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Durocher Was Hardly Given Due Process by Chandler in Suspension

August 06, 1989|STAN ISAACS | Newsday

Some thoughts about Leo Durocher, Hank Greenberg and Joe Williams, a one-time New York sports columnist:

The Pete Rose situation has produced frequent inaccurate references to Durocher's one-year suspension from baseball in 1947 by Commissioner Happy Chandler. It is erroneously being stated that Chandler gave several warnings about associations with gamblers, and that Durocher was suspended because he disregarded the warnings. Not so.

Durocher had associations with questionable characters that disturbed Chandler. Durocher was pals with actor George Raft, who allegedly had mob connections. He was involved in a messy divorce action by actress Laraine Day, whom he would later marry. He was a controversial character, a popoff.

For all this, Chandler called him into his office early in 1947 to castigate him and to warn him to reform. Durocher vowed not to give Chandler any further cause for concern -- and there is no evidence he did.

Trouble then brewed at spring training in Havana where both the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees trained. Dodgers President Branch Rickey spotted two known gamblers -- Memphis Engelberg and Connie Immerman -- sitting in a Yankees box near Yankees owner Larry MacPhail during an exhibition game. Rickey complained that Durocher would be penalized if he were with such men, and yet they were guests of Yankees managment. Durocher echoed Rickey's comments.

This infuriated MacPhail. He called for an investigation of those remarks and the charge he was guilty of tampering because he had tried to hire Durocher away from the Dodgers. Durocher had done nothing untoward from the time of his warning by Chandler to the Havana incident. Yet, the outcome of that hearing on MacPhail's charges, was -- much to MacPhail's surprise -- Chandler's decision to ban Durocher.

Chandler also ruled that "all parties to this controversy are silenced from the time this order is issued."

MacPhail lambasted the decision. The press railed against the gag order. But whenever the Durocher suspension was broached over the years, Chandler would talk about the "controversial file" he had on Durocher that would indicate offenses so shocking that "if I opened them, the American people would say I acted too leniently."

Durocher challenged Chandler to open those files. Chandler, who came to be regarded as a joke as commissioner, never did. In truth, he had been under pressure to prove himself as commissioner, and in all likelihood was emboldened to act by the Catholic Youth Organization's decision (motivated by the headlines implicating Durocher in Day's divorce case) to end its affiliation with the Dodgers' youth group, the Knothole Club.

Today, no commissioner could rule against an individual as Chandler did without making his evidence public. Lawyers would be all over him. And he couldn't impose such a gag order. Sadly, Chandler's story about Durocher's undisclosed transgressions may have helped keep Durocher out of the Hall of Fame.

Completing Greenberg's Story

"Hank Greenberg, The Story of My Life" is a first-person uncompleted manuscript embellished after his death with historical notes astutely inserted by New York Times columnist Ira Berkow, which help flesh out an intriguing story. It is a reminder that Greenberg was as herculean a figure of the 1930s and 1940s as Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams -- and also significant as the first great Jewish ballplayer.

At the heart of a book rich with inside baseball, Greenberg says, "Some people still have it fixed in their minds that the reason I didn't break Babe Ruth's record (when he hit 58 home runs in 1938) was because I was Jewish, that the ballplayers did everything they could to stop me. That's pure baloney. The fact is quite the opposite. So far as I could tell, the players were mostly rooting for me, aside from the pitchers."

He tells of an inside-the-park homer for his 57th in which he really was out at home by a good margin, but was called safe by umpire Bill McGowan, a "good friend." When he had 58 homers, he said, St. Louis Browns first baseman George McQuinn deliberately dropped a foul ball to give him another swing, but he failed.

Coming to Father's Defense

Joe Williams was an outstanding writer as a sports columnist for the New York World Telegram in the 1930s and 1940s. He also was a reactionary who spiced his columns with gratuitous political remarks. "The Joe Williams Baseball Reader" is an exemplary act of love by his son, Peter, that collects in a handsome edition a healthy sampling of Williams' baseball pieces.

In an appendix, his son makes a good case of refuting charges that his father was a racist. He knocks down some questionable quotes attributed to his father. But he goes too far in stating that some of the top columnists of the day, among them Stanley Woodward, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Dan Parker and Frank Graham, were "closet racists."

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