By Gene Elston
Editor’s note – This article originally appeared on AstrosConnection.com on April 2, 2002.
The heist by Ruben Rivera of Derek Jeter’s bat and glove pulled off recently in the Yankees clubhouse during spring training, not surprisingly elicited the legend of Leo Durocher’s theft of Babe Ruth’s watch in 1929.
However, while searching for information on the subject I have ALMOST drawn a complete blank. The almost is what I found in Robert W. Creamer’s book, BABE – THE LEGEND COMES TO LIFE. “And here is a legend, seldom printed but often talked about in baseball circles, that says Leo Durocher stole Babe Ruth’s watch, which is not true. What is true is that Ruth did not like Durocher.”
The legend appears to have grown, whatever the truth, and was kept alive by Ruth who took advantage of the incident and continually exploited it at the expense of Durocher. If nothing else is true in this whole situation – it is certainly accurate that Babe Ruth hated Leo Durocher.
Two publications, USA BASEBALL WEEKLY and the Houston CHRONICLE, and I’m sure others have done so, quoted Detroit pitcher Elden Auker from his recent book, co-authored by Tom Keegan, a New York POST columnist, that (Auker) learned of the incident when he became friendly with the security staff of a Detroit hotel. The story bears repeating here – quoting Auker:
“Babe noticed he was going through his money faster than usual, and it was right about the time some other players noticed things were showing up missing–money and watches and other valuables. Babe was missing a gold pocket watch. He marked five $100 bills, setting a trap for the thief. He came in one night, and while Durocher was sleeping, he went through his bag. The pocket watch tumbled to the floor, and he found the five marked bills. Babe woke him up and cleaned up the room with him. They were making so much noise, security came up and keyed the door. The security man told me it’s a good thing he did key the room, or the Babe would have killed him.”
In my mind that is very difficult to believe. But, now let me quote again from BABE ? author Creamer is writing and quoting Ruth and prefaces the piece with: He resented Leo’s cockiness, and the two never got along, although Leo tried to?-at first.
“Durocher was in a hotel elevator late one night with a couple of other players when Ruth got on. ‘Oh, am I drunk,’ said the Babe. ‘Somebody’s got to undress me and put me to bed. You guys have to help me.’ The other players backed away rapidly, but Leo said. ‘I’ll help you, pal,’ Ruth said, ‘Thank you pal.’ Leo helped him off the elevator and down the hall to Babe’s room. The next morning Ruth decided he was missing something?-MONEY in one version of the story, his WATCH in another. Although he was drunk on the town the night before and had been in the Lord knows what places, he blamed Durocher. As Leo said, in a half-angry, half-mocking tone, ‘Jesus Christ, if I was going to steal anything from him I’d steal his god-damned Packard.'”
More from the book, and this is important. Ruth continued to harass Durocher. One night on the train as he was getting undressed by his berth, he called to Durocher. “Hey Leo you want to see something?” He held up a glittering bit of jewelry. “See that Leo? Isn’t that beautiful? That cost me seventy-five hundred bucks, Leo. I’m going to give it to Claire when we get to New York. Tonight I’m putting it under my pillow. And, Leo, I want it to be there when I wake up in the morning.”
Ruth’s hatred of Durocher never waned. He never let Durocher up when the opportunity arose in a crowd, with other players, and would goad him unmercifully. I feel that the Babe’s dislike for him was his way to sustain the legend of 1929.
Late that season a Cincinnati fan named Sidney Weil, who had made a fortune in the automobile business and stock market, bought control of the Reds. It was Weil who acquired Leo Durocher, not wanted by the Yankees or the American League, over to the National in a waiver deal for Clarke (Pinky) Pittenger, a journeyman shortstop who never reported to New York.
Now, here’s the rest of the story. On June 16, 1938 Babe Ruth was hired by Brooklyn’s new executive vice-president, Larry MacPhail. The Dodgers had fallen way behind both the Giants and Yankees in attendance. MacPhail felt Ruth would help get Brooklyn out of the attendance doldrums by filling in as a coach, batting practice pitcher, and mainly as an attraction to all in baseball – after all he was still the Bambino – at least in name. Ruth signed for $15,000 and he saw it as a great opportunity, not only to get back in the game, but more importantly he would be on the inside for the Dodgers managerial job for 1939 since Burleigh Grimes was looking to retire.
Picture this – Ruth was joining the team that had acquired Durocher the year before from the Cardinals and only a month before Ruth’s arrival, had been named by Grimes as the team captain. Ruth fulfilled his duties well and the Brooklyn players liked him and enjoyed his presence, except for Durocher. The face-to-face meeting finally happened. A dispute arose on a hit-and-run call while Ruth was coaching first and Durocher was at bat. The two engaged in a heated argument in the clubhouse, they tangled and scuffled before being separated.
The season ended and one month later Ruth read in the paper that Durocher had been appointed as the new Brooklyn manager and Ruth, once again, tearfully retired from baseball.
Did Leo Durocher even steal a watch? If so, did it belong to Babe Ruth? If so, did the Babe openly accuse Leo of the theft? Maybe the whole thing never really happened. Legends hold many secrets!
Gene Elston served as the voice of the Houston Astros from 1961-1986. He is the author of the books A Stitch In Time and That’s The Way The Ball Bounces.
For more information about his career and the effort to elect him as the recipient of the 2003 Ford C. Frick Award, visit www.Gene-Elston.org.