The most amazing aspect of Casey Stengel's baseball career spanning seven decades may have been his own unofficial record for most years as an old man.
In the 1923 World Series, Stengel galloped around the bases for an inside-the-park home run, and Damon Runyon immortalized the 33-year-old New York Giants outfielder with his "This is the way old Casey Stengel ran . . . running his home run" report.
Twenty years later, Stengel the manager was acknowledged as "The Ol' Perfesser," in part for his rambling discourse of fractured syntax surrounding phraseologies straight out of the Victorian era that became known as Stengelese. Another two decades along, still managing in the majors, Stengel declared, "Most people my age are dead at the present time."
Born 100 years ago today, in Kansas City, Mo. -- which gave Charles Dillon Stengel his nickname -- Stengel started out in baseball as a left-handed hitting center fielder who was frequently platooned, a strategy he popularized as a manager. Stengel recalled his 1912 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers: "I broke in four for four and people thought I was the next Ty Cobb. It took them about three days to get over that."
Throughout his playing career, Stengel stoked his reputation as a prankster. At one of his first spring camps, he discovered a manhole in the outfield, lifted the cover, crawled into the hole, then emerged to make a catch, balancing the cover above his head.
As his team barnstormed north, it would be followed by a farmer decked out in overalls, straw hat and red bandana who heckled incessantly during batting practice until he was invited to see if he could do better. The farmer would step to the plate and smack out loud line drives. The farmer was Stengel, of course.
Booed mercilessly when he returned to Brooklyn in 1919 after the Dodgers had traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Stengel hid a bird in his hat and doffed his cap as he approached the plate. Jeers turned to laughter as the bird surveyed the park from Stengel's head then flew away.
After being tagged out going into a base standing up, earning the wrath of the hometown fans, Stengel informed the crowd, "With the salary I'm getting, I'm so hollow and starving that if I slide, I'm liable to explode like a light bulb." During one salary holdout, Stengel went so far as to enroll in school, commencing (as he would say) studies to become a rare left-handed dentist.
Testifying before a Senate committee investigating baseball's antitrust exemption in 1958, Stengel claimed, "I had many years when I was not so successful as a ballplayer, as it is a game of skill."
In truth, he hit a respectable .284 during 14 major league seasons, and in three World Series batted .393. In 1923, playing for his managerial mentor, John J. McGraw, Stengel outdid Babe Ruth. It was Stengel, not the legendary Bambino, who hit the first World Series home run in Yankee Stadium. Two days later, Stengel slugged a solo shot in the seventh inning, the first homer to break a scoreless World Series game.
An Impact on History
The turning point in Stengel's career -- indeed a turning point in baseball history -- came on July 1, 1921, when Stengel was traded to McGraw's New York Giants, the most successful franchise of the first quarter of this century. "Muggsy" McGraw, the 5-foot-7, 155-pound pepperpot third baseman of the original Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s (a team that invented "inside baseball" tactics such as the hit-and-run), had grown into "The Little Napoleon," a managerial genius who was about as wide as tall by the 1920s.
Stengel got only 22 at-bats with the Giants in 1921, but became an unofficial assistant manager to McGraw -- soaking up his three decades of baseball knowledge at the park and on frequent visits to McGraw's home where, the pair would talk all night and fry eggs for breakfast. These contacts extended the line of managerial mastery from the Orioles' Ned Hanlon through McGraw and Stengel to the problem child whose Yankee Stadium plaque reads, "Casey's Boy," Billy Martin.
Stengel became the most successful manager in baseball history. His teams won 10 pennants (matching McGraw's record) in 12 years with the Yankees and they were victorious in five consecutive World Series starting in 1949, his Yankees debut, and seven overall (sharing that record with Joe McCarthy). Before that run, Stengel never had brought a major league team home higher than fifth in nine seasons, and he ended his career piloting the fledgling New York Mets to three consecutive last place finishes. Hall of Fame lefty Warren Spahn, who pitched for Stengel's Boston Braves in the 1940s and his Mets in the '60s, remarked, "I played for Stengel before and after he was a genius."
