Most of us know that the New York Yankees dominated baseball diamonds across the country for decades, but fewer know the Hall of Fame manager who guided them to success and was named by MLB Network “baseball’s greatest character.” We talk to Yankees historian Marty Appel about the life of Casey Stengel, who spent over 50 years in professional baseball and won 8 World Series titles, but whose handling of the MLB’s integration era has been questioned for years.
- Marty Appel, baseball historian and author of Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character
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Baseball’s Casey Stengel
Marty Peterson: Baseball season is in full swing. Opening day has come and gone and now baseball fans settle in for the long haul: 162 games for each MLB team that will take them from the onset of the spring through the long, hot summer and into the fall. Over such a long season, fans come to know and love the players and managers that define their team. Each fan base has a unique attachment to their squad, whether it’s Mets fans wearing Batman masks when All-Star Matt Harvey pitches or Cubs fans celebrating the duo of Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant by calling them Bryzzo. If you look back through history, these characters and attachments are nothing new. Take, for instance, famed manager Casey Stengel, who guided the New York Yankees from 1949 until 1960.
Appel: He never lost his sense of humor or his wit or his charm. He created this double talk called “Stengelese.”
Peterson: That’s Marty Appel, a Yankees historian and author of the book “Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character.” Some famous Stengelese quotations fans latched onto include brutal honestly, like when he said he isn’t paid to win every day, just two out of three. The matter-of-fact manner in which Stengel did business wasn’t just an act, though. Appel says Stengelese was a staple of his personal life, too. Take, for instance, this anecdote from an unpublished memoir written by Stengel’s wife.
Appel: She wrote that he never actually asked her to marry him. What he said, they were walking together and he just said, “So, do you want me to convert to Catholic, or what?” That was his proposal.
Peterson: While his personality and quick wit made him beloved, Appel says Stengel is also remembered for being a trailblazer in the managing community.
Appel: He was most famous for what was called platooning, which was changing the lineup everyday depending on who was pitching. Today that’s pretty common and the computers generate that information for managers. Back then it was all intuitive for him. He would remember how a certain batter did against a certain pitcher back in April and he’d adjust the lineup or the game accordingly. It was considered revolutionary, but of course you have to have good players to work with, especially the substitutes. And he was blessed with that with the Yankees who had an abundance of talent.
Peterson: And with that abundance of talent, Appel says Stengel was more than a little successful.
Appel: He was a great manager with the New York Yankees winning ten pennants in 12 years, including five straight World Series.
Peterson: Appel says that despite his successes, Stengel always wanted more. Take, for example, what he thought of one of his most celebrated players, Mickey Mantle, a generational talent who made twenty All Star games and was a first-ballot hall of famer.
Appel: Casey just saw in Mickey Mantle, may be the greatest player that had ever come along, and Mick never was quite that. He won two MVP awards and a Triple Crown under Casey and was in the World Series with him almost every year, but still Casey wanted more. He just thought this enormously gifted player from Oklahoma who could hit so far and run so fast could have given him more. And near the end of Casey’s time with the Yankees he was asked to name his greatest team, his greatest players, and he named Hank Bauer ahead of Mickey Mantle as one of his outfielders. So that was kind of a shock to stumble into that.
Peterson: One thing Appel says really sets Stengel apart from other baseball figures besides the eight world series titles to his name, was how prolific his career was, spanning over 50 years for eight different teams as a player and manager.
Appel: He spent thirty years in New York baseball altogether. He was a player for the Brooklyn Dodgers, who were called the Superbas back then, and the Robins, and he was a player for the New York Giants, and he was on four World Series teams with them as a player. He was a pretty good player. He wasn’t a Hall of Fame player, but before the Duke Snyder, Jackie Robinson day’s people would always mention him as one of the best outfielders ever in Brooklyn.
Peterson: Appel says the sheer length of Stengel’s career truly stuns people when they begin learning about the manager.
