had a rare moral compass that refused to allow any public perception of trouble. Through all the losing years he never said a bad word about management. Ernie was the ultimate organization man for a team without organization. When he began to be referred to publicly as Mr. Cub in the early 1960s, no one disagreed. Banks had been one of baseball’s top hitters, hitting more home runs between 1955 and 1960 than anyone in the game. Although never out of shape, still retaining the thin frame that impossibly launched all those home runs, Ernie had not aged well. Chronic knee problems and a variety of other ailments had cut his production and forced a move from shortstop to first base in 1961. By 1966 Banks visibly hobbled at times on the field and in the dugout.

Leo Durocher, at 59, was still very much an energetic, dynamic, forceful, dominating personality when he was hired to manage the Cubs for the 1966 season. He was the alpha male of all he surveyed. Leo’s impact on the windy city was both immediate and seismic. The Cubs were fresh off four years of PK Wrigley’s ridiculous College of Coaches experiment and had not finished above 7th place since 1959. “I’m not a nice guy,” Leo said at his Chicago unveiling in October 1965. In case anyone was wondering, he added, “I’m still the same SOB I always was.”

 “Pitching, defense and speed, that’s the kind of ball club I like,” pronounced Durocher that day. “And that’s what I’m going to be working toward with the Cubs. Hit and run, bunt, steal. You can’t win with those big slow-footed guys even if they do hit one out of the park for you once in a while.” Initially Durocher said, “As for Banks, he comes with the franchise and I’m glad to have him on my side for a change.” But anyone with even remote knowledge of the game could see that Leo obviously had other plans for the slow-footed first baseman who could no longer run, bunt or steal.

Shortly after taking over the Giants in 1949, as part of his master plan that would produce two pennants and a world championship within five years, Leo had traded thirty-something year old All-Stars Johnny Mize and Walker Cooper--less than two years removed from combining for 86 home runs—peddling them to open space on the team for the kind of guys he liked. He wanted to do something similar in Chicago and there was one big unavoidable target: Mr. Banks.

Durocher initially talked of trading Banks to the Giants for Orlando Cepeda, but he quickly learned what every other manager, director of player personnel and general manager (whatever Wrigley’s title de jour for them was) had learned: the chances of PK Wrigley agreeing to any trade involving Ernie Banks depended entirely on the weather—just in case Hell did freeze over . . .

Since Leo could not trade Ernie, he did the next best thing: he began to hate him and plotted a way to shame him off the field. Leo was merciless in pointing out Banks’ deficiencies to both Ernie and anyone who would listen. He constantly harped on Ernie’s lack of speed and publicly called him a “rally killer.”

“Mr. Cub, my ass,” he told reporters. “I’ll give Mr. Cub $100 any time he even attempts to steal second.” [editors note: for the record Ernie Banks stole 4 bases in 7 attempts in the 6 seasons he played for Leo; it was never noted if Leo actually ponied up the $700].

Pitcher Fergie Jenkins later wrote, “One thing that drove Durocher nuts was that, at that point in Ernie’s career, when he was 35 or 36 years old, you didn’t have to be Einstein to know he wasn’t going to steal any bases. So Ernie took tiny leads off first base, like three inches. He wasn’t going to steal, and he sure as heck wasn’t going to let himself get picked off. Durocher screamed to the first-base coach, ‘Get him off! Get him off!’ Meaning he wanted him to make Ernie take a bigger lead so if someone got a hit he might make it to third base safely. That went on the whole year. The rest of us, sitting on the bench, watching and listening, just wanted to turn to Leo and say, ‘Give it a rest.’ But nobody did that. Ernie was just the greatest guy. He was a lot of fun to be with. He always talked when he was in the field. He was always bubbly and great to be around. Durocher seemed to be the only person on planet Earth who had trouble getting along with Ernie Banks.”

 In Leo’s defense, inheriting an aging star is one of the least pleasant tasks for a new manager—a political and managerial quicksand for any polite leader concerned with social etiquette (see Stengel/DiMaggio). And Leo was never accused of politeness or social etiquette.

Also Leo loved to play amateur psychologist. No one had ever gotten on Banks before. Leo was making a statement to the entire team that no one was above reproach.

