I had the honor of being selected to present at the annual Women in Baseball Conference this weekend, sponsored by SABR (Society of American Baseball Research) and the International Women’s Baseball Center. The event was hosted by Rockford University in Illinois, who are very involved in women’s baseball and research, including building a museum dedicated to the Rockford Peaches. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference went virtual this year, and was so glad to be a part of the 3-day extravaganza. There were so many interesting topics from men & women all over the country sharing their knowledge on racial and gender equality – there was even live music at one point!
My topic highlights the New York Giants of the early 1950’s, their manager Leo Durocher and wife Laraine Day, who became known as the “First Lady of Baseball.” Below is my my full speech from the event and video when it becomes available. Again, I want to thank SABR, IWBC, and Rockford University for the incredible opportunity.
Leo Durocher and Laraine Day were the original odd couple. She was a straight-laced Mormon who didn’t drink or smoke, and Durocher was one of baseball’s “ colorful characters” – rough around the edges, profane, and confrontational. He earned the nickname “Leo the Lip” for his bench jockeying during his playing days and the verbal abuse he gave umpires as a manager. But they say opposites attract so perhaps that explains the chemistry that brought the two very different personalities together which resulted in a benefit to baseball.
Leo Durocher was a second baseman and shortstop in Major League Baseball from 1925 to 1945. He played for the New York Yankees, Cincinnati Reds, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and most famously, the St. Louis Cardinals, where he was part of the legendary “Gas House Gang”, comprised of players known for their sloppy appearance and dirty tactics on the field. He won a World Series with them in 1934. He was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1939 where he became a player-manager and it was as a manager that he he truly excelled. It was also during this time with the Dodgers that he made his famous, cynical observation, “Nice guys finish last”, although he claimed he had phrased it differently. He continued to manage the team until 1948 when he was “offered” to Horace Stoneham, owner of the Dodger’s National League archrivals, the NY Giants. This was shocking for both Dodger and Giants fans at the time, but Durocher had worn out his welcome with Dodgers GM Branch Rickey. Durocher had been banned from baseball for one year in 1947 by then-MLB Commissioner Albert “Happy” Chandler for “associating with gamblers”, namely the associates of his close friend, Hollywood star, George Raft. Durocher always disputed this claim and blamed it on a feud he had with ex-Dodger’s GM, Larry MacPhail.
Laraine Day was born in Roosevelt, Utah into a large, wealthy family and was raised in the Mormon faith. She made her way to Hollywood while in her teens to try her hand at acting. She became known as a “B” movie actress, although she did appear in Alfred Hitchcock’s espionage thriller, Foreign Correspondent. However, she was best known for her recurring role as Nurse Mary Lamont in the Dr. Kildare movie series in the 1940’s.
Leo Durocher and Laraine Day met in 1946 during a chance encounter at an airport during a layover. The two could not have been more different: Durocher had a tough-guy persona and consorted with gangsters, gamblers and celebrities alike. Day was a devoutly religious woman who didn’t drink liquor or gamble, two of Durocher’s favorite pastimes. But they struck up a friendship and began to see each other regularly at various parties and public events. But there was one problem: Day was married. Her husband was a failed musician and heavy drinker named Ray Hendricks. At first, he accompanied Day and Durocher on several of their outings, but grew suspicious of Durocher’s interest in his wife. He confronted him about it and Durocher denied they were having an affair. Day didn’t want these innuendos to get out to the press. She and Hendricks had adopted two children, and she had her reputation to think of, as she was a popular Hollywood actress who was known for her wholesome image and “nice girl” roles.
