There are a number of men I could have chosen for today's post, but I settled on Leo Durocher because I wanted to pose a bit of alternate history. This never would have happened, but it's fun to wonder how different Cubs history would have been if it had.
Durocher was hired by P.K. Wrigley in 1965, to begin managing in 1966 after the Cubs had muddled through a few seasons with the laughable "College of Coaches" merry-go-round. At the time he'd been out of managing for a decade, though he had been a coach with the Dodgers from 1961-64. Beyond that he'd spent his decade out of baseball in the entertainment business -- he worked on sports-related shows for NBC and also played himself on a number of California-based sitcoms, including "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "The Munsters."
Leo did awaken a sleeping giant, though it's fair to ask whether the Cubs might have moved into contention anyway, with players like Ron Santo and Billy Williams entering their primes. But Leo also, in his first year as manager, tried a number of different things with his roster, in those days when a manager could have considerable influence on such things. 49 men played for the 1966 Cubs; that was the franchise record until 2012, when a similar management change -- this time in the front office -- caused similar upheaval.
By 1969 Leo had a team that was among the best in baseball. But he was also the oldest manager in the major leagues that year by at least a decade. The game, and society, was beginning to pass him by. No other manager would have done what he did, playing his regulars until he ran them into the ground. The problem was that Leo had made so many enemies in baseball that no one wanted to help the Cubs; looking at their roster, you can see that apart from Willie Smith and Paul Popovich, they had no useful bench players at all.
You all know how Leo's tenure ended -- badly, with talk of clubhouse mutiny, something that rarely happened in that era. The team did finish over .500 every year he was the manager except his first.
So here's my what-if, and once again, I emphasize that this never would have happened in real life, given what kind of organization the Cubs were at the time. What if Wrigley had hired Durocher right after he left the Giants in 1955? At the time Leo was 50 years old and had won two pennants and a World Series in the five previous seasons. Yes, I realize he had unsavory connections -- some of his gambling connections were the reason he'd been suspended from baseball for an entire season, 1947.
But by 1955 he was viewed as a winner. What if he'd been the manager for a young, up-and-coming Ernie Banks? Durocher was viewed as a mentor for Willie Mays with the Giants; he stuck with Mays after Willie got off to a horrendous start to his career (1-for-26). Obviously, Ernie did fine anyway, and Leo wasn't fond of him 10 years later, but Durocher, a smart baseball man in the 1950s, perhaps could have helped Cubs management find a better supporting cast for Ernie. The Cubs finished just 12 games out of first place in Banks' second MVP season, 1959.
Anyway, as I said, this is all fantasy -- there's no way the buttoned-down Cubs would have hired Leo Durocher in 1956. Just a thought about what might have been if they had.
Incidentally, No. 2 will be worn this year by new hitting coach John Mallee. If he does as well with young Cubs hitters as he did in Houston, I think we'll all be very pleased.