Others have hinted at more sinister motives: “He disliked Ernie from the go,” wrote longtime Cubs announcer  Jack Brickhouse, himself no great Durocher fan. “It was just that Ernie was too big a name in Chicago to suit Durocher.”

While Leo grudgingly conceded that Ernie Banks had been a great player in his time, “Unfortunately, his time wasn’t my time,” he later wrote. “He couldn’t run, he couldn’t field; toward the end, he couldn’t even hit.  . . . As a player, by the time I got there, there was nothing wrong with Ernie that two new knees wouldn’t have cured. He’d come up with men on the bases and if he hit a ground ball they could walk through the double play. . . . I’ve got to have somebody there who can play. Balls are going by there this far that should be outs or double plays. . . But I had to play him. Had to play the man or there would have been a revolution in the street. Ernie Banks owns Chicago.”

Leo was mystified at the goodwill Ernie had built up in the city and did not buy into his act. “How does he do it? You could say about Ernie that he never remembered a sign or forgot a newspaperman’s name. All he knew was, ‘Ho, let’s go. Ho, babydoobedoobedoo. It’s a wonderful day for a game in Chicago. Let’s play twooo.’ We’d get on the bus and he’d sit across from the writers. ‘A beaooootiful day for twoooo.’ It could be snowing outside, ‘Let’s play three.’”              

Whatever the motive, the opportunity Leo hoped for arrived soon. In mid-May, 1966, with Banks hitting .188, the Cubs traded pitcher Ted Abernathy to the Braves for first baseman-outfielder Lee Thomas. “I’m going to him [Thomas] every chance to play regularly at first base,” Durocher announced to the press. “Ernie Banks hasn’t done it for me, so I’m going to give Lee every chance to show me.” Durocher made the peculiar move of shuffling Ron Santo to shortstop and putting Ernie at third base and Thomas at first—an ill-conceived experiment that weakened all three positions and lasted a mere four days. Then he benched Ernie and gave first base to Thomas outright.

But Thomas failed to cooperate with Leo’s plan. In early June, with Thomas hitting .200, Ernie was back as the regular first baseman and he launched an 8-game hitting streak. June 11, the old man legged out three triples in a game—all pokes to right field. But the slump returned. In early July Durocher announced that Banks was benched again—this time for powerful youngster John Boccabella, who had hit 30 homers in the minors in 1965. With the Cubs locked in the cellar, Durocher added, “The future of this team has to be with the young fellows.” The unmistakable message was that Banks was officially over the hill and finished.

Reporters wrote that Banks took the news with “Impeccably good grace. He has the unfailing gift of always saying the right thing.” Among the “right things” they quoted Ernie with saying was, “There comes a time in every player’s life when he must face up to this sort of thing. As we get older, we have to make way for the younger players. . . . I won’t say it doesn’t hurt because it definitely does. However, I simply have to adjust to it.”

But Boccabella failed to hit and once again, before the last shovel-full of dirt could be tossed on his grave, Ernie came back. From the All-Star game to August 11, over a five-week period, he hit .359 (37-103). He ended the season with a mediocre 15 homers, 75 RBIs and a .272 batting average for the last place, 59-103 Cubs.

All winter Leo said he was sticking with the youth movement, adding that Boccobella would be given a full shot at first. At one ceremony, Leo called Banks  “Grandpa.” Liking the way it sounded, Leo used the term liberally throughout the winter.

And the offseason gave Leo time to think of a new strategy to deal with his unwanted aging star. February 28, 1967, Leo announced that Ernie Banks had been named to the Cubs’ coaching staff: “Banks will do a lot of playing for us, the only difference is that Ernie now will be able to teach our kids. He’ll have as much authority as any of the other four coaches.”

The move was a complete surprise, and Banks seemed more surprised than anyone else. It immediately led to open speculation and interpretation: was it was the beginning of the climb up the corporate ladder for Banks or was it a public relations move by Durocher to keep Banks on the bench. Durocher, sensing everyone’s suspicion, stated that this shouldn’t be construed in any way as a move to end Banks’ playing career. He added that Ernie still had a chance to fight off Boccabella for first base playing time. The tone left little doubt that the job appeared to be Boccabella’s to lose. For his part, Ernie smiled, noted that he would become just the fourth African-American major league coach (behind Buck O’Neil, Gene Baker and Junior Gilliam) and said, “It’s all very gratifying.”

