The Chicago Cubs had only one winning season in the previous 19 years before Leo Durocher became the team’s manager in 1966. His hiring was a rebirth of his career and a spark for the Cubs’ immediate fortunes.
Come 1969 — the year of “Cub Power” following successful seasons — the club matured under the strength of future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Fergie Jenkins.
The Cubs were in first place until early September, then collapsed, allowing the “Miracle” New York Mets to take the National League East crown and later the World Series.
The Mets had a lot of help in their rise in 1969, writes Paul Dickson in “Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son” (Bloomsbury; $28; 357 pages).
Durocher, with decades of bad blood spilt across the National League, faced an army of enemies as he was guiding the Cubs in 1969. Umpires despised his constant baiting. Opposing coaches and managers recalled him as a win-at-all-costs opponent who was, quite simply, a jerk. And Durocher hated the local press.
So when the Cubs started to falter, teams and newspaper reporters pounced. For example, the St. Louis Cardinals’ ace Bob Gibson offered to move up in the pitching rotation just so he could face the Cubs late in the season. Gibson won the game.
Durocher didn’t help matters either. He kept playing his regulars without rest, wearing them out in the dog days of summer before Wrigley Field hosted night games. All-Star catcher Randy Hundley, for instance, played 151 of the Chicago’s 162 games.
Down the stretch, Durocher blamed his players for the team’s struggles. And when he missed a game claiming an illness, it was later discovered by a reporter that Durocher and his new wife were visiting her son at a Wisconsin summer camp. This made his volatile relationship with the press worse and Cubs owner Phil Wrigley was incensed.
One New York columnist wrote about opponents trying especially hard to beat the Cubs under the headline: “Poor Leo, or It Couldn’t Happen to a Nicer Guy.” Durocher was well known for his quote: “Nice guys finish last.”
For many Cubs fans, 1969 was the season of “what should have been.” Durocher gets much of the blame for the team’s failure, yet he is linked to many of baseball’s most dramatic moments.
When the Yankees were known as Murderers Row with a lineup boasting of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Bill Dickey, Durocher was the regular shortstop for a season. And he was a catalyst for the Cardinals’ “Gashouse Gang” that won the 1934 World Series.
Later, when he was managing the Brooklyn Dodgers, some players threatened a revolt when Jackie Robinson made the Opening Day roster in 1947. But Durocher made it clear he would open the season with or without the agitators.
When Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants hit his pennant-winning “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” home run off Ralph Branca in 1951, manager Durocher welcomed Thomson in his customary third-base coach’s box as he circled the bases.
And when an insecure rookie Willie Mays was mired in a 1-26 slump, Durocher kept him in the lineup until he gained his confidence and became one of the game’s greatest players. Mays considered Durocher a father figure.
Durocher’s life story is in the right hands with Dickson, a prolific and gifted writer who also wrote about baseball maverick and Durocher contemporary Bill Veeck.
Dickson is a meticulous researcher and some of the most enlightening stories are of Durocher’s off-field celebrity, including his time entertaining troops with actor Danny Kaye during World War II, his close friendships with Frank Sinatra and George Raft and many radio appearances with Jack Benny. Dickson also delves into Durocher’s marriages to actress Laraine Day and fashion designer Grace Dozier.
Dickson brings Durocher to life. His subject was a wise and complex man who lived life on his own terms. And those terms just may have cost the Cubs a World Series in 1969.

— Peoria (Illinois) Journal Star Executive Editor Dennis Anderson can be reached at danderson@pjstar.com and on Twitter at @dennisedit.