By W.M. Akers
On March 21, 1944, as the Nazis occupied Hungary, the Japanese pushed into India, and the Allies assaulted the ruined Italian hamlet of Cassino, manager Leo Durocher watched the snow, and dreamed of Florida. In deference to the army's need for trains, the sternly patriotic commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis had decreed that no club would travel south for spring training. And so, for the second time, Durocher's Brooklyn Dodgers wintered at the Bear Mountain Inn in New York, where the fires were warm, the steaks were thick and the practice fields were covered in eight inches of fresh powder.
They could work around the snow. While other teams shivered, West Point allowed the Dodgers to use its massive field house whenever the cadets weren't drilling. Durocher's problem was his infield, which had been so savaged by the draft that Branch Rickey had suggested his manager play second base or shortstop. Although ostensibly a player-manager, the Dodgers' skipper hadn't played a full season since 1938. His knees were bad, his bat was slow and he had acorns in his elbow.
"They're right in there," he'd said a month before, at a press conference in his apartment to which he wore baby blue pajamas. "No, they don't hurt, but they're big as cannonballs and they won't let me throw right."
Acorns. A doctor would have called them bone chips. If you think it sounds silly, Rickey agreed.
"Acorns," said Rickey. "I never heard that expression before. Durocher says that an operation would cure him and that he could play by July. July! Judas Priest! By July --"
July would be too late. Opening Day was April 18, and the team that won the '41 pennant was in tatters. Pee Wee Reese had enlisted, and most of the lineup had followed him into the service. More players could be drafted at any time. Rickey, a devout protestant and merciless businessman, and Durocher, who had rarely met a problem that yelling couldn't solve, would have to feed on scraps.
"All I can say," promised Rickey, "is that we will have a large number of human beings at the training camp."
That was as much certainty as wartime baseball would allow. In a time when players' draft statuses were listed in the paper along with their box scores, when spring training could be held in the snow, when equipment was scarce and the quality of the ball itself could be sacrificed to the war effort, Rickey couldn't even be sure that the '44 season would be played to its finish. But he knew it would start, and he knew Durocher could be ready to play on Opening Day.
Any frustration Rickey felt about the circumstances, he was forced to keep to himself. In Baseball and the Bottom Line, a history of the business side of wartime ball, Jeff Obermeyer writes that baseball's owners did all they could to be conspicuously patriotic, lest the government decide to shut the national pastime down until war's end. The spring of 1944 was a dark season for baseball, and for the country it claimed to represent.
"By '44, people were tired," he said in an interview last week. "The country was tired. The news in '43 and '44 wasn't great. There were a lot of guys coming home in boxes."
Smiling through frustration did not come easily to Durocher, whose fuse was short enough that the army could have used him as a landmine. He once had an Ebbets Field security guard beat up a heckling fan, and would be suspended for the 1947 season for hobnobbing with gamblers. He liked night clubs, pool halls and having the option to relax away a hangover in the dugout. He did not relish another season toiling in the sun.
And so Durocher sat in the lobby of the Bear Mountain hotel, and looked for an infield. As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle put it, he had become "half manager and half detective."
"The Dodger pilot practically impales any male between the ages of 14 and 40 who chances to saunter through the lobby of the Brooklyn club's hotel with his darting, gimlet-eyed stare of appraisal."
He didn't like what he saw.
His second baseman, Billy Herman, had been drafted two months before. Reese's replacement at shortstop, Arky Vaughan, had nearly quit baseball in 1943 after an argument with Durocher, and was considering sitting out the entire season to work on his farm.
"He's the key to our whole infield setup," said Durocher, "and I'd only be kidding myself, and the fans, if I said he wasn't. Minus Vaughan, we're a club without a shortstop."
Another holdout was Frenchy Bordagaray, an oddball utility man who wanted $500 more than the $6,500 he had been paid in '43. He had hit .302 the season before, but his real leverage was his draft status. Bordagaray had been classified 4-F -- unfit for service, but still able to play ball, meaning 4-F was golden, and Frenchy knew it.
Rickey was playing checkers when Bordagaray marched into the Bear Mountain lobby, demanding a meeting. A famously cruel negotiator, Rickey made Bordagaray wait until he finished his game before leading him to the concierge's office, where he screamed loud enough that everyone in the lobby could hear.
