Baseball's clown genius, Casey Stengel (1890-1975) was known as much for his hilarious double-talk as he was for managing the New York Yankees and Mets. Nicknamed "The Old Perfessor," Stengel hid a fierce competitive drive behind his practical jokes and rambling monologues. His 14-year playing career was overshadowed by his 25-year career managing some of the best and worst teams in history.
When Yankees owner George Weiss picked Casey Stengel to take over as manager in 1948, reporters ridiculed his choice. During Stengel's playing days, he was known more for his antics than his baseball acumen. In nine years managing the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves, his teams had nine losing seasons. But Weiss's choice proved inspired. Stengel became the most popular and influential manager in baseball, a star in New York City and a national celebrity. Along the way, he won more World Series games than any manager in history.
Played the Clown
Charles Dillon Stengel was the last of three children born in Kansas City, Missouri on July 30, 1890, to Jennie Jordan, a cook, and Louis E. Stengel, an insurance agent. At Central High School, he played football, basketball, and baseball. A left-handed thrower, Stengel pitched and also played third base and second base, positions rarely handled by lefties.
Stengel planned to be a dentist and went to dental college in the off-season while playing ball in the summer. After playing for the semi-pro Kansas City Red Sox in 1908 and 1909, Stengel began his professional career in 1910 as a pitcher with Kankakee, Illinois, in the Northern Association. Soon he switched to the outfield, even though he had rarely played there before. Stengel spent five years in the minor leagues, playing for four teams. Even in those early days, he was a clown. During one game at Montgomery, Alabama, in 1912, he disappeared into a drainage hole in the outfield and popped up just in time to catch a fly ball.
Stengel debuted in the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers near the end of the 1912 season. In his first game he had four hits and a walk, and in his first week he batted .478. The Sporting News exclaimed: "Charlie Stengel has come into the league with a tremendous crash, and appears to be the real thing."
Stengel soon acquired the nickname "KC" because he had grown up in Kansas City. Also at the time, the famous poem "Casey at the Bat" was a hit on the vaudeville circuit. When Stengel struck out a caustic fan might yell: "Hey, there's Casey at the bat!" From then on Stengel was Casey.
Stengel was a speedy, sometimes spectacular outfielder. He worked hard on his fielding, coming to Ebbets Field early and bouncing balls off the right field wall to learn the caroms. He was one of the first outfielders to wear sunglasses. As a hitter, he showed occasional power but was streaky, with long slumps. "I was very erratic," Stengel said in his 1961 autobiography Casey at the Bat. "Some days I was amazing, some days I wasn't."
During much of his career, Stengel was a part-time player. Brooklyn manager Wilbert Robinson rarely let him play against left-handed pitchers, an early example of platooning, a system Stengel would later popularize as a manager. Stengel spent six seasons with Brooklyn, including an appearance in the World Series in 1916, then two with the Pittsburgh Pirates and two more with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Stengel's antics overshadowed his abilities. Sometimes he'd draw laughs by catching easy fly balls behind his back. In 1919, Stengel was playing for Pittsburgh at Ebbets Field. He doffed his cap to the crowd and out flew a sparrow. He repeated the trick in 1920 in Philadelphia.
In 1921, Stengel was being traded to the powerhouse New York Giants. Legendary Giants manager John McGraw, a fiery, brilliant tactician, took Stengel under his wing. McGraw often used Stengel as a first-base coach and had him work with younger players. Stengel often visited McGraw's home and talked baseball.
In 1922 and 1923, Stengel hit .368 and .339 and appeared in two World Series with the Giants. He was a hero in the 1923 Series, winning the first game with a two-out, inside-the-park, ninth-inning home run and scoring the only run of the third game with a home run into the bleachers. Stengel's were the first World Series home runs ever hit in Yankee Stadium. In his three World Series games as a player, Stengel hit a robust .393.
Despite McGraw's affection for Stengel, he could see that leg injuries were slowing him. He traded his protégéto the Boston Braves. Stengel retired as a player in 1925, ending a career during which he batted .284 and averaged only 300 at-bats a season.
Ups and Downs
In 1924, Stengel married Edna Lawson, an accountant he met at a ball game in 1923. They established a home in Glendale, California, where Lawson's father was a contractor. They had no children. Stengel poured his fatherly instincts into working with hundreds of young players.
In 1925, Stengel took his first managerial job, at Worcester in the Eastern League. In 1926, he took over at Toledo, an American Association club. He managed the Mud Hens for six years, bringing the franchise its first championship in 1927, and hitting a game-winning grand slam home run as a pinch-hitter in one game. But the club faltered after that. In Toledo, Stengel had frequent run-ins with umpires. And one day he forgot to put his pants on before going on the field for pre-game practice. From then on, fans yelled, "Casey, where are your pants?"
Stengel returned to New York in 1932 as a coach for Brooklyn. He took over as manager in 1934. During his three years there, the Dodgers were a losing team, but Stengel kept the fans entertained. In 1938, Stengel began a six-year stint with the Boston Braves, but the club finished seventh four years in a row.
In 1944, Stengel returned to the minor leagues to manage Milwaukee. He took over at Kansas City in 1945 and ran the Oakland team from 1946 through 1948. All were minor-league teams in cities that later would have major-league clubs. In his autobiography, Casey at the Bat: The Story of My Life in Baseball, Stengel admitted there were "half a dozen times … that I was going to quit baseball altogether."