Leo played Boccabella, Clarence Jones, Norm Gigon and Lee Thomas at first all through the spring, along with feeding rumors of other first base candidates being brought in by trades. Banks didn’t get any regular playing time until about 10 days before the exhibition season was over even as the mythical coaching duties never seemed to materialize.

While Ernie hit ropes in the batting cage, Leo acted like he didn’t notice, raving instead about the young prospects. When writers ventured that Banks was being ignored, Leo snarled, “Why don’t you knock off that Mr. Cub stuff? The guy’s wearing out. He can’t go on forever.”

It became a running gag in the press box, whenever Banks hit a home run or knocked in a key run: “Do you think Durocher will acknowledge that?”

Despite the near daily criticism and indications that he was through, outwardly Banks seemed exactly the same to observers. He never let on that it was anything other than another routine, glorious spring training in the sun. He showed up every day with a smile on his face, singing to pregame music, welcoming one and all to the park and cheering opposing teams through their calisthenics. Then he would get into the cage and flick line drives with his still-magnificent wrists.

Near the end of the spring, when Ernie was hitting .419, Leo conceded that the first base job probably belonged to him. Except for two second games of doubleheaders, Leo wrote “Banks” on the lineup card every game from April 28 to June 20.  Ernie got off to his best first half since the MVP season of 1959 and made the All-Star team.

Leo Durocher delivered for the Cubs the way he had promised. Two decades of futility were laid to rest as the Cubs took over first place in July, 1967 for the first time since 1945. They finished the season in third place—their first time in the first division in 21 years. Ernie played in 151 games in 1967, finishing with 23 homers and 94 RBIs, second on the team to Santo’s 98 and second among league first basemen.
Reporters, eager for a good winter-time story, kept giving Banks chances to rub his success in Leo’s face, unmistakably teeing up leading questions. But Ernie steadfastly left the bat on his shoulder. In fact, in an act similar to happily digging through a pile of manure looking for a horse, he gave Leo credit for the good season. All that time on the bench in the spring, Ernie explained with a smile, had been the plan all along to allow him to get ready on his own, to take his time getting in shape. “That undoubtedly was a good break for me, because if I had tried to compete with the young fellows, I would have been struggling, really struggling. . . . [when the time to play came] I was ready.” It was an explanation Ernie repeated numerous times all through the fall and winter, leaving incredulous writers to question their sanity.

The pattern quieted the next two years as Ernie got off to hot starts and showed that, while he couldn’t run, he could still drive in teammates. In the notoriously tough pitcher’s year of 1968, Ernie was second in the league with 32 home runs and his hot hitting helped the Cubs jump out to a big lead in 1969 as he ended up with 106 RBIs.

By 1970, however, Ernie’s body was just about ready for the glue factory. His knees were so swollen and achy that some days he could barely walk. The final countdown is difficult with any aged star and Ernie’s was no less painful, for him or his manager. Their relationship deteriorated as a familiar pattern played out: Leo would watch Ernie limping through the clubhouse and ask the trainer who would tell him that Ernie couldn't play and Leo would write him out of the lineup. Reporters would go to Ernie and he would say he felt fine. They would ask him why he didn’t play and Ernie would shrug and say, "The man says I play, I play.” They would then write that Durocher had benched Banks for no reason and fans would complain. Durocher felt that Ernie was betraying him with passive-aggressive behavior. 

May 4, 1971 against the Mets, Ernie suffered the indignity all geriatric stars eventually face: he was removed for a pinch-hitter in a clutch situation. Teammates felt Leo humiliated Banks by allowing him to face Nolan Ryan three times, only to pinch-hit for him with right-handed batter Jim Hickman when lefty Ray Sadecki was on the mound in the eighth inning with men on first and third, trailing 2-1 . Ernie was in the ondeck circle when he unexpectedly saw the shadow of Hickman approaching. Hickman sheepishly told him, “I gotta hit for you.” Banks nodded without emotion, walked back, put his bat in the rack slowly and sat down on the bench—right next to Leo. He never said a word.

 “Hickman told me later it was one of the toughest things he ever had to do,” wrote Brickhouse.