Appel: With Casey Stengel you just let the stories flow and stand out of the way. That’s how you write a book like this. One of my favorites, because it speaks to his longevity, was when Sandy Koufax no-hit the Mets in 1962, Casey was the manager of the Mets. The sports writers went to Casey afterwards and asked him whether he thought Koufax might be the best he’s ever seen, and without missing a beat Casey said, “Oh no, that would be Grover Cleveland Alexander.” That was a pitcher from 1910 when he broke in, so it was like at once he just floored everybody by having this instant recall of how good Grover Cleveland Alexander was 52 years earlier
Peterson: Despite being a hall of famer, there are two common criticisms of Stengel. First is the issue of only being really successful as the Yankees manager, where he could perhaps buy titles. But Appel says that doesn’t change the fact that the level of dominance Stengel achieved was unparalleled.
Appel: They had an abundance of talent and a lot of money to continue signing the best. And players who were free to choose where they wanted to sign wanted the glamour of the Yankees that was cultivated by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. So the Yankees had the edge in signing good players and they exploited that edge. There were only eight teams in the league back then, so you’d say, well they only had to beat seven other teams. But to do it year after year after year was a remarkable achievement.
Peterson: The second criticism is something much more serious. Like American history, baseball history is full of racism. And Appel says there is a common belief that Stengel was reluctant to integrate his team.
Appel: The Yankees were late to the game in integrating their team. Of course they were winning the World Series every year so they didn’t feel a real urgency to change things. But a lot of people were saying the Yankees shouldn’t be dragging their feet on this. The Dodgers had integrated with Jackie Robinson in 1947 and the Yankees not until 1955. So was Casey part of a racist regime that kept blacks off the Yankees? Well, he was a good company man and he would feud publicly with Jackie Robinson in the newspapers about how slow the Yankees were. And when he famously said, “I finally get one and he can’t run,” a lot of people saw that as a racist remark, but the first half of that, which is generally ignored, “I finally get one,” was his heart speaking to give me good players and he really didn’t care what color they were.
Peterson: Through it all, Appel says he hopes his biography captures Casey Stengel as he truly was: a unique force in the history of baseball and a kind of manager who doesn’t exist anymore.
Appel: There are really no managers today that evoke Casey Stengel’s spirit, partly because computers have taken away his ability for intuition and partly because the use of video replay after controversial calls has taken the ability of the manager to go out and rally his troops and get the fans excited by arguing with the umpire. Those days are gone. So, it’s a very differed game today. Casey was inspired and mentored by John McGraw, Billy Martin was mentored and inspired by Casey, but today you’d be hard pressed to point to anyone and say, oh that’s a manager in the spirit of Casey Stengel.
Peterson: And as any baseball historian would note, Stengel comes from a different era of the sport than we see when we turn on ESPN or Fox these days.
Appel: It certainly was a time when they didn’t play for the money. They fought and scrapped for every $500 they could get out of ownership. They played for the love of the game. They probably played because even if salaries were low, this was the best they could do. They were not college educated. They weren’t going out to be professional men as doctors or lawyers. They had the gift and the skill to play a sport and live the sport in the company of teammates and travel the country and have a great time, and that comes through when you read about these old time players
Peterson: Still, some things never change, like that attachment fans have to their club. Through the sports ups and downs, baseball is still considered the American past time and Appel says it’s a sport that links us to the past and calls for a greater level of dedication.
Appel: Every game is different. Often you see something you’ve never seen before and you can’t believe you’ve never seen it before. And there’s something so festive about being there in the company of other fans. In New York City I take the subway; when I pop out of the subway you just feel the environment getting exciting and it’s just a wonderful feeling. I love to watch baseball on TV ‘cause I love the replays and I love how well it’s produced, but there’s something about being there where it doesn’t seem like the games take too long – it’s just a beautiful sport to watch.
Peterson: Marty Appel’s book “Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character” is available online and in bookstores. For more information about all of our guests, visit http://www.viewpoints online.net. Our show is written and produced by Evan Rook. Our executive producer is Reed Pence. Our production director is Sean Waldron. I’m Marty Peterson.