Mark Richardson —
Marty Appel, author of Munson, the acclaimed biography of former New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson, has done it again. This top-notch profiler of Yankees past has given us what may prove to be the baseball book of the year with his new work, Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character. It is an extensive in-depth look at the “Ol’ Perfessor,” one of the game’s most beloved and revered men. There have been other fine biographies of Casey before, most notably those penned by the late, great Robert W. Creamer and Professor Charles C. Alexander, but Appel’s is the most noteworthy, if for no other reason than the fact that he (Appel), unlike Creamer and Alexander, had full access to Edna Stengel’s (Casey’s wife of 55 years) unpublished memoirs. These reflections by the person who was closest to Stengel in life fill in gaps of which the previous biographers were unaware, as well as providing a much fuller insight into the man who many regard as the greatest manager in major league history.
The book begins with a look at the boyhood of Charles Dillon Stengel in Kansas City, Missouri (hence the nickname Casey), and at the early development of the close lifelong relationships with his brother Grant and his sister Louise. (Interestingly, Casey always felt that Grant was the better of the two brothers when it came to playing baseball, but a serious foot injury when he was young put an end to his major league dreams.) It moves through his teenage years as a highly regarded high-school player, his decision to forego baseball in favor of pursuing a career as a dentist, his return to baseball when he discovered that there were no tools manufactured for left-handed dentists in the early 1900s, and his big league debut in 1912 as an outfielder with the Brooklyn Robins (so called after their manager, Wilbert (Uncle Robby) Robinson, a colorful character in his own right).
After six seasons with Brooklyn, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he remained for two seasons before being traded again, this time to the Philadelphia Phillies. Casey made as much of a name for himself as a goofball as a ballplayer at each of these stops, engaging is such antics as the famous incident in which he “gave the fans the bird.” One day while in the outfield, he caught a slow-moving bird and placed it under his cap. When he came to bat in the next half-inning, the fans began to boo him for an earlier gaffe he made in the field. As he prepared to step into the batter’s box, he bowed low and, making a grand sweeping gesture, he pulled his cap off, releasing the bird, which flew from his head to the utter delight of the crowd. He turned the boos to cheers in an instant. This would seem a little unbelievable but for the fact that over twenty thousand fans in the stands and some 40 sportswriters who were present witnessed it, and the accounts of all agree to the letter!
Another of Casey’s pranks occurred during his Brooklyn days, when he hired a pilot to fly over the ballpark and drop a baseball from the skies, which was to be caught by manager Robinson, a former big league catcher. But Casey substituted a grapefriut for the ball. The pilot ascended the sky and dropped the grapefruit, Robinson staggered around, gauging its descent, and surprisingly, made the catch. But he was expecting a ball. When the grapefruit hit his mitt, it splattered all over, and Robby fell to the ground screaming that he had been killed. He thought the grapefruit juice was his own blood!
After two years with the Phillies, Casey was sent packing again, this time to the New York Giants. This was the most welcome of trades as far as Stengel was concerned. Not only did it mark his return to the big stage of New York, but it also allowed him to play for the great John J. McGraw, who managed the Giants from 1902 until midway through the 1932 season. Connie Mack, who managed his own Philadelphia Athletics for a record fifty years, once said, “There is only one manager, and his name is McGraw.” Playing under Little Napoleon (a nickname McGraw actually preferred to his other moniker, Muggsy, which he despised), Stengel learned the valuable art of platooning players which was to become his own trademark as a manager in future years. He remained with the Giants for four years before being traded yet again, this time to the Boston Braves, where he would play his final two seasons. In all, Stengel compiled a very respectable .284 career average with sixty home runs, again a respectable total considering that most of his career was played during the “dead ball” era.
When he was thirty, Casey had met and courted Edna Mae Lawson, and they were married in 1924. Edna’s family was a family of bankers in Glendale, California, and Casey had spent his off seasons learning the banking trade from his in-laws. In addition, he was invited into oil speculation by some old teammates who had struck it rich in oil, and investing his capital wisely, the oil business combined with his banking ventures made Stengel a wealthy man. But baseball, not business, was Casey’s true love, and when he was offered an opportunity to manage in the minor leagues, he couldn’t refuse. A few seasons in the minors opened the door to a big league offer, and in 1934 he was named manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, one of his teams as a player. The fans loved him, but he was short on success, and he was fired after the 1936 season with one year remaining on his contract. He returned to Glendale and the bank while drawing his salary from Brooklyn in 1937. It was the only season between 1910 and 1961 in which Casey was out of organized baseball. He always considered his service to be continuous, though, because he was paid even for the season he was away.
