By Glen Sparks
The New York Mets muddled their way through a laughably bad debut season of 1962. The Big Apple’s new National League squad, put into play after the Giants and Dodgers moved west in 1958, floundered first and quickly foundered.
By season’s end, the Mets had sunk to 40-120, 60 ½ games behind the pennant-winning San Francisco Giants. No team had finished with a sorrier record than the ’62 Mets since the Cleveland Spiders of 1899 ended the year 20-134, caught in their own web of ineptness.
Roger Craig led the ’62 Mets with 10 wins. But, he lost 24 times. Al Jackson also lost 20 games. Craig Anderson finished 3-17. If you add Jay Hook’s 8-19 mark and Bob Miller’s 1-12 record into the mix (and, at this point, why not?), the five Met hurlers with at least 14 starts finished a combined 30-92. (Some of those losses did come in relief. Still …)
Offensively, Frank Thomas, no, not the guy who just went into the Hall of Fame, was one of the lone bright spots. He hit 34 home runs and drove in 94 runs, playing half his games at the Mets’ first home ballpark, the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan. Marv Thornberry (more about him in a minute) added 16 home runs, while former Philadelphia Phillies star Richie Ashburn hit .306 in 389 at-bats. This still didn’t stop opponents from outscoring the Mets by 331 runs.
Casey Stengel managed this crew. He took the job just a few months after getting dumped by the Yankees. Casey had won seven World Series in the Bronx, with players like Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra.
With the Mets, he had Thomas, Ashburn, Craig and loose change. “Can’t anyone here play this game?” Stengel supposedly asked—pleaded?–on at least one occasion.
This may be the classic story that sums up the 1962 Mets: One time, Thornberry hit a triple. Or, so he thought. An umpire called Marv 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. (Thornberry also made 17 errors in ’62 … as a first baseman.)
Things were a little better in Houston. The Colt ‘45s, forerunner of the Astros, joined the Mets as an N.L. expansion team in 1962. The team played at Colts Stadium, a venue famous for holding both heat and humidity, welcoming vulture-sized mosquitos and offering Texas-sized hospitality to rattlesnakes that enjoyed lying in the outfield grass.
The Colt ‘45s claimed just one 20-game loser, Turk Ferrell 10-20. Of course, Turk put up an admirable 3.02 ERA (124 ERA+). So, he wasn’t half bad. Roman Mejiias, an expansion selection from the Pittsburgh Pirates, led the offense. The Cuban-born right-fielder hit 24 home runs, drive in 76 and batted .286. He put up a career-high 3.6 oWAR, remarkable because he retired with a 2.5 career oWAR over nine seasons. (That happens when you put up a season-long oWAR of 0.0 or lower six times.)
Houston actually started the year 31-36. Then, things fell apart. The Colt ’45s went 33-60 from there and finished 64-96 in ’62, good for eighth place in the N.L., 36.5 games out of first. (The Cubs at 59-103 neatly ended up in ninth place, between the Mets and Astros, 42.5 games behind San Francisco.)
So, expansion era baseball did not start well in the National League. Things were quite different when the American League grew by two teams in 1961, at least for one squad. In kicking off baseball’s expansion era, the A.L. introduced the new-look Washington Senators and the Los Angeles Angels (soon to be the California Angels, then the Anaheim Angels, then the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim).
The Angels finished a respectable 70-91 in their opening campaign. Even more impressively, they won 86 games the following year. Smartly, the team drafted young pitchers Ken McBride and Eli Grba (25 and 26 years old, respectively). Both men threw more than 200 innings in ’61 and both had an ERA+ of better than 100.
Dean Chance, another expansion-draft pick by the Angels, hit the baseball scene full-time in 1962. At age 21, he went 14-10 with a 2.96 ERA (130 ERA+). Two years later, the 6-foot-3-inch right-hander enjoyed one of the most overlooked seasons of the modern era. He finished 20-9 with a 1.65 ERA (200 ERA+) and a 9.3 WAR.
So, how did the Angels find so many good young pitchers in ’61, while the Mets were picking up 35-year-old Clem Labine and 32-year-old Roger Craig in ’62? Jack Moore writes on The Hardball Times web site that it wasn’t simply about scouting and good luck. Rather, he writes, the rules changed from one year to the next.
National owners decided they didn’t want the new clubs plucking off young pitching talent, as happened during the A.L. expansion draft. The Angels and Senators chose players from a much larger talent pool than did the Mets and Colt ‘45s.
“The new franchises were picking from the ranks of aging veterans, utility players and swingmen who would have certainly been released to make room for protected minor leaguers come December,” Moore writes.
The article is worth a look. Moore makes some good points. Things got so bad that the National League held a special draft in 1963 to help both New York and Houston. Even so, the Mets lost 100 games in five of their first seven seasons, and Houston didn’t enjoy a winning season until 1972.
Moore also shows some bias, political and otherwise. He also doesn’t mention that the Angels never really built on to their early success. The team didn’t make the playoffs until 1979 and didn’t win a World Series until 2002.
The Senators, meanwhile, playing under the same expansion rules as the Angels, flopped in their second go-round in the nation’s capital. They lost at least 100 games in their first four seasons, posted one winning season out of 11 in D.C., and played in decrepit RFK Stadium. That was more than enough. They left for the Dallas suburbs in 1972, becoming the Texas Rangers.
Maybe with those early Angels teams, it really was just a little bit of luck.
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.”
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