Steven V. Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University.

In 1925, Casey Stengel was a player-manager for the minor league Worchester Panthers, while Leo Durocher was a rookie shortstop for the Hartford Senators. The two men became “early and easy adversaries,” writes Durocher biographer Paul Dickson, and before a game between their teams, Stengel went out to the shortstop position and scratched Durocher’s batting average in the dirt — a paltry .208. As Stengel later recalled: “You ought to have seen his face when he came out and saw that. Of course, he knew then that I was a big smart aleck, the same as himself.”

Big smart alecks they certainly were, and their paths crossed many times as they each carved an enduring place in the history of mid-century baseball. In 1936 they actually got into a fistfight when Casey was managing the Brooklyn Dodgers and Leo was playing for the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1951, they faced each other in the World Series, with Stengel’s New York Yankees besting Durocher’s New York Giants in six games.

Today both men are in the Hall of Fame, two of only 23 managers accorded that honor. Both are subjects of new biographies, and both are certainly worth the attention. I confess to a special affection for Stengel, who started managing the Yanks in 1949, the same year I started rooting for them. But Dickson’s treatment of Durocher is more readable than Marty Appel’s Stengel book — better pacing, tighter writing and a stronger sense of his subject’s place in the larger American culture.

(Bloomsbury USA)

“Baseball was more than a game to Durocher — it was theater,” Dickson writes, and the same could be said of Stengel. They each played a carefully crafted character and understood that colorful figures could broaden the appeal of the game and bring in new fans, including women. “You can’t hold yourself aloof from the customers,” Stengel once said. “The fans make baseball possible. Don’t ever forget that.”

Both men craved adulation. Stengel closed a lot of bars over the years, but as sportswriter Tom Meany shrewdly observed, “His thirst is not for alcohol, but for an audience.” Dick Young of the New York Daily News wrote of Durocher: “He sucks up attention. His ego must be fed more than his stomach or he will perish.”

For much of their careers, Stengel and Durocher starred on the biggest stage of all, the Big Apple. Stengel played on two New York teams (Dodgers, Giants) and managed three (Dodgers, Yankees, Mets). He hit the first home run in Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field after it opened in 1913, and in 1923, playing for the Giants, he hit the first World Series home run in Yankee Stadium.

Durocher did two New York tours as a player (Yankees, Dodgers) and two as a manager. In fact he was fired by the Dodgers, and immediately hired to run the Giants, in the middle of the 1948 season. That stunning switch has been called “the greatest managerial shakeup in baseball history.”

Stengel was the better hitter (a .284 lifetime average to Durocher’s .247), but Durocher was described by Damon Runyon as “one of the greatest fielding shortstops of all time.” As a manager, Durocher won more games (2,008 to Stengel’s 1,905), but Stengel was far superior in the postseason, winning 10 pennants and seven World Series titles, while Durocher claimed only three pennants and a single championship, in 1954. But even a die-hard Yankees fan has to admit that Stengel benefited from superior players when he won all those rings — Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Whitey Ford. “Stengel started out as a clown,” cracked one of his players, Tommy Henrich. “When he won, he became a genius.”

If Stengel and Durocher were both big smart alecks, they carried themselves in very different ways. Stengel was the good guy, Durocher the bad boy; Stengel buttered people up, Durocher cut them down. Stengel charmed sportswriters with “Stengelese,” his own garbled but insightful syntax replete with sayings like, “Good pitching will always stop good hitting and vice versa.” Durocher was often at war with reporters, banning most of them from the clubhouse at one point, and they “hated him” in return. Stengel’s affectionate nickname was “the Ol’ Perfessor,” while Durocher was known as “the Lip.” After his death Stengel was eulogized by one of his players, Richie Ashburn, as “the happiest man I’ve ever seen.” Durocher was called “the least liked figure in the National League.”

Compare two famous stories. In 1919, while playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Stengel noticed that a small sparrow had knocked itself senseless banging into the bullpen wall. He put it under his hat when he came to bat, and Appel describes the scene: “Casey proceeded to face the fans and, in one motion, took a deep bow and removed his cap, permitting the now recovered sparrow to fly off triumphantly.” The New York Times called him a “magician,” and a half-century later, the image of Stengel and the bird was featured on the cover of a children’s book about baseball.

Durocher was notorious for stealing a watch from Babe Ruth when they both played for the Yankees. Years later their long-standing feud broke into a shoving match, and Durocher “began slapping [the] face” of the most beloved figure in major league history. His most quoted line became the title of a memoir, “Nice Guys Finish Last.”

(Doubleday)

Stengel married once, to Edna Lawson, and they stayed married for 51 years, until his death in 1975. He gave her his paychecks and became wealthy investing in oil wells. Durocher married and divorced four times, but his most famous wife was No. 3, actress Laraine Day. “For many Americans, Durocher symbolized the guy from the wrong side of the tracks who got to marry the movie star,” Dickson wrotes.

During the offseason, both men returned to Southern California, but Stengel stayed placidly in Edna’s home town of Glendale, while Durocher headed for Hollywood, just a few miles away, where he hung out with pals like Frank Sinatra, boasted about losing “prodigious amounts” at the race track and joined high-stakes card games at the Friars Club.

One revealing difference between the two men was their treatment of black players. In the spring of 1947 Durocher was managing the Dodgers as Jackie Robinson was preparing to break the color barrier. When mutinous players signed a petition protesting the move, Durocher called a team meeting and declared: “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black or if he has stripes like a f---in’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team and he plays.”

The Yankees and Stengel lagged far behind and didn’t add their first black player, catcher Elston Howard, until eight years later. Stengel cracked to some writers, “I finally get a n----- and he can’t run,” and as Appel writes, “For the rest of his life, this one line would be cited as an example of his racism.”

The Ol’ Perfessor and the Lip had very different styles and temperaments, but they shared a basic understanding: Baseball is a game, an entertainment. Yes, theater. And for a good chunk of the 20th century, these consummate actors made baseball fun for generations of fans. Not a bad legacy.

Leo Durocher
Baseball’s Prodigal Son

By Paul Dickson

Bloomsbury. 357 pp. $28

Casey Stengel
Baseball’s Greatest Character

By Marty Appel

Doubleday. 410 pp. $27.95