Ernie retired as a player after the 1971 season, but owner Wrigley kept him on the Cubs as a coach for 1972, against Leo’s wishes. By that time the Cubs’ pennant chances were in sharp decline. As the team struggled, amid speculation that Leo would be replaced, tempers flared, leading to a famous clubhouse explosion involving Leo, Milt Pappas, Joe Pepitone and Ron Santo. Afterwards Leo stormed out and threatened to quit. Ernie and coach Joey Amalfitano went to his office and tried to talk Durocher into staying. According to Durocher, Ernie told him, “Please Leo, don’t quit. We want you here. We need you. Don’t go doing something you might regret.”

Soon after, on September 3, PK Wrigley ran a full page ad in a Chicago paper backing Durocher. He concluded with the immortal line: “P.S. If only we could find more team players like Ernie Banks.”

Within two years Leo and Ernie were both gone from the Cubs clubhouse.

It is insightful to look at their words in the years after their time together. They both stayed remarkably true to character. Ernie never said a bad word about Leo and Leo, well, they didn’t call him Leo the Lip because of his trumpet-playing ability.
Over the next four decades numerous interviewers gave Ernie a chance to trash Leo. Or at least take a few good pokes. He never did. Usually he changed the subject or offered only bland statements. Ernie knew exactly what everyone else said and thought, but he pretended not to. When cornered, he only gave them: “I learned long ago that when you say derogatory things about people it stays with you. Everybody remembers it, especially if it’s written. You can’t retract those things. Of course you have those feelings. . . . but suppose that tomorrow you feel he’s a nice guy again."

In Banks’ 1971 autobiography the chapter dealing with the late ‘60s was titled, “Life With Leo.” While the title of the chapter may have given readers hope of learning his true thoughts, in keeping with the entirely vanilla tone of the book, there were exactly zero negative comments. Ernie credited “Leo’s leadership” with helping the Cubs become a winner. “Leo is unlike any other manager I’ve played for,” he stated. But he offered no specifics. Instead there were generic statements such as “A bark now, a good laugh a little later. He does it to keep us on our toes,” and “Leo can build a players’ morale like no one else.” He credited “Leo’s fine head planning and plotting for the future.” There was absolutely nothing about what “Life with Leo” was really like.

In 1977 Jet magazine offered an article with the leading title, “Banks Finally Tells of Durocher’s Many Insults.” Actually in the article, Banks told very little. The article summed up the many insults and included quotes from others, but Banks himself said nothing of substance.

In his old age, Ernie would add his own spin: “It was misinterpreted that Leo disliked me. He made my life better, he made me a better player,” and “Leo wasn’t jealous of me. I think he was just trying to push me. You know, when you’re in the latter stages of a career like I was, sometimes you get lackadaisical. I understood what he was trying to do.”

In 2006, the 71-year-old Banks finally allowed that life with Leo was a bit tough. Even then he quickly added, “As hard as he [Durocher] was on me, I tried to treat him with kindness, always talked to him, on the lane, in the dugout.”

Of course, Leo was much less reserved, and much more nasty. In his book “Nice Guys Finish Last” he devoted an entire chapter to Ernie. It was not a nice chapter. He took care to tarnish both Ernie Banks the player and the myth. He even took swipes at Ernie’s book, writing “All the writers in the country rushed to write what a great book it was, and all of them said in private, ‘If he wanted to write a book, with all the goodwill he has going for him, why didn’t he get himself a writer?' I don’t know why it is, but where Ernie is concerned everybody is always ready to fall over and play dead.” [In Leo’s defense, the criticism of Ernie’s co-writer, Jim Enright, was entirely valid—and it takes only reading a few pages to agree].

Years later, Leo Durocher had a change of heart, perhaps surgically induced. In 1983 a very contrite 78-year-old Leo, recovering from a recent open heart procedure, perhaps seeing his own mortality at last, spoke at a Cubs reunion and tearfully apologized to the team in general and Ernie Banks specifically for how he had behaved. 

Leo passed away in 1991 at the age of 86, Ernie in 2015 at 84. It's nice to think that they are now finally happy together in a better place:  



Other Cubs stories:

 The Curious Case of the Cubs College of Coaches

When Ernie Banks Ran For Alderman

Gene Baker: First African American Major League Manager