The first book that ever obsessed me, that changed my reading life, was ‘Nice Guys Finish Last’ by Leo Durocher. I was 12 when I purchased it with birthday money, from a bookstore in Rochester, New York, where I grew up. What first caught my eye was its bright yellow cover, which reminded me of the wrapping around a Mr. Goodbar.
The blurb on the back jacket of ‘Nice Guys Finish Last’ promised something different than what I had come to expect from the usual sports books I read at the time, really just elongated stat-sheets, which simplified an athlete’s success to hard work, faith, and more hard work and faith. But this foretold of pages filled with something else: intrigue. Durocher, as I would soon to learn, was a rogue baseball player who later became a winning yet controversial manager – a member during his playing days of the famed 1927 New York Yankees, considered by many to be the greatest baseball team ever assembled, and then shortstop for the infamous St. Louis Cardinal “Gas House Gang,” a rough and tumble nine that won the 1934 World Series during the heart of the Depression, lending some levity, if not irascibility, into the minds of a nation brow-beaten by poverty.
But as I read more and more about his life, what caught me, and held me, was the way Durocher told the story, or at least how his co-author, Edward Linn, translated his tales into a coherent book. What I liked most was the conversational style of the writing; I felt as if Durocher was talking directly to me, was asking me into his inner circle, inviting me to the card game in the back clubhouse, where adult men smoked and drank and talked tough. But Durocher also shared his failures and weaknesses, such as gambling and fighting, adultery and deception. By the time I finished the book I had changed my outlook: no just on sports and athletes, but on reading.
‘Nice Guys Finish Last’ matured my tastes; I no longer found satisfaction from the sports books I had enjoyed before; they seemed not just trite, but false, whitewashed versions of what really happened on the playing field…and beyond. So I started a new phase of reading, still picking up the occasional sports books, but only those with stories that transcended the playing field, that offered up a more complex, emotional side of athletics. And soon after, perhaps along with a greater interest in girls, I discovered the power of fiction, and novelists who would carry me to adulthood – Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Conan Doyle, to name just a few.
But as I trekked, merrily so, further and further into the literature wilds, I knew, laid out behind me, was a trail of crumbs starting with ‘Nice Guys Finish Last.’ It truly was my “gateway drug” into more serious reading, a book that piqued my interest in the subject on its pages, and what it meant off of them. For that I will forever be grateful.