• U.S.

Sport: Durocher’s Boys

5 minute read

While the New York Giants were busily battling the Yankees in the World Series last week, bewildered baseball fans were still trying to figure out how the Giants ever got into the series in the first place. Rated a red-hot pennant contender in spring training, once the season got under way the Giants tailspinned into an eleven-game losing streak. Giant fans wrote them off as hopeless, and cashed in an estimated $45,000 worth of season tickets; But then the Giants amazed everybody by struggling up from last place to win the pennant after all, in the hottest finish in baseball history. How did they manage to do it?

Somewhat to their own surprise, the sportwriters were giving full credit last week to Manager Leo Durocher. As early as spring training they had noticed a big difference in Lippy Leo. The onetime raffish rowdy who baited umpires, attacked fans, who was kicked out of baseball for a year, and who snarled the classic line, “Nice guys finish last,” suddenly began acting like a politician at a picnic. Instead of bawling out his players in four-letter Anglo-Saxon, Durocher began calling them “my boys.” Even in the first dismal weeks of the season, he worked patiently with his stumbling club, coaxing and cajoling them instead of browbeating them in the old Durocher manner, doggedly insisting: “This is my kind of club.”

Shifting Line-Up. As the season wore on, Durocher made a series of radical shifts, fumbling for the right combination. Outfielder Bobby Thomson, a Scottish-born introvert, was brought back into the thick of things at the third base “hot corner.” His slumping batting average boomed from .226 to .289. Monte Irvin, jittery in an unfamiliar first base position, was moved to the outfield. Outfielder Whitey Lockman was switched to first. Irvin’s batting average jumped 50 points, and he ended the season leading the league in runs batted in (121).

Willie Mays, rookie centerfielder, only 20 and a little bewildered by the big time, struck out wildly, booted routine fly balls, and got only one hit in his first 26 times at bat. Durocher stuck loyally with the youngster, and Willie, a natural hitter with speed to spare, responded to such good effect that he ended up as the likeliest candidate for the National League’s rookie-of-the-year.

Help from the Dodgers. The turning point for the Giants came just when things looked darkest. One night in mid-August, they were 12½ games behind, and they had just taken a three-game whipping from the Dodgers. Through the dressing-room door, the Giants could hear the Dodger cries of derision: “Eat your heart out, Leo … So that’s your kind of team. Well, you can have it.” Then the Dodgers started chanting a rollicking song: “Roll out the barrel, we’ve got the Giants on the run.” Over in a corner, a reporter asked Durocher if he planned any line-up changes. Leo raised his raspy voice for all the players to hear: “No changes! This is still my kind of team. If they go down, I go with it. I’m sticking with it.”

Shortstop Alvin Dark, the Giant captain, said later: “What Leo said about us was the spark we needed. When a man goes along with you like that, you just have to put out for him.”

“If You Ever Hit One . . .” The Giants began putting out in a big way: a 16-game winning streak. They still often fielded like clowns, making breath-taking circus catches—and misses, that earned them next-to-last place in the fielding averages. They still struck out with gusto, but someone usually came up with the game-winning hit at the right time. They began running the base paths with a hell-for-leather dash. The pitchers, steadied by Sal Maglie and Larry Jansen (23 victories apiece), settled down to a routine rotation. Shortstop Dark teamed up perfectly with pepperpot Second Baseman Eddie Stanky, gobbled up double-play balls by the drove (team, total: 174).

Slowly, then faster & faster as the Dodgers faltered, the Giants closed the gap, winning 37 of their last 44 games, tied the Dodgers at season’s end and forced a playoff. During that frantic final week, Durocher repeated persistently: “Don’t interview me. I’m not doing a thing. It’s my players who are doing the work. Talk with all of them; they’re a great bunch. It’s a privilege to manage them.” While Durocher kept mum, the Giants won the first playoff game, lost the second, and trailed 4-2 in the ninth inning of the payoff game.

Two Giants were on base—the tying runs. Bobby Thomson, the potential winning run, was due to bat. With a gesture that Durocher would have disdained a year ago, he patted Thomson on the back. “Boy,” said Leo in fervent, fatherly tones, “if you ever hit one, hit one now.” Thomson did, high, wide & handsome. His home run, plunk into the left-field stands, won the game and the pennant.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com