Wisecracking Stengel made baseball fun

Updated: May 10, 2005, 6:09 PM ET
By Nick Acocella | Special to ESPN.com

"I don't think anybody could have managed our club like Casey did. He made what some people call stupid moves, but about eight or nine out of ten of them worked," says Don Larsen about Casey Stengel on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Stengel managed the Yankees to 1,149-696 record.
Casey Stengel went from being perceived as a clown to a gifted raconteur who made more sense than was immediately apparent to a venerable old man wisecracking his way through his twilight seasons with an expansion club. What was often lost in all three views was a shrewdness that made Stengel a millionaire from oil and banking interests and a guile that made him the only manager ever to win five consecutive world championships, or even five straight pennants. He accomplished this feat with the New York Yankees from 1949-53.

As a player, Stengel was a 5-foot-11, 175-pound lefthanded-hitting outfielder who batted .284 with 60 homers from 1912-25 with the Dodgers, Pirates, Phillies, Giants and Braves. During this time, he developed a reputation as a zany. Once, he carried a flashlight onto the field to convince an umpire it was too dark to continue a game. Another time, he doffed his cap to release a bird to the delight of the crowd.

As a manager, Stengel had a record of 1,905-1,842 over 25 seasons. Most of the losses came with three National League clubs - Brooklyn (1934-36), Boston (1938-43) and New York (1962-65) - prompting Warren Spahn to say that he pitched for Stengel (with the Braves and Mets) "both before and after he was a genius."

For it was in between, when Stengel was managing the Yankees, that he became known as a genius. Under his leadership from 1949-60, the Yankees won 10 pennants (tying him with John McGraw for the most ever) and seven World Series (matching Joe McCarthy's total).

Charles Dillon Stengel was born on July 30, 1890 in Kansas City. After high school he signed with the local American Association Blues. He bounced around the low minors for several years before he was finally called up to Brooklyn at the end of the 1912 season.

He was a regular from 1913-17, with his best season being 1914, when he hit .316, drove in 60 runs and stole 19 bases. He was traded four times in a six-year period - to Pittsburgh in 1918, to Philadelphia in 1919, to the Giants in 1921 and to Boston just a month after he starred in the 1923 World Series. He hit the first two Series homers ever at Yankee Stadium, and both won games for the Giants.

With his major league career just about over in 1925, Stengel became chief executive-player-manager at Worcester, a losing club in the lowly Eastern League. After one season, he demonstrated the cunning (typically disguised as tomfoolery in the retelling) that characterized his later career.

In order to accept an offer from the Toledo Mud Hens, he released himself as an outfielder, fired himself as manager and resigned as president of Worcester. The escapade was actually an elaborate ploy so Worcester wouldn't get compensation for his player contract.

It was also in the 1920s that Stengel made his two most lasting connections, marrying Edna Lawson in 1924 and solidifying a friendship with New Haven general manager George Weiss in 1925. Stengel managed Toledo for six seasons, winning the pennant in 1927.

After the club folded, Stengel landed with Brooklyn as a coach in 1932. Two years later, he became its manager. The high point of his three-year tenure was when he answered Giants manager Bill Terry's question - Are the Giants still in the league? - by beating New York in two late-season games in 1934 to deprive it of a pennant.

Stengel also added to the franchise's daffiness in ways calculated to charm newsmen and help fans avert their eyes from the team's chronic second-division finishes. Once, he protested the continuation of a rain-soaked game by coaching at third base holding an open umbrella. On other occasions, he staged races between his players so he could make a few dollars on bets with reporters.

After spending 1937 developing oil leases in Texas (and being paid by Brooklyn for not managing), Stengel became Boston's pilot in 1938. He kept the club above .500 that season, but suffered through four consecutive seventh-place finishes and a final season in sixth before he was fired.

Early in the 1944 season, Stengel took over the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association. Though he won his second minor league pennant with the Brewers, he left after a spat with one of the team's owners, Bill Veeck, who was in the military when Stengel was hired.

Weiss rescued Stengel by putting him in charge of the Yankees' Kansas City farm club in 1945. The next year, he moved to the Oakland Oaks. After leading them to the Pacific Coast League pennant in 1948, Stengel was brought back to the show.

When Stengel succeeded Bucky Harris as Yankees manager in 1949, kind observers regarded the move as a crowd-pleasing sideshow; the unkind thought it was a disaster. It turned out to be neither. Stengel vindicated Weiss' judgment by winning the pennant on the final day of the season and then the World Series against the Dodgers.

With the title under his belt, Stengel saw no further reason to defer to the Yankees old guard. A dictatorial, acerbic Stengel emerged in 1950 to alienate several veterans. His relationship with Joe DiMaggio was particularly strained.

It was with younger players, such as Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Billy Martin, that Stengel had his greatest successes. Stengel's managerial method included riding his players when they were doing well and praising them when they weren't. He also believed in platooning players. His strategies worked brilliantly. Only once in his dozen seasons did the Yankees win fewer than 90 games, and his record with them was 1,149-696, a winning percentage of .623.

He also became "The Ol' Perfesser," holding forth in bars until all hours of the night with what he called "my writers." The key to his charm was the highly developed art form that came to be known as Stengelese, a personal jabberwocky of rambling double-talk, gibberish, non sequiturs, and catch phrases that left his audience alternately amused, bewildered and mildly better informed.

But as he grew older, Stengel became increasingly impatient with his players. Owners Dan Topping and Del Webb, anxious to get rid of him for several years, lowered the axe after the Yankees lost the 1960 World Series to the Pirates. Officially, the Yankees said Stengel "retired," but he put up no pretense that the idea had been his to leave the team.

Two years later, Weiss, in his new role as president of the embryonic Mets, hired Stengel to manage the expansion club. His job was less to direct the sorry collection of veterans that set a 20th century record for losses in a season with 120 than to promote his Amazin' Mets as better entertainment than the Yankees.

Often in the sports pages there would be some bizarre or bizarrely stated observation from Stengel on the sorry state of the team. The brilliance of the public-relations performance endeared the incompetent Mets to the fans. Behind assertions that he was interested in building the team into a winner, he wisecracked his way through three 10th-place finishes and part of another.

Stengel managed until he was 75-years-old.
But when he wasn't winning public-relations points, Stengel occasionally snoozed on the bench and too often he castigated his players in ways that amused everyone - except the players.

On July 24, 1965, Stengel suffered a fractured hip in a fall and put away his uniform. Five weeks later, the 75-year-old Stengel officially retired as manager. The Mets made him vice president in charge of West Coast operations.

The Hall of Fame veterans committee waived the five-year waiting period and elected Stengel into the shrine the following March.

Wealthy but lonely with his beloved Edna in a nursing home, Stengel died on Sept. 29, 1975 in Glendale, Cal. "The Ol' Perfesser" was 85.

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