It’s easy to forget in the era of sports as big business, but there was a time when the ranks of professional sports were home to all manner of weirdos and rogues. Quirky characters with idiosyncratic ideas and strange speech were household names – particularly those involved in baseball, whose status as the national pastime was ironclad until just a few year ago.
And perhaps the most famous of them all was Casey Stengel.
Stengel’s lifelong affiliation with baseball – and his ever-present eccentricity – is documented by Marty Appel in his new book “Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character” (Doubleday, $27.95). It’s a story that covers most of the 20th century, examining the life of times of one of baseball’s most beloved figures.
Born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1890, Charles Dillon “Casey” Stengel was a gifted athlete who made the most of his abilities. He wound up signing a contract to play professional baseball while still a teenager; he would go on to play parts of 14 seasons in the major leagues (though he did hedge his bets in the early years by going to dental school in the offseason), playing for the Brooklyn Superbas (before they became known as the Dodgers), the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Philadelphia Phillies, the New York Giants and the Boston Braves.
It was a solid career – he batted .284 and accumulated over 1,200 hits over a period that spanned from the deadball era to the arrival of Babe Ruth and the home run explosion. However, it would be his exploits from the managerial seat that would eventually land him in the Hall of Fame.
It didn’t start out that way. His early stints with the Dodgers (1934-36) and the Braves (1938-43) saw him fail to even make it to the first division, finishing no higher than fifth. But some subsequent success with minor league outfits like the American Association’s Milwaukee Brewers and the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League led to Stengel getting the opportunity of a lifetime – manager of the New York Yankees.
What followed was an unprecedented run of on-field success – from 1949 through 1960, Stengel’s Yankees teams won 10 American League pennants and seven World Series. What’s more, his folksy mien and occasionally garbled syntax made him wildly popular with the writers of the day, who even had a term for Stengel’s speech – they called it Stengelese. Winning and aw-shucks charisma proved a potent combination; in many way, Stengel was THE face of Major League Baseball in the 1950s.
And it somehow got even better when Stengel – now in his 70s – took over at the helm of the expansion New York Mets in 1962. Despite the historic futility of those early Mets teams, Stengel made them interesting - even as they were losing over 100 games a year. In many ways, one could argue that the Mets were only able to make it through the lean years thanks to him.
He’d go on to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, with over 1,900 managerial wins to his credit over the course of his quarter-century stint on the bench. He’s the only man to wear the uniform of all four New York teams – the Yankees, Dodgers, Giants and Mets. And he is still considered by most to be the most unique character ever produced by a game that has seen plenty of them over the years.
This guy gave some four decades of his life to the game of baseball. And in many ways, baseball WAS his life. But Appel also finds ways to offer glimpses of the man behind the myth. There’s liberal use of more intimate correspondence – letters from Casey to his loved ones, excerpts from the unpublished memoir of his wife Edna – that allows the reader to experience Stengel as more than just a goofball or caricature.
This humanization of Stengel only serves to accentuate just how beloved he truly was. He was not some sort of media creation – the rambling-yet-brilliant Old Perfesser might have been a bit of a put-on, but ultimately, that was Casey Stengel.
Appel brings an easy prose style and a meticulous eye for detail to the table – an ideal combination for any biography, but a baseball biography in particular. He strikes a lovely balance between the nuts-and-bolts thoughtful manager and the court-holding, colloquialism-spouting character, uniting the two aspects of Stengel into one compelling narrative. And while there’s not a lot from outside the baseball realm – the man did spend 40 years in uniform, after all – there’s enough to remind us that in the end, Casey Stengel was simply a man who loved what he did.
“Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character” serves as both an exceptional introduction to one of baseball’s greats and a wonderful reminder of the game’s bygone era. Major League Baseball has seen a lot of characters come and go over the years – and will likely see more in the year to come – but it will never see another Casey Stengel.