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You Could Look Him Up
Larry Thornberry
by

Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character
By Marty Appel
(Doubleday, 413 pages, $27.95)

MLB Network’s Prime 9, the baseball network’s program that rates the best of baseball in just about every conceivable category, chose Casey Stengel as “baseball’s greatest character” in 2009. It was a good choice, though there was tough competition for the honor, and one of the beauties of baseball is it can produce endless talk (I hesitate to say arguments) about who the greatest (or worst) this or that is or was. In this case, what about Babe Ruth, Satchel Paige, Jimmy Piersall, Bob Uecker, Rocky Bridges?

But enough counter examples. Ever the free spirit and jokester, Charles Dillon Stengel — “Casey” comes Kansas City, where Stengel was born — was certainly entertaining enough on and off the baseball field. A favorite example is that 1919 afternoon in Ebbets Field after Casey had been traded from the Brooklyn Dodgers to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Casey, now a visitor, was having a bad day, striking out his first two times at bat, and, those on hand thought, dogging it on a fly ball that fell in for a hit and allowed three runs to score. So the partisan Dodger crowd was letting him have it. In the sixth inning, Casey visited the right field bullpen where a hapless sparrow had flown in and couldn’t find his way out. Casey put the bird under his baseball cap. On his next at bat the boo-birds started up again as he came to the plate. But Casey had his own bird. He faced the stand, took a deep bow, doffed his cap, and out flew the sparrow, thereby giving the Dodger fans the bird. The sparrow was relieved (had to be uncomfortable for him under that cap). The home-plate umpire laughed. And the fans were on Casey’s side again. Pure Stengel.

Casey the player and Casey, the manager, was a tireless bench jockey and umpire-baiter. Many of his encounters with the men in blue were pure theater and usually, though not always, without the nasty edge that Earl Weaver later brought to these manager/umpire meet-ups. (Earl, fortissimo: “G—d—-t, Luciano! Is this as G—d— good as you’re going to be all G—d— night!?!” The preceding shouted with maximum spittle about two inches from the luckless Ron Luciano’s face.)

To a certain knowledge, Stengel is the only player and manager to have invented his own language, Stengelese, a variant of English though less comprehensible and with only one native speaker. (In later years, Sparky Anderson could be nearly as opaque and also a pleasure to listen to, even without subtitles.)

Stengel deployed his alternative language in long rambling answers to questions. Answers without sentences or even punctuation and which fluttered from subject to subject like so many linguistic dust-bunnies. A great deal of fun to listen to if you weren’t obliged to make any sense of it. Usually, Stengel deployed Stengelese to entertain, but sometimes in order not to answer a question he didn’t want to answer. (While Casey was winning all those pennants and World Series, a certain president of the United States — who like Casey could be perfectly clear when he wanted to be — sometimes hid behind incoherence when he wanted to dodge a question. Ike may well have picked this trick up from Casey.)

In his moments of clarity, Casey could generate memorable quotes. And, unlike Yogi Berra who played and later coached for Stengel and was his friend, Stengel said most of the things it was said that he said. One of his best known came from when the Yankees fired him after the 1960 World Series, which the Pittsburgh Pirates took on Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off home run in game 7. The Yankees gave the excuse that Stengel, who had turned 70 that summer, had reached retirement age. “I’ll never make the mistake of being 70 years old again,” he grumped after the news reached him. He famously told a banquet crowd in his retirement years, “Most people my age are dead at the present time. You could look it up.”

Always aware that baseball is a form of entertainment, Stengel was happy to draw a laugh from the paying customers. But although he certainly earned his reputation as a character, he was not a flake. The clowning was premeditated and not a sign of a lack of discipline. Flakes don’t win ten pennants and 7 World Series in 12 years, as Casey did with the New York Yankees between 1949 and 1960. He won because by this stage of his life he knew baseball and knew baseball players and how to get the most out of them. (He was 58 with plenty of unsuccessful years managing National League teams behind him when the Yankees hired him, against the advice of many and to the astonishment of others.)

