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August 15, 2012
The Platoon Advantage
At What Price Revolution
OK, stop me if you've heard this before:
A controversial and attention-seeking manager of a major market team antagonizes a popular leader on a team that was expecting to contend for the pennant and faces a revolt in the clubhouse, resulting in team meetings, front office involvment, and bold pronouncements. And the whole drama plays out in the press.
It may sound familiar, thanks to Bobby Valentine's ongoing troubles with the stars of his Red Sox, but I'm actually talking about the 1943 Brooklyn Dodgers, a team coming off of consecutive 100-win seasons under manager Leo Durocher.
On July 9, Bobo (Buck) Newsom came into the dugout after giving up four runs to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and got on catcher Bobby Bragan for dropping a third strike and allowing a batter to reach. He then argued with Durocher about his pitch selection to Vince DiMaggio. After the game, Durocher announced that he was suspending Newsom for three days.
One reporter apparently overheard Durocher complaining to coach Hugh Casey about Newsom's treatment of Bragan, and assumed that he'd discovered the cause. Durocher siding with Bragan sent the Dodgers into a tizzy, and they all voted to strike at Newsom's punishment. Durocher was blindsided. "[Arky] Vaughan came up to me," he said, "handed me his uniform, and said, 'Well, here's my uniform. You can do with it what you want.'" Durocher interpreted that as Vaughan quitting the team and told him he was out.
Durocher called a quick meeting of players AND reporters, and declared the story "false and that the Bragan incident had nothing whatever to do with Newsom's three-day suspension.... The manager said Newsom 'seemed to think he had become Judge Landis, Mr. Baseball himself,' and that Bobo had persistently ignored his instructions on how certain batsmen should be pitched.... 'He virtually told me I was a liar. Nobody can talk to me like that as long as I'm managing the club--and that goes for all the players.'"
Dixie Walker, believing that Vaughan had also been suspended, stood up with Vaughan and Newsom and told Durocher, "If what was printed in the papers is true, here's another uniform you can have. I don't see why this boy [Vaughan] should suffer, and if he's out, I guess I'm out too." Durocher denied suspending Vaughan, when word came from the field that the Pirates were ready to go and the umpires wanted to play ball.
So Durocher asked each man individually if he would play that day, saying, "Let's see if we've got nine men to put on the field. If we haven't we'll just forfeit the game." Every player agreed to suit up except for Vaughan, who joined Newsom in the stands for the first few innings until Branch Rickey himself came over to talk to the future Hall of Famer. "I did not discuss with Vaughan the reason for what had happened," Rickey reported. "I didn't think that was the time or place. I merely asked him to do this thing--and he did."
The Dodgers went out and won 23-6, but at least one writer suggested that Durocher was in trouble, citing "New York baseball writers [who] agreed that 'there are strong reasons to believe Leo will not last the season as manager.'"
In the aftermath, however, it's pretty clear who won this battle. Rickey backed Durocher to the hilt, saying "Durocher has not resigned; won't resign, in my opinion, and, if he did, I would not accept his resignation. No player or players, no president, no public, nobody can run a club for a manager. Durocher will have my undivided loyalty and support." An hour later, Rickey had traded Newsom to the one team he refused to go to, the St. Louis Browns, for veteran starter Fritz Ostermueller and another hurler. Durocher, meanwhile, stuck around until the end of 1946.
And yet, in actuality, no one won the war. The Dodgers finished in third, well back of the powerhouse Cardinals. After the season, they released the little-used Ostermueller, meaning they got nothing of value for their former ace starter. They also lost their Hall of Fame shortstop, as Arky Vaughan refused to return for 1944, citing his desire to work on his California ranch. But suspiciously, he would return to Major League Baseball in 1947, when Durocher was suspended for the year because of his connections to gamblers and organized crime and the Dodgers were run by Burt Shotton. And Brooklyn would never again win a pennant under Durocher, despite fielding strong clubs in 1945 and 1946.
And ultimately, this is the lesson. In a bitter dispute like this, regardless of who wins, everybody loses. Guys like Newsom and Adrian Gonzalez get branded as malcontents and malingerers. Teams lose the services of players they need like Vaughan and Kevin Youkilis. People lose face and get embarrassed. And we all focus more on the soap opera than the game on the field.
New York Times reports from July 13, 1943 and July 15, 1943 were useful in this retelling.