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The Cubs Hired Leo Durocher 50 Years Ago Sunday

Nothing for the Cubs would ever be quite the same.

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The fall of 1965 brought an end to the 20th consecutive season of the Chicago Cubs failing to win the National League pennant. In those 20 seasons, the team had finished at .500 once (77-77 in 1952) and with a winning season once (82-80 in 1963).

Team owner P.K. Wrigley decided to shake things up by hiring one of the more controversial managing figures of the mid-20th Century, Leo Durocher. (Incidentally, Durocher was supposedly going to be hired by the Cardinals after the 1964 season, but the Cardinals surprised everyone by winning the pennant. After that, manager Johnny Keane resigned, in part due to the rumors Durocher was going to replace him. Instead, the Cardinals hired popular infielder Red Schoendienst, who wound up managing them for 14 seasons, with two pennants and one World Series title.)

Durocher hadn't managed in 10 years and at the time of his hire was 60 years old, the oldest manager in the major leagues by five years. The average age of the other 19 managers in 1966 was 45, and of those 19 other men five of them had actually played for Durocher in the 1940s. By 1969, Durocher was nearly 10 years older than any other manager in baseball.

The older generation of managers epitomized by Durocher had begun to be replaced by a younger cohort, much as is happening now. But baseball as an institution is a slow thing to change, as you certainly know, and the Cubs' organization was slower at adapting to change than most. In 1966, Wrigley simply saw Durocher as a managerial winner, not realizing times were changing. This would come back to bite Leo many times in his six and a half seasons as Cubs manager.

But on October 25, 1965, all was happiness and smiles as the Cubs announced Durocher's hire. A team press release, quoted in the Tribune, said:

There is no immediate announcement as to Durocher's title. We have found from long experience that it doesn't make any difference what title a team leader has as long as he is able to take charge. We have a man whose record shows he is a take-charge guy.

Well, the Cubs' "long experience" certainly did not show that, at least the previous 20 seasons didn't. Durocher, quoted in the Tribune, put that "no immediate announcement" to rest... immediately:

I just gave myself a title -- manager -- not head coach. I don't mean I'm going to be a dictator. I never was. One man can't do the entire job, but one man has to be in charge. I've always taken advice from my coaches.

With that, Durocher repudiated the "College of Coaches" system that had been in place since 1961. He retained only Verlon Walker from the previous coaching staff; others were reassigned within the Cubs' minor-league system, and brought Freddie Fitzsimmons and Whitey Lockman, old favorites of his from his Giants days, on as Cubs coaches.

Cubs players were thrilled with the move. Ron Santo, quoted in the Tribune:

I was overwhelmed. It's a great move. He's not used to handling a loser. He must think we're a first division club or he would not have taken the job.

Santo and Durocher would, famously, clash several years later, to the point they had to be separated in the clubhouse. But it was all smiles, at least at the beginning.

You know how Durocher's tenure in Chicago wound up. I certainly don't have to rehash it all; the reason for this article is the 50th anniversary of his hire. Durocher did help bring a winning attitude, but his old-school ways eventually wore the team down. Further, in those days field managers had a lot more influence in acquiring players than they do now, and by the time Durocher was hired by the Cubs he had made so many enemies in baseball that no one wanted to help him out by sending the Cubs useful players in trade. That's one reason the Cubs' bench was so thin by the late 1960s. The other was the team's failure to sign quality young players in the pre-draft era.

To this day, Leo Durocher is one of only two men since Frank Chance to manage the Cubs for at least six consecutive seasons. (Charlie Grimm is the other.) Since Durocher, the longest tenure for any Cubs manager is five years: Jim Riggleman, 1995-99.

Perhaps Joe Maddon, the best Cubs manager since Joe McCarthy, will break that streak.