Morality clauses: Leo Durocher and the ‘Rise of the Nones’

Morality clauses: Leo Durocher and the ‘Rise of the Nones’ October 31, 2023

At the end of Spring Training in 1947, just before the start of the new season, Major League Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler suspended the Brooklyn Dodgers’ manager, Leo Durocher, for a full year.

Durocher, Chandler said, had violated baseball’s morality clause. The specific violation that prompted this major suspension is a matter of dispute, despite the fact that this moment in history — the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers season — is one of the most thoroughly researched and documented periods in all of professional sports.

The arbiters of morality once declared that this photograph was “immoral.”

But the specific reason for Durocher’s suspension also didn’t matter much. Major League Baseball did, in fact, have something called a “morality clause.” And whatever that might possibly mean or include, everybody understood that Leo Durocher was almost certainly in violation of some or all of it.

Durocher was coarse and profane and had some unsavory friends. He was like a character from Guys and Dolls* — a twice-divorced drinker, and a pool shark who cheated at cards and dice. Durocher’s affair with actress Laraine Day, who was married, was in the gossip pages in newspapers on both coasts, prompting a threatened boycott of the Dodgers from the Catholic Youth Organization** in Brooklyn. Durocher was also feuding with Larry MacPhail, owner of the Yankees, with the two men trading accusations of links to gambling.

That last bit was the official explanation for Durocher’s suspension. Chandler worked for MacPhail, not for Durocher, and so Durocher was punished for allegedly running a rigged craps game and for, Chandler said, an “accumulation of unpleasant incidents.”

But another thing that everybody understood was that Durocher’s suspension probably wouldn’t have happened if his boss, Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, hadn’t been causing chaos in Major League Baseball by violating its longstanding tradition as a whites-only league.

Rickey was a devout, church-going, Bible-quoting Methodist who was almost as infamously moralistic as Durocher was infamously immoral. But the “color line” — baseball’s ban of Black players — was even more sacred to the league than its strict rules about associating with gamblers. Chandler and MacPhail and the rest of the owners were furious that Rickey had signed Jackie Robinson to play for the Dodgers minor league team. They’d all seen Robinson play that spring and realized he’d proved he belonged on Brooklyn’s big-league roster. But the Dodgers were Rickey’s team and there was nothing they could do to stop him from this unprecedented, unthinkable act.

Well, almost nothing. If they couldn’t touch Rickey himself, or Robinson, then they could at least get rid of the Dodgers manager whose support for Robinson seemed like an essential key to this whole endeavor.

And so, just before the 1947 season began, Leo Durocher was suspended by Major League Baseball under its “morality clause.” Everybody knew that Durocher had done something to violate that clause. But everybody also knew that the real reason for his suspension was itself deeply immoral.***

So what does any of that have to do with the “Rise of the Nones” — the mass-exodus of young people from organized religion and, especially, from Christian churches?

I’m pretty sure that most members of these younger generations — the Millennials and Generation Z-ers that churches are desperately panicking about being unable to reach — have never heard of Leo Durocher. Why would they have?

I suppose I could try to explain him to them by saying he was like the Earl Weaver or Billy Martin of an earlier era, but I’m not sure that’d help much. Or I could point to the one thing about Durocher I’m sure most of them do know — that he was the guy who said “Nice guys finish last.”**** And they can probably guess from that — accurately — that Durocher himself was not a nice guy.

But at some point these younger generations will hear the story of Jackie Robinson and if that story is told at all accurately,***** they will understand that it is a story about justice vs. injustice, which is to say that it is a story with a right side and a wrong side, a Good side and a Bad side.

And hearing that story, they will be surprised to learn that one of the very few white folks on the Good side of it was a foul-mouthed, foul-tempered, flamboyantly not nice man named Leo Durocher. Durocher’s suspension under baseball’s “morality clause” invites — almost demands — that those hearing this story contemplate the warped and stunted understanding that passed for “morality” in white America in 1947.

That white “morality” wasn’t entirely wrong about everything, but it was utterly, massively wrong about the biggest thing. It scrupulously tithed its spices, but neglected the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

This was a version of “morality” and religion and church that took the wrong side. It sided with injustice and immorality. And so its story cannot be told in any way that makes it seem like the side you want to be on.

The heirs and descendants of this white morality — the younger people fueling this much-discussed “Rise of the Nones” — have concluded that either this religion was something pernicious and evil that trained its followers in injustice and immorality or else, at best, that it was a flaccid and irrelevant thing that had no bearing on either justice or morality.

* That’s actually backwards. Damon Runyon, the popular short story writer whose characters were the basis of Guys and Dolls, started out as a journalist and sports writer. Runyon covered Durocher as a player, praising his fielding at shortstop with the great Yankees teams of the ’20s and with the Cardinals after that. Like the rest of the press, Runyon also closely followed Durocher’s off-field antics “dressed to the nines, cavorting with actors and thinly-veiled gangsters in Prohibition Manhattan.” So it’s probably more accurate to say that Nathan Detroit is a Durocher-like character than the other way round.

That quote is from Michael Stevens’ entertaining review of Paul Dickson’s biography, Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son.

Stevens notes that Laraine Day was a devout Mormon who never drank or swore. So if you’ve ever wondered how things ultimately worked out between Nathan and Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, and if “Marry the man today and train him subsequently” was a successful long-term plan for her and Sister Sarah, I’ll note that Durocher and Day were happily married until they weren’t. They divorced in 1960 after 13 years of marriage.

** Shorter version of this entire post: The phrase “Catholic Youth Organization” hits differently in 2023 than it did in 1947.

*** Here, again, some will protest that these were “men of their time.” Yes, sure, it’s true that everybody understood that Rickey’s signing of Jackie Robinson was the real reason for the league’s suspension of Durocher. But we mustn’t project our contemporary moral ideas back onto the past. We mustn’t say that these white folks back in 1947 “knew” that segregation was immoral.

Just look at what they were saying. Their condemnations and criticisms of Rickey and Robinson were often expressed in moral language, suggesting that morality, as they understood it in that time and place, was the opposite of what so-called “progressives” imagine morality to be today. Upholding the tradition of whites-only baseball was, in that time and place, seen by them as a moral obligation. And for every devout Methodist like Rickey or Robinson who saw social justice as an imperative of their faith, there were dozens more equally devout Methodists who firmly believed that the way things were was the way God wanted them to be.

I don’t really buy that protest. It requires us to pretend that Branch Rickey somehow was not also a “man of his time.” And also my Christian faith teaches that the knowledge of good and evil is something that humanity acquired well before 1947.

But we don’t need to rehash that argument here. Either way the point is the same. Whether the vast majority of white Christians in 1947 knew better or could not have known any better doesn’t change the pertinent fact here: They were wrong. Very, very wrong.

**** This wasn’t exactly what Durocher said when he first said it. But it eventually became the popular version of the saying attributed to him, and he later adopted that form of the saying, repeating it himself. So he didn’t say exactly that, but then later he did, because he believed it.

***** I learned about Jackie Robinson in school, where we were taught that he was the first Black player in Major League Baseball. Our textbook implied that this happened because he was the first Black ballplayer who was ever good enough to play in the major leagues.

Fortunately my dad had grown up as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and so I got a copy of Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer as soon as I was old enough to read a book that size, and so I quickly learned that the textbook’s version of Jackie Robinson’s story was a big honking lie told by, you know, the Bad Guys in this story.

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