Stengel, Casey (1890-1975)

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Stengel, Casey (1890-1975)

Baseball legend Casey Stengel spent fifty-five years in baseball as both player and manager. He is best remembered for managing the highly successful New York Yankees and the highly unsuccessful New York Mets. While his management skills sustained his career, his outrageous use of the English language gained him equal fame.

He was born Charles Dillon Stengel in Kansas City, Kansas, and began playing semiprofessional baseball while in high school, where he was known as "Dutch" because of his German ancestry. An outfielder, he played with different minor league teams before joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1912. It was there he acquired the nickname "K.C." because he was from Kansas City, a nickname that soon eased into "Casey," after the poem Casey at the Bat. After Brooklyn, he played major league ball for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1918-19, with time out for the U.S. Navy), Philadelphia Phillies (1920-21), New York Giants (1921-23, where in 1923 he batted.339 and won two World Series games with two home runs), and the Boston Braves (1924-25). He ended his playing career as a player-manager for the minor league Toledo (Ohio) Mud Hens.

Stengel was a jokester and a fighter, and was thrown out of many games both as a player and a manager. For one of his early pranks, he stepped back from the plate, doffed his hat, and out flew a sparrow. The fans loved his antics. Stengel was also famous for his "Stengelese," with statements such as "I've always heard it couldn't be done, but sometimes it don't always work." Yet, he could be succinct and telling: when he married his wife in 1924 he said of himself in the third person, "It is the best catch he ever made in his career." He said of Willie Mays, who played in a notoriously windy Candlestick Park in San Francisco: "If a typhoon is blowing, he catches the ball." Sometimes he could describe someone in a phrase: a nervous batter had "jelly leg," bad players were "road apples," rookies were "green peas," and a player who didn't carouse was a "milkshake drinker."

From 1934 to 1948, Stengel managed the Dodgers, Boston Braves, Milwaukee Brewers, Kansas City Blues, and Oakland Oaks. In October of 1948, the Stengel legend began when he was named manager of the Yankees. In Stengel's first year as manager the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series and went on to win six more out of ten appearances under Stengel, thus being the team to beat in the 1950s. Stengel managed such outstanding players as Joe DiMaggio, Billy Martin, Yogi Berra, and Mickey Mantle. Stengel's critics said that anyone with that kind of talent playing for him could win, and many wouldn't give him credit for his knowledge of baseball and players. "Ability," Stengel once said, "is the art of getting credit for all the home runs someone else hits." His ability ran out when the Yankees lost the World Series to the Pirates in 1960 and he was fired, although the public story was that he was stepping aside as part of a youth movement at the Yankees. A bitter seventy-year-old Stengel quipped: "I'll never make the mistake of being seventy again."

He was down, but not out. A year later he was the manager of the expansion National League New York Mets, a team he was to call the "Amazin' Mets." What was amazing was that they ever took the field. In his four seasons as manager, the team never played better than.327. "The only thing worse than a Mets game was a Mets doubleheader," Stengel once said, and "Without losers, where would the winners be?" But because they were bad, they were endearing and they drew a better crowd than their cross-town rivals, the Yankees, viewed by many as an elitist team.

A broken hip finished Stengel's managing career. He retired one month after turning seventy-five. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame on a fast-track vote. The honor was obviously important to him, for afterward he signed his letters "Casey Stengel, N.Y. Mets & Hall of Famer." Stengel died the day after the 1975 season ended.

—R. Thomas Berner

Further Reading:

Bak, Richard. Casey Stengel: A Splendid Baseball Life. Dallas, Taylor Publishing, 1997.

Berkow, Ira, and Jim Kaplan. The Gospel According to Casey. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Creamer, Robert W. Stengel: His Life and Times. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1984.

Durso, Joseph. Casey: The Life and Legend of Charles Dillon Stengel. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 1967.