By Glen Sparks
“All I ask is that you bust your heiny on the field.” – Casey Stengel
When you think about it, why would you want Mickey Mantle to bunt? Even so, Casey ordered one of the game’s great power hitters to take lessons on how to tap a baseball 20 feet. Stengel also asked the Mick to cut down on his swing. Mantle just rolled his eyes. Robert Creamer writes about this in his splendid biography Stengel: His Life and Times.
More successfully, Stengel converted Mantle from a shortstop into a Hall of Fame outfielder. He also converted Yogi Berra from an outfielder into a Hall of Fame catcher.
Some players, and not just Mantle, never quite figured out Stengel. Joe DiMaggio, already a regal veteran, agreed with a sportswriter that Casey looked “bewildered” his first day on the job.
The Ol’ Perfessor and the Yankee Clipper spent three seasons together as player and manager. There were long periods when they barely spoke to one another. Stengel’s response when a reporter asked about the situation: “So, what?” Casey just wanted DiMaggio to hit. He could find conversation elsewhere.
Casey was frequently combative and sarcastic, loud and egotistical. But he always liked to teach. The ideal Stengel player listened and waited for his turn to perform. Stengel mixed and matched and got every player involved, from star to scrub. Sometimes, he’d send up a pinch-hitter in the second or third inning. A player couldn’t hide on a Stengel team. “We’re paying 25 men. We might as well let them earn their money.”
On the mound, Casey looked for a guy like Eddie Lopat, who could throw ground ball after ground ball. Keep the ball low in the strike zone and keep it inside the park, Stengel instructed. Let ‘em hit into a double play.
The plan worked. Did it ever. Casey managed the Yankees for 12 seasons. His teams went 1,149-696, a .623 winning percentage. They brought home 10 pennants and seven World Series. Casey is tied with Joe McCarthy, another Yankee manager, for most championships. He is tops in World Series wins with 37.
“I never saw a man who juggled his lineup so much and who played so many hunches so successfully.” – Connie Mack on Casey Stengel
How did such a seemingly flaky character like Casey even get into managing?
Casey joked around and amused fans with the hidden bird trick (See Part I), but he always played hard. The ballpark was home, and he finally decided that dentistry wasn’t for him. So, why not get into managing? He led an assortment of minor league clubs and skippered the Brooklyn Dodgers (1934-36) and Boston Braves (1938-43) in the majors. In 1948, Stengel took the Oakland Oaks to the Pacific Coast League pennant. That fall, the Yankees fired Bucky Harris, who had won a championship with the 1947 team but who had the bad luck to finish third the following season. New York needed a skipper.
“I’ve got just the man for you. Stengel.” – Yankee Associate G.M. George Weiss.
“That clown?!” –Yankee G.M. Ed Barrow
The Yankees introduced Stengel as manager on Oct. 12, 1949. Casey was 58 years old but looked older. He had never finished higher than fifth place (in an eight-team league) in the big leagues. Weiss, though, liked that Stengel worked so hard to help players improve. With the Oaks, Casey hit hundreds of grounders to a young second baseman named Billy Martin. Casey yelled at Martin and joked with him. He did everything he could to make Billy a better ballplayer.
People didn’t expect the Yankees to do much in ’49. The Red Sox, featuring the great Ted Williams, were the favorite in the American League.
Casey nurtured his squad. He juggled outfielders and brought along Berra. The Yankees relied on timely hitting from Yogi and first baseman Tommy Henrich. An oft-injured Joe DiMaggio only got into 76 games, but the Yankee Clipper batted .346 with 14 home runs and 67 RBI. The starting rotation (Lopat, Vic Raschi, Allie Reynolds and Tommy Byrne) threw lots of grounders, much to Casey’s delight, and the Yankees won the pennant on the final day of the season. They knocked off the Brooklyn Dodgers in five games to win the World Series.
“Babe, I won one. I finally won one.” – Stengel to long-time friend and former ballplayer “Babe” Herman
What did the Yankees do for an encore?
