BERGEN COUNTY, N.J.- The only thing that I knew about Charles Dillon “Casey” Stengel before opening Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character by Marty Appel was that he was worth $260 as a yellow property on Monopoly’s New York Yankees edition.
When I was younger, my brother and I would often break out this very board pictured to the right. Usually, it ended in an argument- I’m not sure if we ever finished a full game. I always thought: the yellow spaces were the third-most expensive group on the board- Stengel must have been important.
I consider myself a “new” Yankee fan. Wearing the blue cap with the familiar interlocking “NY” (whose brim I curved to perfection) and a navy blue David Cone #36 jersey, I attended my first Yankee game on Sunday, June 8, 1997. I had just turned nine years old and I still remember that day like it was yesterday. The Yankees’ opponent was the Milwaukee Brewers. I remember thinking: “What’s a Brewer, anyway?” It was a crystal-clear day and I got to witness my first home run, first hand: Tino Martinez‘s 28th home run of the season. I’ll never forget the immediate roar of the crowd. Into my adult life, Derek Jeter was the only shortstop I had ever known. As far as I was concerned, once the Yankees took a lead into the 7th or 8th inning, the game was over. I would leave games at the end of the 8th inning to get a head start in beating the gnarled traffic along the Harlem River. Why not? Mariano Rivera was the closer: Enter Sandman to put the final nail in the opposing team’s coffin.
What I’m trying to say is that I knew nothing of Casey Stengel before picking up Marty Appel’s biography. Through aptly depicting the life and career of Stengel, Appel is able to create a brilliant work of historical non-fiction. Appel told me, in an interview: “In the two-and-a-half-years or so that I spent researching and writing the book, it became clear to me that barely anyone under 40 had heard of Casey Stengel…. That was one of the reasons why I was inspired to write the book…. I really wanted to bring him back to the forefront“. Parallel with Stengel’s career, the reader experiences:
- The organization of independent leagues into the Minor Leagues (and the creation of the Major League) as we know it.
- The “Baseball Players’ Fraternity” – the origins of the players’ union
- The stock market crash of 1929
- The Civil Rights movement
- The creation of “Triple A” baseball in 1946
- The hiring one of the first ever pitching coaches (Jim Turner- 1949)
- The beginnings of the first sports agency (catalyzed by the firing of Frank Scott, Casey’s traveling secretary)
- The first international visit of baseball players (President Warren Harding endorsed a team trip to Japan, London, Dublin, and Paris that Stengel frequented.)
Historical Trends in Baseball that Are Still Prevalent
While reading Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character, I could not help but notice that trends in professional sports are eerily similar to those dating back over 100 years. Here are the most striking examples:
- Raising of ticket prices during World Series Games. Casey Stengel played in the 1916 World Series and Charles Ebbets, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers (Robins) faced intense scrutiny for selling box seats for $5 each. For 2016’s Game 7, tickets had been listed on Stubhub from $840 to $25,000! Exactly 100 years later, the concept of price gouging has not changed!
- Also mentioned in Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character was Bill Veeck: “Sports Shirt Bill”. “His reputation for showmanship began in Milwaukee [during the 1940s], where he thought every game was a promotion opportunity, even if it meant baving a fruit and vegetable night, when some lucky fan would go home with a basket of peaches”. At the time, this new idea was laughable! Today, each team, across all sports (professional and semi-professional) has their own promotional schedule. For 2017, Cubs fans can expect to take home a replica World Series trophy, Pirates fans can be serenaded by a Francisco Cervelli bobblehead, and Astros fans will receive a 1997 replica Jeff Bagwell jersey to commemorate his induction to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
- During the 1923 World Series, New York Giants’ manager John McGraw thought the New York Yankees were cheating. “[McGraw] … suspected that the Yankees might plant a recording device- a Dictograph- in the Giants’ clubhouse. He also suspected that the Yankees would use binoculars to peer into his dugout and read lips.” That sounds awfully familiar to Bill Belichick and the Patriot’s 2007 Spygate controversy… 84 years later! Said Appel: “Good for you for picking those things out, I’m really impressed! John McGraw making recordings was a shock to the system. I had no idea they were using that kind of technology back then… What a discovery that was!”
- Bat flips as a celebration after home runs have been a hot topic around the MLB recently. Are they considered Busch League or are they an appropriate gesture to punctuate a pivotal moment in a game? The jury is still out. As early as 1922, Stengel had his own version of a bat flip. In game three of the World Series, from the Polo Grounds, “the game was scoreless in the seventh inning when Casey faced [Sam] Jones with one out. He chose another changeup and hit a shot into the right field bleachers … As he circled the bases, he gave Jones a five-fingered salute with his thumb to his nose, a gesture thought to be fairly risqué for the better-mannered in the stands. Jacob Ruppert, owner of the [opposing] Yankees, wanted a reprimand from commissioner Landis. ‘No, I don’t think I will’ Landis responded. ‘A fellow who wins two games with a home run has a right to feel a little playful, especially if he’s a Stengel'”. It is safe to say that Landis, 95 years later, would thoroughly take to Bryce Harper’s mission to “make baseball fun again”.
Stengel as a Progressive Baseball Pioneer
As a millennial, reading Appel’s book, I could not help but notice the progressiveness of Casey Stengel: the player and the manager.
- Today’s fans do not think twice about seeing their favorite players wearing batting gloves, shin guards, elbow guards, mouthpieces, eyeblack, extended ear flaps on batting helmets, etc. Casey Stengel started a trend: he was one of first to wear sunglasses while playing right field.
