Where Does The Phrase "Nice Guys Finish Last" Come From?

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

"Nice guys finish last" is not from some pickup artist. Although it’s been co-opted as a justification for certain men’s bad behavior and a popular lament (or is it a humblebrag?) to describe others' lack of prospects, the term originally was about finishing last in the baseball standings.

The New York Times obituary for Leo Durocher remembers him as "perhaps major league baseball's best example of the win-at-all-costs manager, one who viewed the game not as a challenging pastime for talented athletes but as a sports relative of guerilla warfare...Durocher always placed heavy reliance on physical and psychological intimidation of the enemy, the army of foes that, to him, included the umpiring crews. To him, base hits, hook slides and sharp-breaking curveballs were important, but equally so were sharp spikes, beanballs and umpire-baiting." So, suffice to say, he was not a nice guy.

Durocher spent 24 years as manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, Chicago Cubs, and Houston Astros after a mediocre 17-season career as an infielder. It was while he was managing the Dodgers in 1946 that he uttered the eminently quotable phrase.

He was evidently proud of his contribution to our popular lexicon, even going so far as to name his 1975 autobiography Nice Guys Finish Last. In it, and in an excerpt published on the University of Chicago website, he recounts the tale:

The Nice Guys Finish Last line came about because of Eddie Stanky too. And wholly by accident. I’m not going to back away from it though. It has got me into Bartlett’s Quotations— page 1059, between John Betjeman and Wystan Hugh Auden—and will be remembered long after I have been forgotten. Just who the hell were Betjeman and Auden anyway? It came about during batting practice at the Polo Grounds, while I was managing the Dodgers. I was sitting in the dugout with Frank Graham of the old Journal-American, and several other newspapermen, having one of those freewheeling bull sessions. Frankie pointed to Eddie Stanky in the batting cage and said, very quietly, “Leo, what makes you like this fellow so much? Why are you so crazy about this fellow?” I started by quoting the famous Rickey statement: “He can’t hit, he can’t run, he can’t field, he can’t throw. He can’t do a goddamn thing, Frank—but beat you.” He might not have as much ability as some of the other players, I said, but every day you got 100 percent from him and he was trying to give you 125 percent. “Sure, they call him the Brat and the Mobile Muskrat and all of that,” I was saying, and just at that point, the Giants, led by Mel Ott, began to come out of their dugout to take their warm-up. Without missing a beat, I said, “Take a look at that Number Four there. A nicer guy never drew breath than that man there.” I called off his players’ names as they came marching up the steps behind him, “Walker Cooper, Mize, Marshall, Kerr, Gordon, Thomson. Take a look at them. All nice guys. They’ll finish last. Nice guys. Finish last.”

It’s almost all true. Durocher may have given himself just a little too much credit in coming up with the sort of saying that would have staying power. In a 1993 biography of the fiery manager entitled The Lip, Gerald Eskenazi explains how newspaper headline writers were responsible for the pithiness of the phrase, but the sentiment was definitely all Durocher.

What he really said of Giants' manager Mel Ott, Eskenazi posits based on contemporary claims, was, "Do you know a nicer guy in the world than Mel Ott? He's a nice guy. In last place. Where am I? In first place. I'm in first place. The nice guys are over there in last place, not in this dugout."

But if we're going to nit-pick there's one more particular to address. According to The Yale Book of Quotations, which cites a New York Journal-American article from July 7, 1946, what Durocher actually said was, "The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place." At the time, seventh place would have technically been second-to-last in the eight-team National League. The nice-but-hapless Giants ended up finishing the season in honest-to-goodness last place and when the article was reprinted that fall in Baseball Digest the crucial switch from "seventh" to "last" was made.