"If you think you're going to hold up the Brooklyn club now that you're in 4-F, you're mistaken," he shouted. "I'll give you what we paid you last year and not a cent more."
Bordagaray left as quickly as he had come in, and Rickey returned to his checkers.
Deserted by his veterans, Rickey had filled Bear Mountain with teenagers too young to be drafted. The crop included future Dodger stalwarts like Gil Hodges, Duke Snider and Ralph Branca, all of whom were years from fulfilling their potential. Most were as immature as 16-year-old Donald Runge, who when given 50 cents to go to the movies, complained: "Don't we get money for candy?"
Filling in for Vaughan was 18-year-old Gene Mauch, who had only one year of minor-league experience. Mauch would go on to manage the Expos, Angels, Twins and Phillies, but in 1944 he was only one year removed from serving as high school student president.
"Mauch is not so polished," Durocher said. "I just wish I had an experienced guy like Billy Herman to play alongside the boy; a fellow who really knows major-league ball and could teach him."
As the team lurched toward April, it began to look more and more like that experienced guy might have to be him, and so Durocher started joining his toddlers in workouts.
"I went all right," he told reporters after a day on the West Point infield. "No pain in my arm or anything. And I did cut loose on a couple of throws."
But still, he was hoping for a reprieve that only Vaughan -- whom the Daily Eagle wrote the Dodgers needed like "breakfast ham needs eggs" -- could give. In desperation, Rickey opened his pocketbook, offering a raise, comped tickets to Bear Mountain and hired men to work all season on his farm. But Vaughan had no interest in giving Durocher a break.
On March 31, he broke his silence, announcing that no amount of money could put him back in Dodgers blue. Hoping to solve two problems in one stroke, Rickey put out word to all major-league clubs, offering Frenchy Bordagaray for a trade -- preferably for an infielder. There were no takers, and two days later, the balance of power tipped toward the holdout, when Bordagaray's replacement was reclassified by his draft board as 1-A, or extremely desirable. Suddenly, Frenchy, who had been refused a $500 raise, was offered $1,500.
After two months of saying it was up to Durocher whether or not he wanted to play, Rickey called a press conference. As two more feet of snow fell on Durocher Field, the general manager made a curt declaration: "He'll play." Durocher did his best to pretend the decision had been his.
"I want somebody with experience," he explained. "I wouldn't think of it if I had Arky Vaughan."
The Dodgers came down from Bear Mountain on April 10, to for an exhibition game against the Red Sox at Ebbets Field. Durocher was grim.
"I know that I can't do it anymore," he said, "because my throwing arm is so bad. I could get down to playing weight, but I know that my throwing weakness would lead me into various other mistakes."
The mistake came quickly, but it wasn't his. In the third inning, young Gene Mauch let a double-play ball roll up his right arm. Rushing to correct his error, he threw wide of second base, and the ball crunched into Durocher's thumb.
"I went back to my position and banged my hand in my glove -- and did I feel pain!" said Durocher, while waiting in the locker room to go to the hospital for X-rays. "I wiggled the thumb around and it felt kind of loose. Then it went numb. I think it's broken."
He was right. On Opening Day, the Dodgers started outfielder Luis Olmo at second base, the first time he had played the position since his sandlot days. Mauch lasted only five days at shortstop, and would not return to the big leagues until 1947. Durocher was out until 1945, when a two-game comeback would end his playing career for good. And Vaughan remained on his farm until well after the war's end, returning to the Dodgers only in 1947, when Durocher was suspended.
The baseball played by the Dodgers during World War II could kindly be described as forgettable. It's more pleasant to imagine the team guided by destiny, each move calculated to bring them closer to April 15, 1947. But in the spring of '44, the day that Jackie Robinson would transform the Dodgers from laughingstocks to immortals was very far away.
Brooklyn finished seventh in 1944, out of eight lousy teams. It would never finish in the bottom half again. This makes 1944, in its own way, very special. It was at Bear Mountain, 70 years ago this month, that Leo Durocher built the last team of bums that Brooklyn would ever know.
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