Like many players of his era, Stengel carried his trade to the minors after his major league days were at an end, becoming a player-manager for Worcester in the Eastern League in 1925 with the added duties of club president. At the end of the year, he was offered the chance to manage at Toledo, a higher classification, but the reserve clause bound him to Worcester as a player. So Stengel the president released Stengel the player and fired Stengel the manager before submitting his resignation as an executive.
Road Apples and Plumbers
Stengel's Dodgers and Braves of the '30s and '40s were dominated by "road apples" and "plumbers" -- Stengelese for bad ballplayers. Foremost among Dodger plumbers was Frenchy Bordagaray, who spit on an umpire, earned a 60-day suspension, then noted, "The penalty was a bit more than I expectorated."
Bordagaray once hit Stengel in the back of the head with a throw during infield practice, and the Dodgers followed with a rare win. Naturally, Bordagaray suggested to Stengel, "Let me hit you in the head every day."
With the Mets, Stengel's principal plumber was first baseman Marv Throneberry, a Dave Kingman prototype who had moderate power and was a miserable fielder. "Having Marv Throneberry play for your team is like having Willie Sutton work for your bank," writer Jimmy Breslin observed.
At a clubhouse celebration of Throneberry's birthday, Stengel said, "We was going to get him a birthday cake, but we figured he'd drop it," an example of Stengel's caustic wit often directed at his players through the press.
Stengel's Yankees years spanned the era between Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. DiMaggio, the epitome of elegance, and Stengel the clown never became close, but Stengel acknowledged DiMaggio as the greatest player he ever managed. Mantle was Stengel's greatest disappointment, even though he became the greatest switch hitter of all time; Stengel saw in Mantle's talent the potential to become the greatest player of all time.
Many observers, including Phil Rizzuto, the shortstop on Stengel's first six pennant winners, denigrated his ability as a manager, but his Yankees teams weren't overwhelmingly better than the rest of the league and squeaked to their pennants with an average margin of less than six games. They outdistanced the league by as many as 10 games just once under Stengel.
Stengel also showed that success could be fun. In 1960, Bill Veeck installed his fabulous exploding scoreboard at Comiskey Park, unleashing a conflagration of smoke and light after infrequent White Sox homers. When the Yankees visited, Stengel lined up his players on the top dugout step with lit sparklers to celebrate one of their homers.
Mantle, Martin and Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford were incorrigible "whiskey slicks," that's Stengelese for carousers, and took to calling one another "Slick." Not that Stengel minded drinking. He declared the team's road hotel bars off-limits to players "because that's where I do my drinking." Stengel once confronted thoroughly soused pitcher Mickey McDermott in a freight elevator long past curfew, shook his head and muttered, "Drunk again." McDermott replied sheepishly, "Me too."
The Yankees validated Stengel, first as an opposing player then as the pin stripe manager, but it was woeful Mets that made him beloved. In 1962, their first season, the Mets posted a record of 40-120, the most defeats in this century. "Can't anybody play this here game?" he implored.
In 1965, at age 75, Stengel called it quits as a manager, after fracturing his hip in a fall off a barstool at a Mets old-timers celebration. Selected to Cooperstown the following spring, Stengel used "Hall of Fame" as a coda to his signature for the rest of his life and continued making the rounds of old-timers' games and other baseball events.
Stengel's father watered the streets of Kansas City to prevent horses from raising excessive dust, but his son lived to see men walk on the moon and his "Amazin' " Mets win a world championship. When Stengel died September 29, 1975, at age 85, his funeral was delayed a week to allow baseball people to attend between playoff games -- "funeral postponed on account of game," biographer Robert Creamer noted.
Stengel would say, simply, as he often did when he related some incredible detail from the baseball history he observed, "You could look it up."