In 1938, another of the teams for which he had played, the Boston Braves, came calling, and Casey accepted their offer to manage the club. He remained as Boston skipper through the 1943 season, although he did not have any more success there than he had had in Brooklyn. It looked like his days as a manager were over. But, over the winter, he was contacted about the job managing Bill Veeck’s minor league Milwaukee Brewers, and again Casey found that the lure of the game he loved was impossible to resist. He finally tasted success as the field general of a team, leading the Brewers to a pennant in the American Association, and another a few years later while managing the 1948 Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. The general manager of the Oaks was a man named George Weiss, who in 1949 became the GM of the fabled New York Yankees. Weiss’ first move was to bring in the manager with whom he had shared such success in Oakland, Casey Stengel, to manage the Bronx Bombers.
While the baseball world reeled from the fact that Casey Stengel, who had had such an undistinguished tenure as a big league pilot with the Dodgers and the Braves was being given the reins over baseball’s most storied franchise, Casey set about the business of proving his detractors wrong. And, boy, did he prove them wrong! Casey became the first, and still the only, manager ever to win five consecutive pennants and World Series championships, from 1949 through 1953. After finishing behind the pennant winning Cleveland Indians in 1954, the Yankees under Casey went on another roll, winning American League titles in 1955, ’56, ’57, ’58 and ’60. (Cleveland won again in 1959.) They also won the World Series in each of these years with the exceptions of 1955, when they fell to the Dodgers in the Fall Classic, and in 1960 when they were defeated in the most famous game seven in Series history on a ninth inning home run by the Pirates’ Bill Mazeroski.
After that Series, Casey, who had just turned 70, was unceremoniously dumped by the team to which he had given so much. He told reporters “I’ll never make the mistake of turning 70 again,” and went back to Edna and California. Baseball writers braced for life without “Stengelese,” the unique, confusing and highly amusing manner of speech that Casey had perfected in order to answer questions without really answering them. He would spin sentence after sentence of what seemed at first glance to be nonsense. When looked at more closely, though, it always made more sense than it had appeared to, and it always made listeners smile. For instance, when he was called in front of Senator Estes Keefauver’s committee which was considering passage of a bill diminishing the effect of baseball’s reserve clause, Stengel launched into a hilarious response to a senator’s query:
“Well, I had many years where I was not so successful as a ballplayer, as it is a game of skill,” he said, downplaying his real talents. “I became a manager in several cities and I was discharged, which I call it discharged because there was no doubt I had to leave. And while I am a ballplayer who does not work, I have no doubt worked. I have been up and down the ladder. In the old days, you could not transfer a ballclub. My goodness, how could you transfer a ballclub when you did not have a highway? I had to put away enough money to go to dental school. I found out it was not better in dentistry. I stayed in baseball.”
And on and on it went. This all in response to the question, “Mr. Stengel, are you prepared to answer particularly why baseball wants this bill passed?” After Casey’s sidewinding response, Keefauver said, “I’m not sure I made my question clear.” Casey answered, “That alright. I’m not sure if I’m going to answer yours perfectly, either.” That was Casey, and that was Stengelese.
As the 1962 season dawned, the National League had a new team in New York, the Mets, who were replacing the Dodgers and Giants, both of whom had sought greener pastures in California. George Weiss, who had also been let go by the Yankees, was the new club’s GM, and who better to manage the team and draw fans away from the Yankees, he thought, than his old pal Casey. He offered Stengel the Mets managerial position, and Casey, despite his promise to Edna to give up baseball and stay home, again found that he could not leave the game behind. So back he came to run the Mets. He called them “the amazin’ Mets,” and amazing they surely were. They finished that first season with the worst record in the history of baseball, winning 40 games while losing 120. The Amazin’s lost games in ways never seen before, with a roster of has-beens, never-weres and wannabes. At one point, Casey looked around at his players and muttered a phrase for which he would be famous–“Can’t anybody here play this game?”
Old and tired, he once turned the managerial duties over to one of his players, Duke Snider. Snider, a Hall of Famer for the old Brooklyn Dodgers, was now at the end of his career, and he thought he might like to manage when he was done playing. Case let him run things for one game, and the Mets lost, 9-1 to the defending N.L. champion Cincinnati Reds. Snider told Casey, “I didn’t do any good.” Casey said, “That’s OK. Look at that Cincinnati bench. All mahogany. Now look at ours. All driftwood.” Another time, a young reporter asked him, “Mr. Stengel, what do people your age think of today’s players?” Casey answered, “Most people my age are dead.”
He continued to manage the Mets for the next few years, seeing tiny bits of improvement, but never escaping last place, until midway through the 1965 season, when he fell and broke his hip. Unable to move around, he at long last kept his promise to Edna and retired. He continued to act as an ambassador for his beloved game of baseball until, finally, in 1973, he died peacefully. But, though he was gone, the Ol’ Perfesser left fans with a plethora of wonderful memories.
I know that this is something that is said so often that it has become trite, but I’ll say it anyhow; if you read only one baseball book this year, make it this one. It is a wonderful book, filled with history and humor. It is one of the finest baseball biographies I have ever read. And it is a book about one of the most engaging characters who ever blessed the game with his presence.