Thursday, April 16, 2015

Roger Kahn, Leo Durocher and "Rickey & Robinson"

A fan in Pittsburgh holds a sign Wednesday honoring
Jackie Robinson.
Wednesday was Jackie Robinson Day, baseball's annual display of self-satisfaction over the
integration of the major leagues in 1947.

During the offseason Roger Kahn, who covered the Dodgers for the now-defunct Herald Tribune for a couple of years in the Robinson era and who became famous as the author of "The Boys of Summer," a marvelous book celebrating that team, hit the bestseller lists again with "Rickey & Robinson,"

I can't claim to have read all of Kahn's books, but I've read enough of them to expect him to write in the first person. I can't claim to have read all the books about Jackie Robinson, but I've read enough of them to believe I have a handle on the story of breaking the color barrier.

"Rickey & Robinson" is indeed in the first person, which grated on me somewhat because, at least regarding 1947, Kahn wasn't there. By the time he was handed the Dodgers beat, Rickey was in Pittsburgh and Robinson an established star. Still, the book relies so heavily on what Kahn says he was told over the years -- by Robinson, by Rickey, by others -- that I never figured out how it would work in a more distant third person.

There are details and claims that I haven't seen before (again, there are many recountings of this theme that I'm not familar with), and several of them are minor, But one notion that I haven't seen in print before seems rather significant, and I really wonder if it's true -- that the suspension of Dodger manager Leo Durocher for the 1947 season was based not so much on his sexual-marital scandal with actress Laraine Day as for throwing the 1946 pennant race for the profit of his mobster-gambling buddies.

Kahn is in his mid 80s, and everybody else he mentions in connection with this story is long dead. Durocher. "Shondor" Birns, the Cleveland racketeer who supposedly cleaned up wagering against the Dodgers in their best-of-three tiebreaker series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Ford Frick, then the National League president, who Kahn describes as deflecting his decades-later questions about Durocher in 1946 by talking about curling. Bill Veeck, who is Kahn's chief source on the story.

The notion of Durocher fixing a pennant race is so out-of-sorts with his win-at-any-price persona that I was immediately skeptical of Kahn's story. Yet upon examination, it is uncomfortably plausible.

Durocher was hanging out with a bad news crowd. He was habitually short of money. He did live by a moral code, it it can be called such, that was amazingly short-sighted and self-centered. I can't rule out the possibility that he shed some uncomfortable debt by mishandling his pitching staff at the end of the season.

And his selection of Ralph Branca to start the first game of that playoff series was, at the least, odd. Of the nine men who did the bulk of the pitching for the Dodgers that year, Branca (in his age 20 season) worked the fewest innings and had by far the worst ERA. Durocher frequently did the unexpected -- playing a hunch, he called it -- but off the stats, Branca was the worst possible selection.

The Durocher suspension was, at the time, as big a story as Robinson himself was, and losing Durocher was a blow to Rickey's plan, Today it's almost forgotten. Kahn's story, as far as I can tell, has drawn little attention. Durocher is in the Hall of Fame, a selection that suggests that if a dalliance with game-fixing was rumored at the time it didn't have legs. But if he did indeed fix, or semi-fix, the 1946 pennant, he doesn't belong in the Hall. I suspect I'll never really know.

1 comment:

  1. And, interestingly, he was mgr of the Giants in 1951 when Thomson Branca