A Yankee Institution
Nothing in Stengel's career suggested what lay ahead when he took the helm of the Yankees in 1949. To baseball's premiere club, Stengel brought only a lackluster managerial record and a reputation for silliness. But he soon made his mark. Despite an injury which sidelined Joe DiMaggio for 65 games, Stengel brought the Yankees a world championship in his first season.
During the 12 years Stengel managed the Yankees, they appeared in ten World Series, winning seven of them. Stengel holds the record for most World Series wins by a manager, 37, and most Series games managed, 63. He became a Yankee institution, as famous as his star players, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra.
Stengel may not have invented platooning, but he popularized it. Until his Yankee days, most clubs stayed with a set lineup day in and day out. Stengel juggled lineups regularly, often playing a catcher in the outfield or an outfielder at first base, trying to get the most out of his 25-man roster and allowing slumping or injured players to rest.
Players had mixed feelings about Stengel. Clubhouse meetings might last an hour or more, with Stengel talking non-stop. "He confused a lot of players," complained star shortstop Phil Rizzuto. He also confused reporters, but they learned to love him. With his tortured syntax that became known as "Stengelese," the beak-nosed manager made great copy. He became a national celebrity, the subject of features in popular magazines, and a legend in his own time. Stengel was a clownish philosopher who proved winning and having fun were compatible.
Stengel anecdotes are abundant. One time, Stengel went to the mound to remove a pitcher. "I'm not tired," said the pitcher. Stengel replied: "I'm tired of you." Watching Jerry Lumpe in batting practice he told reporters: "He looks like the greatest hitter in the world until you play him." Another time he sat down next to Bob Cerv and told him: "Nobody knows this, but one of us has just been traded to Kansas City."
In vintage Stengelese, he once said of a speedy, weak-hitting player: "That feller runs splendid but he needs help at the plate, which coming from the country chasing rabbits all winter gives him strong legs, although he broke one falling out of a tree, which shows you can't tell, and when a curve ball comes he waves at it, and if pitchers don't throw curves you have no pitching staff, so how is a manager going to know whether to tell boys to fall out of trees and break legs so he can run fast even if he can't hit a curve ball?"
Stengel often performed clubhouse routines, practical jokes, and pantomimes, one time sliding across a Detroit hotel lobby to illustrate his game-winning 1923 Series home run. Comedian George Gobel said: "If he turned pro, he'd put us all out of business." In Casey: The Life and Legend of Charles Dillon Stengel, biographer Joseph Durso summarized Stengel as "a national figure, an average player, a controversial coach… a mixture of Santa Claus and Jimmy Durante as he duck-walked out to home plate with his lineup card."
Rizzuto said Stengel "had two tempers, one for the public and writers, and one for the players under him. The players were frequently dressed down in the dugout and clubhouse. He could charm the shoes off you if he wanted to, but he could also be rough." Stengel had plenty of other critics, too. A frequent charge was that he "over-managed" players. Some said anybody could have won with the great Yankee clubs of the 1950s.
In 1958, Stengel testified before a United States Senate committee which was investigating baseball's anti-trust exemption. His 45-minute, 7,000-word "Stengelese" monologue had senators and reporters scratching their heads and laughing uproariously. Sports Illustrated called the testimony "an amazingly frank, cheerful, shrewd, patriotic address that left the senators stunned, bewildered, and delighted."
After the 1960 season, Yankee officials announced they were letting Stengel go. Club executive Dan Topping explained later: "I'm just sorry Casey isn't fifty years old… . It's best for the future to make a change." Casey said: "I'll never make the mistake of being seventy again."
Casey turned down an offer to manage the Detroit Tigers. Then, at 71, he signed a contract to manage a new team, the New York Mets, for the 1962 season. Talking about his age and his health at a press conference, he noted: "Most people my age are dead at the present time." The Mets wanted Stengel as a distraction. "The idea was that the Mets would entertain the public with a kind of Circus Maximus," Durso wrote. "The ringleader: Casey Stengel."
On taking the reins, Stengel announced: "Come see my amazin' Mets, which in some cases have only played semi-pro ball." The name stuck, and the Mets became known as the "Amazin's," because of how frequently and ingeniously they lost. During Stengel's four years, the Mets won 194 games and lost 452. The zanier and more inept the club grew, the more attendance soared. Stengel often mocked his own players. "I been in this game a hundred years but I see new ways to lose I never knew existed before," he said.
After Stengel suffered a broken hip in July 1965, he retired a month later at the age of 75. His career as a baseball manager spanned 25 years and included three bad ball clubs and one great club. His teams won 1,905 games and lost 1,842. The baseball writers waived the standard five-year waiting rule and immediately elected Stengel unanimously to the Hall of Fame. Stengel died of lymphatic cancer in Glendale, California on September 29, 1975.
Further Reading on Casey Stengel
Alexander, Charles, John McGraw, Penguin, 1988.
Creamer, Robert W., Stengel: His Life and Times, Dell, 1984.
Durso, Joseph, Casey: The Life and Legend of Charles Dillon Stengel, Prentice-Hall, 1967.
McLean, Norman, Casey Stengel, Drake, 1976.
Seymour, Harold, Baseball: The Golden Age, Oxford University Press, 1971.
Stengel, Casey, and Harry Paxton, Casey at the Bat: The Story of My Life in Baseball, Random House, 1961. □