By Glen Sparks
“Good hitting will always stop good pitching, and vice versa.” – Casey Stengel (and others)
Casey Stengel, “The Old Perfessor” to some, led the New York Yankees to 10 pennants and seven World championships as manager. He liked platoons, ground ball pitchers and a drink or two. He hated that he could never turn Mickey Mantle into the greatest player ever. He said stuff like, “Well, I’ve made up my mind, but I’ve made it up both ways.” The Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly loved him (more on that in Part II).
Why did people call him “Casey”?
Charles Dillon Stengel, born July 30, 1890, hailed from Kansas City (K.C.), Mo. Teammates ditched the nickname “K.C” for “Casey” as a nod to the popular poem “Casey at the Bat.” Stengel starred in basketball and baseball at Central High School. He played fullback on the football team. The Kansas City Blues, a minor-league baseball team, signed him in 1910 for $135 a month. The Blues converted the left-handed Casey from a pitcher into an outfielder, but not without difficulty. The future manager didn’t always take to coaching.
“You ought to be a pool player. You’ve got a head as hard as a billiard ball.” – Kansas City Blues Manager Danny Shay
What if Casey had washed out as a baseball player?
Not surprisingly, Stengel had a back-up plan. He attended dental school in the offseason. Always a clown, Casey liked to stick cigars into the mouths of cadavers. When contract talks didn’t go well in the early part of his career, Stengel talked up his fondness for dentistry.
Could he play?
Yep. Stengel didn’t bat like the typical dead-ball hitter, though. He gripped the bat down at the knob and swung hard. He hit with some pop, but pitchers sometimes fooled him with off-speed stuff and spitballs. The outfielder struck out quite a bit, in part due to his mighty cut.
“He’s a dandy ballplayer, but it’s all from the neck down.” – (At least) one major league scout
Stengel spent 14 seasons in the big leagues, 1912-25. He broke in with the Dodgers, and later played for the Pirates, Phillies, Giants and Braves. He belted 60 career home runs and hit .284. Some of his numbers might look a bit dowdy, but we need to put them into context. Players just didn’t hit a lot of home runs during that era. Casey finished in the top 10 in home runs and slugging percentage four times each. He led the National League in on-base percentage in 1914 while a Dodger.
“I was such a dangerous hitter I even got intentional walks during batting practice.” – Casey Stengel
Unfortunately, maybe inevitably, Casey gained a rep for not always being serious about his day job. Casey did some goofy stuff. He liked to walk out for batting practice with his uniform on backward. One of his favorite pranks was the hidden bird trick. Casey would tuck a sparrow underneath his cap. At just the right moment—like after he had caught a fly ball and all the fans were looking at him—he’d tip his cap and the bird would fly away. The crowd loved it.
Stengel retired as a player after going 1 for 13 (.077) to start the 1925 season with the Braves. He needed to find another line of work.
“If you’re playing baseball and thinking about managing, you’re crazy. You’d be better off thinking about being an owner.” – Casey Stengel