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Today in 1969 Cubs history: The story of Leo Durocher and Camp Ojibwa

A boys’ camp in Wisconsin turned into a minor scandal for the Cubs manager.

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On Saturday, July 26, 1969, the Cubs defeated the Dodgers 3-2 in 11 innings at Wrigley Field, the winning run driven in on a bases-loaded single by Randy Hundley. The ballclub was 63-38 after this win and led the N.L. East by five games.

And that might be the end of this story, save for this note in the Tribune recap:

The finish was reached without Manager Leo Durocher on the scene to watch the Cubs pull this one out on the heroics of such others as Billy Williams, Ron Santo, and an extremely economical bullpen trio of Rich Nye, Ted Abernathy and Phil Regan.

Durocher reported to the ballpark ill, telling Coach Pete Reiser, “I may stay one inning ... maybe two or three.”

He slipped away after the third, advising Reiser, “Run it the way you want to. I’m going in.”

And even that might have been the end of this story. It happens, human beings take ill during ballgames and leave all the time, even to this day.

But Leo Durocher didn’t go “in.” (I presume that meant “going back home.”) Instead, he went to Meigs Field, then Chicago’s downtown airport, and got on a private plane which whisked him to northern Wisconsin. There Durocher attended parents’ weekend for his stepson, Joel Goldblatt, son of Lynne Walker Goldblatt, who Durocher had married only five weeks earlier in what the New York Times called “the plush setting of Sarah Siddons Walk, a red-carpeted, sparkling, chandeliered room of the Ambassador West Hotel.”

The Tribune had done some investigative reporting on Durocher’s whereabouts, as he also skipped the next day’s game, a 6-2 loss to the Dodgers. Now, consider that this was 50 years ago. Newspapers simply didn’t do that sort of thing in that day; public figures’ private lives were considered mostly off-limits. Imagine what Twitter would have done with this incident in 2019.

This appeared in the Tribune July 29, 1969, with no byline:

The Tribune learned yesterday that Durocher was flown alone on a charter flight to Rhinelander, Wis. Saturday afternoon.

Durocher was the only passenger aboard the six-passenger twin-engined plane which was chartered from the Tufts-Edgcumbe flying service. A Tribune reporter, Robert Svejcara, checked the flight log and found that the craft, piloted by the firm’s manager, Art Fisher, departed from Meigs field at 3:45 p.m.

The Cub manager left the ball park after three innings of play during Saturday’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, telling Coach Pete Reiser to take over because he [Leo] was feeling ill.

Later in the evening, Durocher appeared at a reception for parents at Camp Ojibwa, Eagle River, Wis. The 12-year-old son of Durocher’s recent bride, Lynne Walker Goldblatt, was in attendance at the camp, and Durocher had made a commitment to appear.

That’s pretty good investigative reporting, actually, from a 1969 standpoint. And it appeared that Durocher had simply lied his way out of Wrigley Field and to Wisconsin, likely knowing that ownership wouldn’t have approved the trip. The article went on to say that those who had encountered Durocher that day “insisted he was ill,” including the Cubs’ team physician, Dr. Jacob Suker.

The article also quoted Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley:

“Leo, as manager, can do anything within reason, but it seemed to be a silly thing, the way he did it,” said Wrigley. “If he had told the players what it was all about in the first place that would have been the end of it.”

“My concern is the players, who have been hustling their boilers to win the pennant, might wonder if the manager is equally dedicated. I’m sure he is, but I don’t want anything to upset us at this stage of the game.”

Kind of strong stuff from Wrigley, and you sure don’t hear the phrase “hustling their boilers” anymore. Fergie Jenkins’ book “The 1969 Cubs” says Wrigley was “enraged” when he first heard about this and went so far as to call Herman Franks, a longtime associate of Durocher’s, and tell Franks he wanted him to replace Leo. Franks told Wrigley: “You can’t fire him, it would disrupt the team too much. I’m not going to replace him.” Franks had managed the Giants to four straight second-place finishes and won 367 games, most in the N.L. in those four seasons. I believe Franks, who later managed the Cubs from 1977-79 and had those three modestly-talented teams in playoff contention, would have been the perfect antidote to the gruff, my-way-or-the-highway Durocher. He likely wouldn’t have overused the starting position players and pitchers and would have found ways to get them rest. Would they have won under Franks? Maybe not, as the Mets ran away with things, but perhaps they’d have stayed in the race longer and been better set for another run at it in 1970.

Again, just imagine the brouhaha on social media if all this happened in 2019. Durocher refused to comment, and at least one player was quoted by the Tribune as saying he was “surprised” to hear the story.

The next day, the Tribune reported, in a story headlined “Wrigley, Leo Close Trip Case,” said that the owner and manager had met and worked things out:

“It only took 5 minutes,” said Durocher. “We understood each other perfectly — as we always have. It’s as simple as that.”

Wrigley’s recollection of the meeting was the same, except he said it took a bit longer:

“It lasted 10 minutes,” he said.

Wrigley explained that this was just a meeting “to get our signals straight.”

“I felt he should have told us he was leaving town,” the Cub owner went on. “I agree that Leo could feel just as lousy in Wisconsin as at his apartment.”

Perhaps, but if Leo really was ill — and it appears he was — maybe he should have begged off the flight and just stayed in Chicago.

Tribune writer Richard Dozer reached these conclusions about the kerfuffle:

1. Durocher actually was ill, as he frequently has been throughout his stormy managerial career. But he felt that getting an earlier start on his proposed post-game flight would make it easier on him physically.

2. Wrigley was satisfied that the episode was a tempest in a teapot — from the sentiment he received indirectly from members of the ball club. None appeared concerned in the slightest, and therefore Wrigley felt no apology from Leo was due.

Perhaps not, and remember that field managers had much more power within baseball organizations than they do now, especially a manager with as much tenure in baseball as Durocher had at the time — he was the oldest manager in MLB (by 10 years!) in 1969 and was in his 20th season as a manager. Wrigley also held Durocher in high esteem because of what Leo had done in bringing his team out of its 20-year slumber.

So it was let go. Did it matter to the team? Maybe not. They continued to play at their previous high level for over a month after this incident, and newspaper writers of the time, including Robert Markus of the Tribune, gave him a pass:

Leo’s only sin in deserting his ballclub was that he was devious about it. But that is the way he is. Leo was only being Leo. Why rap him for that at this late date?

That’s the way things were in 1969 regarding most public figures. Much deference was shown. It likely would have been much different in today’s social media climate.

Lynne Walker Goldblatt was Durocher’s fourth wife. She and Leo divorced in 1980 and she passed away August 11, 2017, aged 89.

This series will continue throughout the season, noting key events on the 50th anniversary of the Cubs’ memorable 1969 season.