Hendricks became angry and filed for divorce naming Durocher as a correspondent, which meant he accused him of having an affair with his wife, and in turn, accused his wife of infidelity. The divorce, along with a hearing before a judge was going to take a year stateside so in 1947 they flew to Mexico to get a “quickie” divorce and then crossed the border into Texas, and got married in El Paso. However, their marriage was found to be illegal, causing much embarrassment for both of them, and when the press found out the couple soon found themselves as a hot topic for the gossip tabloids. 1947 was a hellish year for Durocher, between the baseball ban by the Commissioner, followed by the stress and bad publicity from the marriage scandal. They were finally legally married in 1948, and Day wasted no time throwing herself into her new role as a “baseball wife.”
She familiarized herself with the game to such an extent that she could easily converse with players about their lives both on and off the field. Day wanted to help her husband’s team reclaim some of the spotlight stolen from them by a certain baseball team that played in the Bronx, the NY Yankees. During the late 40’s and early 1950’s, the Yankees were the undisputed kings of the sports world, boasting a pantheon of stars such as Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Yogi Berra. Day, along with NY Giants fans, felt their team was always playing second fiddle to the glorious and glamorous Yankees. Day came up with an innovative idea that she thought would showcase the Giants team and its players and increase their popularity. She used her professional knowledge and skill as an actress in front of the camera to host a ground-breaking TV program called, “Day with the Giants” which was a 15-minute feature that was aired on television before every Giants home game. It consisted of player interviews, and also interviews with the players’ wives and families. At the time, no team, not even the star-studded Yankees, had their own pregame show. Televised baseball was in its infancy in the early 1950’s and broadcasts consisted of the game on the field, and even then, they would only televise special events like the All-Star Game or World Series games. Day thoroughly enjoyed her role as on-the-field TV host. She was the first to show the networks, and major league baseball itself, what the future of the game could be by reaching out to existing fans, gaining new ones, increasing team popularity and visibility, and creating additional revenue through advertising and sponsors.
She was a great ambassador for the game. Always a lady in every respect, she was generous and gracious to all she encountered through her work in baseball. She went out of her way to make not only the players themselves feel special and appreciated, but also the sportswriters who covered the team, and gave many lavish luncheons, hosting them and their wives. Day was so respected and admired by sportswriters that she became the first woman to appear at the annual show given by the Baseball Writers Association New York Chapter in 1951, which presented an award for the time and effort she put into promoting the game of baseball.
Day and Durocher became a celebrity couple, making TV and radio appearances and were featured on the cover of the popular magazines of the era. Once scorned as immoral and reckless, they were now embraced by the public, who were impressed by their genuine affection for each other and the game of baseball. However, controversy found them again. An ugly incident raised the curtain on lingering problems below the surface of American society in the happy, carefree 1950’s.
Laraine Day, along with husband Leo Durocher, were featured on the cover of Sport Illustrated, a fledgling sports publication which had just launched in August 1954. Their first baseball team preview came in April 1955, featuring the reigning World Series Champions, New York Giants. Leo Durocher and wife Laraine are standing on either side of Giants superstar, black centerfielder, Willie Mays, and each had a hand on May’s shoulders. When the magazine hit the newsstands, it ignited a blaze of controversy. Angry readers sent hate mail to the magazine, threatened to cancel their subscriptions and boycott the magazine claiming it was an affront to decency to show a white woman touching a black man. Ironically, Willie Mays was Day’s favorite Giants player. By all accounts, she adored him and always sang his praises every chance she got. They both thought so highly of Mays that Durocher used to ask Mays to babysit for young son while they were on the road, taking the boy to the movies, etc.
Laraine Day and Leo Durocher divorced in 1960 but remained friends. After their divorce, Day lost all interest in baseball. She said, “When our relationship was over, so was my relationship with baseball”. She continued to work as an actress both in film and television until the 1980’s. She died in 2007. Durocher continued to manage various teams in baseball until 1973 when he retired. He was posthumously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame as a manager in 1994 by the Veteran’s Committee. In a final, loving gesture to both her ex-husband and baseball, Laraine Day accepted the award on his behalf and she spoke at the ceremony.
Bridget Mulcahy – A Great Day for Baseball – starts at 2:18:00