Casey Stengel, dead, lo, these past six years, came alive for one hour on Wednesday night. Sort of. The self-acknowledged World's Greatest Manager (wink) was the subject of a biographical sketch on Hallmarkhs Hall of Fame, more evidence that the world suddenly has rediscovered Casey Stengel.
Six years, apparently, is the decent interval before America brings back its folk heroes. This week, actor Paul Dowley is starring in the new off-Broadway production "Amazin' Casey Stengel" at the American Place Theater.
On WETA-TV-26 Wednesday night, "Casey Stengel" took form as a one-man show by actor Charles Durning, and immediately the worst was feared. This wariness stemmed from the long list of strikeouts by those movie stars who had in the past essayed the roles of Babe Ruth ("The Babe Ruth Story"), Lou Gehrig ("Pride of the Yankees") and Monte Stratton ("The Monte Stratton Story"). Their performances added up to zero for three, after giving them the benefit of the doubt.
No baseball fan with the faintest memory of Babe Ruth and what he looked like could accept William Bendix in a baseball uniform as the Bambino. Tall, lanky Gary Cooper was a preposterous Lou Gehrig of abundant chest expanse. To foist Jimmy Stewart on us as the strong-throwing Monte Stratton was an affront to any knowing fan. And while on the subject, we might as well include the memory of a relatively skinny-legged actor named Ronald Reagan trying to impersonate the powerful George (The Gipper) Gipp.
But let it be said in haste that Durning as Stengel was not that bad, and there were many long moments when he was a believable Stengel with a good grasp of the pixie that dwelt inside the only man to win 10 pennants with the Yankees, five of them in a row.
It is unarguable that nobody could look like the gimpy, dog-eared Stengel with the circumferential wrinkles that distinguished his face. But Durning, who had roles in "The Sting" and "Dog Day Afternoon", does have the white hair and prominence of nose that are plusses in this case, and he seemed to savor the Stengelese that the show's writers wrote for him.
The setting was Glendale, Calif., where local folks were honoring native son Stengel at a 1969 banquet, and Casey, with the elliptical speech that has been his trademark, was reminiscing about his 53-year career in baseball. It was a one-hour monologue in which Durning's performance actually outrun that of his writers, David and Sidney Carroll.
Whereas Durning was often a believable Stengel, especially from the waist up when he donned the Yankee and Met caps and shirts, his script too often appeared contrived, not the purest Stengelese. As when "Stengel" related when he came up from the minors: "They brought me up to the Dodgers which at that time is in Brooklyn." More Damon Runyan than Stengel, there.
The research and recognition could have been better, too. Who could omit one of Casey's best lines, his lament to Jimmy Breslin on his frustrations with his Mets: "Can't anybody here play this game?" Terrible oversight, that one. Everybody would have been glad to hear him say it again.
When Hallmark's people did have him saying, "A lot of people my age are dead," they blew it.His justly famous line was, "A lot of people my age are dead at the present time." There's a difference.
It was a long, rambling, chronological statement by Stengel of his 53 years in the game, punctuated by screened portraits of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and other Yankee greats described by Stengel as "some of the causes why I am the world's greatest manager." And apropos his third baseman, Andy Carey, he could say, "He was so handsome and he could eat so much and he had a beautiful wife."
But the wait was in vain for better stuff, other remembered Stengelisms that Casey never uttered for Hallmark. Where was the story of the pitcher he took out of the game, despite the pitcher telling Stengel, "I'm not tired," and getting Casey's reply, "You may not be tired, but I'm tired of you"? And of his disgust with a Met catcher who let a run score on a passed ball: "My scouts told me he could run and he could throw and he could hit, but nobody told me he couldn't catch."
His writers could have remembered the one about Casey and the barber shop, asking for a shave after a losing game, and telling the barber, "Don't bother to cut my throat as I might want to do that myself."
But the script did deal properly with Stengel's discharge by the Yankees, who were bent on a youth movement in 1960, and let him go, prompting Casey to remark, "I'll never make the mistake of reaching 70 again." And in the summation, when Stengel-Durning admitted perhaps he'd been talking too long because two of the Four Horsemen had died meanwhile, there was an understanding that Casey was closing the show with his famous wink.