Stengel, Charles Dillon ("Casey")

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STENGEL, Charles Dillon ("Casey")

(b. 30 July 1890 in Kansas City, Missouri; d. 29 September 1975 in Glendale, California), baseball player and one of the most popular and successful managers in baseball history.

Stengel was the youngest of three children of Louis E. Stengel, an insurance agent and owner of a street-sprinkling company, and Jennie Jordan Stengel, a homemaker and granddaughter of a federal judge. An outstanding high school athlete, Stengel signed a professional baseball contract in 1910 that paid him $135 a month. A left-handed outfielder, he played in such minor league outposts as Maysville, Kentucky, and Montgomery, Alabama, over the next two seasons. He attended the Western Dental School in Kansas City during the offseason, but he soon abandoned a prospective career in dentistry. As he explained, "I didn't go back to school, because I had a different job I liked better." Stengel's baseball contract was sold to Brooklyn in September 1912.

Stengel spent part or all of the next fifteen seasons as an outfielder in the major leagues, all with National League (NL) teams in Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. He was an above average player, batting .284 with 60 home runs in his career. His best seasons were 1914, when he batted .316, the fifth highest average in the NL; 1917, when he led the league in outfield assists with 30; and 1922, when he batted .368 for John McGraw's New York Giants. He was a .394 hitter in three World Series (1916 with Brooklyn; 1922 and 1923 with New York). Stengel was most famous as a player for his inside-the-park home run to win game one of the 1923 World Series for the Giants, the first home run hit in a World Series game at Yankee Stadium. With characteristic modesty, Stengel later downplayed his achievements as a player. As he explained, "I had many years that I was not so successful as a ballplayer, as it is a game of skill."

Stengel also earned a reputation as a clown. At a game in Brooklyn in May 1919, he released a sparrow from under his cap as he was about to bat. "The higher-ups complained I wasn't showing a serious attitude by hiding a sparrow in my hat," he remembered later, "but I said any day I got three hits, I figure I am showing a more serious attitude than a lot of players with no sparrows in their hats." He also began to speak to reporters in tortured syntax and fractured words woven around rambling digressions, a style of speech that came to be known as "Stengelese." Stengel's most famous outing as an orator was before the 1958 U.S. Senate committee investigating baseball's antitrust exemption. Senators and reporters alike found his forty-five minute patriotic address wildly funny and utterly baffling. According to Stengel, Ring Lardner, who featured Stengel as a character in several baseball stories for the Saturday Evening Post in 1932, once advised him, "'Just keep talking, and I'll get a story.' And that's what I did as a manager."

And it was as a manager that Stengel left his greatest mark on the game. He had spent six weeks in 1914 helping to coach the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) team—hence his "Ol' Perfesser" nickname. He became a player-manager for Worcester in the Eastern League in 1925, moving to Toledo in the American Association (AA) from 1926 to 1931, before becoming a coach and then manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1932 to 1936. Between 1938 and 1943 he managed the Boston Braves. When he left the Braves, he was fifty-three years old and had been a manager for sixteen seasons. After managing the Toledo Mud Hens to a pennant in 1927, however, he then led a team that finished higher than fifth only once. All of the nine major league teams he managed had finished in the second division. Or as Stengel put it: "After being in the minor leagues as a manager, I became a major-league manager in several cities and was discharged; we call it 'discharged,' because there is no question I had to leave."

After leading Milwaukee to the American Association pennant in 1944 and Oakland to the Pacific Coast League pennant in 1948, Stengel was the surprise choice to manage the New York Yankees. As Lee MacPhail, the Yankee farm director, later said, "The feeling around the Yankees in those days was that the Yankees had hired a clown." Stengel managed the New York Yankees for the next twelve seasons, from 1949 to 1960, and none of his teams finished with a losing record. In fact, during Stengel's tenure the Yankees were world champions seven times, including five straight years from 1949 to 1953; they also won ten AL championships. To be sure, he was surrounded by talent, including such future Hall of Famers as Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, and Whitey Ford. Stengel was famous for his strategy of platooning, or freely substituting players to address changing circumstances on the field. "My platoon thinking started with the way McGraw handled me in my last years on the Giants," he once explained. "He had me in and out of the lineup, and he used me all around the outfield. He put me in when and where he thought I could do the most good." Stengel also founded a spring Instructional League for young players. However, he was not without his detractors, among them Rizzuto and sportscaster Howard Cosell, but he was generally credited with molding the Yankees into a dynasty.

Stengel was fired as manager of the Yankees after their loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1960 World Series. "I'll never make the mistake of turning seventy again," he said. He came out of retirement in 1962 to become the first manager of a NL expansion team, the New York Mets. Stengel promised before the Mets played a game that "if it ever gets to where I'm going to handicap this new machine, I'll be the first to know it, and I'll step out of the picture." In 1964, his last full season with the team, the last-place Mets attracted more spectators than the two-time world champion Yankees, 1.7 million to 1.3 million. The "Amazin' Mets" may not have been a competitive success on the field, but they were a commercial success largely as a result of Stengel's knack at promotion. After suffering a broken hip in late July 1965, he formally retired as Mets manager on 30 August 1965. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on 25 July 1966.

Although he was a comic figure with a craggy face and bandy legs, Stengel was also an astute investor in oil, and he retired to a bank vice presidency in Glendale, California, his home since his marriage to Edna Lawson on 18 August 1924. The Stengels, who had no children, lived in the same house in Glendale from 1924 until 1975. After his death from cancer in 1975, Stengel was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale.

Shortly after he left the Yankees, Stengel (with Harry T. Paxton) prepared an autobiography entitled Casey at the Bat: The Story of My Life in Baseball (1962), an indispensable anecdotal source about his life. The best of several biographies is Robert W. Creamer, Stengel: His Life and Times (1984). Richard Bak, Casey Stengel: A Splendid Baseball Life (1997), is lavishly illustrated. See also Joseph Durso, Casey: The Life and Legend of Charles Dillon Stengel (1967), and Maury Allen, You Could Look It Up: The Life of Casey Stengel (1979). An obituary is in the New York Times (1 Oct. 1975).

Gary Scharnhorst