July 07, 2015

The day Leo Durocher said “Nice guys finish last.” (Or something like that.)

The famous sports quote “Nice guys finish last” has long been attributed to legendary baseball player and manager Leo Durocher. But for decades there has been a debate about whether he actually said it.

Most sources agree that the basis for the attribution comes from remarks “Leo the Lip” made on July 6, 1946, when he was managing the Brooklyn Dodgers.

That day, he was dissing the New York Giants and their manager Mel Ott to some reporters, during batting practice at the old “Polo Grounds” stadium. One of the reporters was sportscaster Red Barber. Another was Frank Graham, sportswriter for The New York Journal-American.

Graham’s column, published the following day, used the headline “Leo Doesn’t Like Nice Guys.” It also noted what Durocher said about “nice guys” — which does not include the famous quote.

Graham reported that Red Barber had asked Durocher “Why don’t you be a nice guy for a change?”

According to Graham, Durocher replied:

“Nice guys! Look over there. Do you know a nicer guy than Mel Ott? Or any of the other Giants? Why, they’re the nicest guys in the world! And where are they? In seventh place! Nice guys! I’m not a nice guy – and I’m in first place.” After pacing up and down the visitors’ dugout, the Dodger manager waved a hand toward the Giants’ dugout and repeated, “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place.”

In his excellent book The Quote Verifier, quotation expert Ralph Keyes says: “When Graham’s original column was reprinted in Baseball Digest that fall, Durocher’s reference to nice guys finishing in ‘seventh place’ had been changed to ‘last place.’…Before long Leo’s credo was bumper-stickered into ‘Nice guys finish last.’”

Over the years, some books of quotations have given Durocher credit for the “bumper sticker” version of the famed quote, while others cite it as “attributed” or as a paraphrase of what he said.

Durocher himself helped confuse the facts. Initially, he denied saying “Nice guys finish last.” But after it became famous, he embraced it. He even used it as the title of his autobiography (first published in 1975). And, in that, he gave a possibly revisionist version of what he said on July 6, 1946, which differs from what sportswriter Graham originally reported.

Here’s Durocher’s recollection from his book:

[T]he Giants, led by Mel Ott, began to come out of their dugouts...I called off his players’ names as they came marching up the steps behind him, “Walker, Cooper, Mize, Marshall, Kerr, Gordon, Thompson. Take a look at them. All nice guys. They’ll finish last. Nice guys. Finish last...Give me some scratching, diving hungry ballplayers who came to kill you...That’s the kind of guy I want playing for me.”

So, was Durocher’s version correct or was Graham’s? I don’t know, but I’ll add a couple of other pieces to the puzzle, based on my own recent Internet searches of newspaper archives.

In an article published on August 12, 1946 in the Uniontown, Pennsylvania Morning Herald, sports editor Jimmy Gismondi wrote that Dodgers fans “back up their manager [Durocher] when he leaps from his dugout to scream at an ump. ‘Nice guys don’t win pennants,’ the Dodger fans say. And sometimes we think they’re right. How’s Mel Ott doing these days?”

I also found an Associated Press article dated August 13, 1946, written by AP Sports Editor Frank Eck. In it, he said: “Brooklyn fans like their baseball rough. They remember when their heroes were second division duds six straight years in the thirties. But now they have a rough and tumble group to cheer and they love Durocher for saying: ‘Nice guys don’t win pennants.’”

So those articles clearly suggest that “Nice guys don’t win pennants” was a saying commonly used by Durocher and Dodgers fans at the time.

Then I found two news stories from 1948 commenting on a recent article Leo Durocher had written. Durocher’s article was published in the April 1948 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. The title of the article was “Nice Guys Finish Last.”

Was that title chosen by Durocher based on a quote he coined — or was it created by an editor at Cosmopolitan, who may be the real coiner of the line that Durocher later claimed as his?

I don’t know the answer to that either. If you do, please shoot me an email or post a comment on the Famous Quotations Facebook page. You’ll be clearing up a longstanding quotation mystery.

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