While Casey was certainly fan friendly, he wasn’t easy-going or chummy with his players, who he expected to perform or move on. (Many, including bad boy Billy Martin, were moved on to the Yankees American League farm team in Kansas City, there to languish until it was time to get a real job. This is also where the Yankees stashed Enos Slaughter until they needed him.) Some of his players revered him. Others not so much. This led to one of my favorite Stengel quotes: “The secret of managing is to keep the five guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.”

Stengel skeptics were not hard to find during his heyday and just after. They were prone to say things like, “Hell, anybody could have won with those fifties Yankees teams. All Casey had to do was pencil in Mantle, Berra, Skowron, Ford, on the lineup card and then go to sleep in the dugout.”

Not so fast. The Yankees of the Mantle, Berra, Stengel era certainly did have a lot of talent. But so did some other American League teams, as well as the National League teams the Yankees took on in all those World Series. Stengel’s team won five straight World Series, 1949 through 1953. This is one of baseball’s not-likely-to-ever-be-broken records. No team accomplishes something like this without someone at the helm who knows a lot about how to win baseball games. Casey earned his place in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

There was little indication early on that Stengel’s long career would end up in Cooperstown. He had a reasonably good Major League playing career as an outfielder over 13 full seasons and parts of two others. His lifetime batting average was a respectable .284. As his last full year as a player was 1924, still in the dead ball era, he never hit more than eight home runs in a year. He did enjoy the distinction of hitting the first home run in the new Ebbets Field in 1913 and hit the first World Series home run in the new Yankee Stadium in 1923, an inside-the-park job before more than 55,000, the biggest crowd Casey had played before to that point.

And we’re talking about a really loooong career. Casey’s first year in pro ball was 1910. He played for three minor league teams that year, two of which went belly-up before the season ended. He made the bigs in September of 1912, two seasons before the Boston Red Sox signed a rookie pitcher named Babe Ruth. Casey finally hung up his cleats after his third year of managing the awful expansion New York Mets in 1965. So he went from John McGraw to Tug McGraw. From Scot Joplin to the Beatles. The year Casey made it to the bigs, a 25-year-old Ty Cobb won the American League batting championship with a .410 batting average. He was in uniform until the tag team of Koufax and Drysdale won 49 games together for the Dodgers, who won a World Series that year without hitting a lick.

Between his little noticed Major League debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers and his final years when he was employed by the Mets to be a distraction against what was certain to be a dreadful expansion team (the way these guys played ball I’m sure fans appreciated any distraction), there were the playing years with the household names of the teens and twenties. These were followed by years managing in the minors, and unsuccessful years managing in the National League. Then pay dirt with the Yankees.

Marty Appel, former PR director for the Yankees and author of several baseball books, tells the story of this American original in his well-researched book that covers almost two-thirds of the history of baseball in the last century. He also tells the other parts of the Stengel story, the long and close marriage with Casey’s beloved Edna, Casey’s brief service in the Navy in WWI, Casey’s fortunate investments in the oil business which left the Stengels well off regardless of baseball fortunes, his taste for and ability to hold the sauce, and his many acts of generosity in his private life.

It’s hard to imagine a baseball fan who would not enjoy this fine treatment. This includes young fans, as well as those of sufficient age to have been privileged to have seen the Old Perfessor at work. Casey hasn’t been on the field for a half-century now. He was a guy that old school managers called old school. He succeeded in a time before there were iPads, laptops, and computer print-outs in Major League dugouts. He kept his baseball savvy, of which there was a great deal, in his head. Stengel is a man who should not be forgotten, who thrived in an America that seems so far away now, in a sport that helps hold succeeding Americas together. Marty Appel’s new book is a fine remembrance of a grand old man of the Grand Old Game.

Larry Thornberry
Larry Thornberry
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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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