Casey’s teams beat the Phillies in 1950, the Giants in ’51, the Dodgers in ’52 and again in ’53. No team had won five straight World Series before the Yankees of 1949-53.
Oddly, the first Stengel-run Yankee team to not win a championship was the ’54 squad that went 103-5. That team didn’t even win the pennant; the Indians went 111-43. No worries, though. The Yankees went back to the World Series for the next four seasons, winning in ’56 and ’58.
“The Yankees don’t pay me to win every day, just two out of three.” – Casey Stengel
We know Mantle didn’t take to bunting. Other than that, how did he and Casey get along?
Casey couldn’t believe it when he first saw the blond-haired kid from Commerce, Okla. The Mick was 19. He could run, he could hit, he could crush baseballs out of anywhere. And the throwing arm, my gosh. Casey wanted to mold Mantle into someone greater than Ruth or Cobb. … But. … Casey hated that Mantle sulked, that he kept getting hurt, that he went fishing and hunting in the offseason rather than sticking to some sort of official exercise plan. Creamer called Casey-Mickey a father-son relationship, but one with “an angry father and a stubborn son.”
“The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.” – Casey Stengel
Did Casey communicate, or did he confuse?
Casey spoke a type of English some people dubbed “Stengelese.” He famously put his long-winded, hither-thither manner of speaking on display July 8, 1958, inside the old Senate Caucus Room in Washington, D.C. Committee members had invited Casey to testify about baseball’s anti-trust exemption. Casey rambled on for 45 minutes and left Republicans and Democrats in stitches. Among the laugh lines: “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.”
The committee also had invited Mickey Mantle to testify. Mantle spoke right after Casey. Wisely, the Mick kept it short.
“My views are about the same as Casey’s” – Mickey Mantle
Casey’s ’59 Yankee team went 79-75 (.513) and finished in third place. That was his worst team by far in New York, 85 percentage points behind the second “worst” — the ’58 championship squad that went 92-62 (.597). Thanks to Roger Maris (61 home runs) and Mantle (54), the Bronx Bombers of 1960 rebounded with a 97-57 record and won the A.L. pennant.
What happened Oct. 13, 1960, in Game 7 of the World Series?
Bill Mazeroski hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning off the Yanks’ Ralph Terry. Maz circled the bases at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field and greeted dozens of on-rushing fans. The Pirates won the Series despite being outscored 55-27.
The Yankees held a press conference at the Savoy Hilton Hotel one week later. Casey was through as manager, and he didn’t say why. “Write anything you want. Quit, fired, whatever you please. I don’t care.” Some said New York’s Old Perfessor could not handle the workload at his age.
“I’ll never make the mistake of turning 70 again.” – Casey Stengel
Did Casey quit managing after his Yankee career ended?
No, he took on his greatest challenge. Maybe, too, he drank a little bit more of that bourbon he loved. To calm his nerves, you see. He left the Yankees for the expansion Mets, who were awful. One great story sums up Casey’s time with New York’s new N.L. team. The story centers on “Marvelous” Marv Thornberry, the gaffe-prone Mets’ first baseman. One time, Marv hit a triple. Or, so he thought. An umpire called Thornberry out for missing third base. Casey ambled out to argue. The second-base umpire ran over and told Casey to quit complaining. Marv missed that bag, too.
Casey spent four seasons with the Mets and went 175-404, a .302 winning percentage. Clunk.
“Can’t anybody here play this game?” – attributed to Stengel but actually written by columnist Jimmy Breslin
Stengel retired as the Mets’ manager Aug. 30, 1965, shortly after breaking a hip. Cooperstown came calling the next year. So did the banquet circuit. Casey died Sept. 29, 1975, in Glendale Calif., age 85. He is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery. A few years before his death, the skipper/linguist provided a more than adequate epithet on his life and career:
“There comes a time in every man’s life, and I’ve had plenty of them.”