The Lord and the Lip: Lessons in Life from Bible and Ballfield

Next time you’re debating some weighty matter of ethics or morals – and for heaven’s sake, let’s hope it’s weightier than Deflategate – and your friend asks you, “What would Jesus do?” here’s your answer:

Jesus and Leo“Jesus? He’d cheer for Leo Durocher!

Yes, Jesus was one of the all-time nice guys of human history. He ended up on a cross. Leo “The Lip” Durocher is best remembered for “Nice guys finish last,” something he never really said.

But even though Leo got it essentially right about Jesus, that’s not why the man from Galilee would have been a Durocher fan. No, it’s because Leo Durocher, ferocious good-field, no-hit shortstop and one of baseball’s best managers ever, remembered one of Jesus’ favorite teachings. Leo Durocher said “thank you.”

Of all the great players recruited to the old New York Yankees by Paul Krichell, baseball’s best talent scout of all time, Leo Durocher was the only one who ever thanked Krichell for believing in him and bringing him into professional baseball.

Krichell traveled the land in search of players for the Yankees. Jesus traveled the land, preaching to believers and doing good things. In Luke 17, he comes to a village where ten lepers call to him from a distance, begging his mercy. He tells the whole crew to go and show themselves to the priests, and they all get cured of their disease.

Only one of them, seeing he was made whole again, came back to Jesus, fell at his feet, and thanked him. Whereupon Jesus says “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?”

I don’t know a thing about Leo Durocher’s religion, but he must have heard that story and taken it to heart.

“Scouting for the Yankees,” a wonderful profile of Krichell by W.C. Heinz, tells the story of Krichell’s fabled 37-year career. Between 1920 and 1957, he signed more than 200 baseball players. They included Lou Gehrig, Hank Greenberg, Phil Rizzuto, Tony Lazzeri, Whitey Ford – Hall of Famers all.

He also went to see a minor league team play in Hartford one day. He’d seen the shortstop’s name on file in the Yankee’s head office, and he remembered the key observation: “Can’t hit.” But he saw something he liked, and he signed that shortstop anyway. It was a kid named Durocher.

Leo went on to a Hall of Fame career too, as both a player and manager. He played shortstop for the Yankees’ Murderers’ Row and was captain of the Cardinals’ Gashouse Gang. As manager, he seemed to specialize in umpire-baiting tantrums and ejections from games. But he brought the Dodgers, “the Brooklyn Bums,” to their first pennant.

After sitting out 1947, suspended by commissioner Happy Chandler for his many “unpleasant incidents,” as well as his affinity for wise guys like mobster Bugsy Siegel and a tabloid affair with actress Laraine Day, he took over the crosstown rival Giants. The year before that, in talking about the Giants, he said “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place.”

Many years later, in his autobiography, Durocher recalled his assessment of that Giants team as “Take a look at them. All nice guys. They’ll finish last. Nice guys. Finish last.” Sportswriters and broadcasters massaged those words down through the years until they became “Nice guys finish last,” which Leo never actually stated.

Durocher quickly changed the Giants and their losing ways. He was manager when they game from 13 and a half games out to win the 1951 pennant on Bobby Thomson’s home run. He managed the team to the World Series win over the Indians in 1954. He also managed the Cubs and Astros. In 24 years, he racked up 2008 wins. At the time of his retirement, he was the fifth winningest manager of all time.

When Heinz was interviewing Krichell for a piece in Collier’s magazine, he looked down the roll of baseball legends whom Krichell had discovered, and he asked,

Did any of them ever thank you? For seeing something in them and signing them – and without you they’d be coal miners or garage mechanics or carpenters?”

Krichell replied. “Only Durocher. Whenever I see Leo anywhere, he says ‘Here’s the guy I owe everything to. He saw something in me when nobody else would give me a tumble.’

“Most of them say nothing.”

Just like the other nine. But not like Leo Durocher.

Heinz returns to the subject of Durocher in his superb novel about boxing, “The Professional.” Of that book, Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The Professional is the only good novel I’ve ever read about a fighter and an excellent first novel in its own right. Hemingway.”

In the book, the protagonist describes Durocher’s approach to his game: “Durocher was a symbol of what baseball – any game – is all about, the overwhelming desire to win.” He tells of an interview scene in a post-game locker room after Durocher’s Dodgers had blown the 1946 pennant race and ended up tied with the Cardinals after losing the last game of the season.

“I’ll tell you what about it,” Durocher says to the reporters. “We’ll play ‘em until the snow flies.”

As it turned out, the Cardinals won two straight games of a three-game tiebreaker playoff, eliminating the Dodgers. Even the great ones don’t win them all.

I think Jesus would agree with that. I also think that if they’d met up in Galilee two thousand years ago, Jesus would have bypassed Peter and given that set of keys to Leo Durocher instead.

Leo Durocher might not have been a nice guy. But he was a competitor and a winner. And he remembered to say “Thank you.”

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