2. As a manager, Stengel was one of the first to recognize and utilize what we know today as a “spray chart”. Of course, nothing was ever written down, but, Stengel would manage the positioning of his defense to fit the tendencies and the capabilities of the oppositions’ individual batters. Today, “The Shift” is commonplace, but this was unheard of in Stengel’s days. “One day, Casey even overshifted, sending his shortstop [Phil] Rizzuto to the right side of second base to defense Pat Mullin of Detriot, who had been htting the Yankees well. The Indians’ manager … had done this against Ted Williams, but it was still considered radical.”
3. Stengel was always looking for a competitive edge. In 1950, the “Yankees decided to hold an early spring camp for prospects. They had to tinker with major league rules to pull this off…”. Again, another one of Stengel’s ideas revolutionized the game of baseball.
4. As a high school athletics coach, I have done my fair share of scouting our opponents: filming, observing, and taking notes. I never knew that this concept had to be “invented”. Why would you want to play an opponent with no idea how to attack them? How could you tailor your practices to prepare for your opponent? Stengel must have asked himself those same questions, for “the Yankees, in the Stengel years, were thought to be the first team to employ advance scouts to watch the upcoming competition.” Today, a team would be crazy not to scout their opponents.,
5. Stengel was the first to enact a regimented schedule for his players. He enacted two-a-day practices, a midnight curfew, a 7:30am wakeup call, and ban on gambling. Today, these concepts are understood and are not out of the ordinary, by any means. This was originally quite unpopular among his Yankees players, namely: Phil Rizzuto and superstar Joe DiMaggio. Appel told me:”That was pretty dramatic… This was Casey’s first spring training as a Yankee manager and all eyes were on how he was going to get along with Joe DiMaggio, the game’s elite player…. Anybody who knew Joe DiMaggio knew that’s what Joe did every night! This was like Casey drawing a line in the sand…. DiMaggio went to the dog track anyway, defied the rule, and when Casey was asked about it, Casey just said: ‘well, I have no first-hand knowledge of that, I wasn’t there, so I have no answer’. Today, can you imagine how many cell phone phones would be taken of Joe at the track and the newspaper headlines the next day? Now, it would have been such a full-blown controversey, I’m not sure that the two of them would have made it out of spring training together!”
6. Jeff Nelson is known as one of the master’s of the slider. Last summer, he explained, while showing me: “Everything comes off your middle finger, so I always picked a big, high seam out of one of the four. And then I would put my middle finger here and I would hold it and just snap real hard and hopefully I got on top and it was a big enough break that I would get people out.”
Rewind six to seven decades: Manager Stengel needed to prepare his hitters for this new pitch. “[Stengel] thought about the recent batting slumps and decided that, besides the late nights, this new pitch, the slider, was causing his men to fail. ‘The batters just haven’t learned how to hit it’ he mused as the losing streak grew to seven. ‘The averages will not rise until they can tell the difference between a slider and a curve'”.
Timely Advice For Ballplayers of Any Age
Casey received this piece of advice from Kid Nichols (active in the MLB from 1890 – 1906, inducted into the HOF 1949), a boyhood friend: “… In baseball, the best thing you can do is listen to your manager. And once in a while you’ll have to have an old player teach you. Always listen to the man. never say ‘I won’t do that’. Always listen to him. If you’re not going to do it, don’t tell him so. Let it go in one ear, then let it roll around there for a month, and if it isn’t any good, let it go out the other ear. If it is any good after a month, memorize it and keep it. Now be sure you do that and you’ll keep out of a lot of trouble”. In 2017, that sis almost identical to the advice John Flaherty offered to highly touted twenty-two year old Yankees prospect Clint Frazier.
How Baseball Handled Social, Economic, and Political Conflict
Not only is Appel’s book a story of a quirky manager’s dogged ascension to baseball immortality, but a thesis into how the greatest social, economic, and political issues effected the game of baseball. Appel told me: “Baseball was such a part of American culture during the 20th century…. But in the 20th century, baseball owned American attention and so everything that went on in baseball was kind of something that was going on with America. Casey was in the game from 1910-1965 and what a swath of American history that was. As you say: two wold wars, the depression, [and] the Civil Rights movement. Baseball wasn’t operating in a vacuum, it was all right there affecting them”. Appel captures this sentiment masterfully in his biography.
For example, the United States entered WWII after Japan’s surprise arial attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. After the war, Stengel and others embarked on an international mission to, as Appel explained to me: “[spread] the flag of baseball worldwide…. [There was] a grand ticker tape parade-like reception in Toyko after WWII. [The visit] was a big step in the healing of relations between the two nations. So, [Stengel] was a monumental figure in many ways.”
Marty Appel hit a home run in highlighting Casey Stengel, a man of whom the newest generation of baseball fans know nothing. After all, Stengel was prevalent at time when baseball was just starting to be played on Saturdays in New York and at a time when his team “lost the home game when an automobile running across the field prevented Warren Fieber getting to a fly that would have perhaps saved the day”.
When I asked about what Appel thought Stengel’s legacy should be, he replied: “[Consider] him as an ambassador for the game. He really transcended the sports pages so that all Americans are aware of Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, and Casey Stengel on the mighty Yankees of the 1950s…. The 1950s was the decade in which everybody acquired television sets…. Everyone became to know that face. He was a father figure for the game and a great ambassador for our national pastime…. For Baby Boomers, Casey was always going to be the manager of the Yankees. I was twelve when the Yankees fired him and I was in shock. I couldn’t believe the Yankees would ever win another game”.
Stengel was famously quoted as saying: “I played football before they had headgear…. and that’s how I lost my mind”. Maybe he wasn’t so crazy afterall. He was an absolute pioneer of the game of baseball, whose career evolution perpetuated the evolution of baseball. Even as great a figure as he was, “he would sign most anything”. This is something missing from today’s game. Contemporary players should take this concept to heart.
In 1952, Stengel said: “I’ve had a lot of nice offers to do my book, but the time isnt ripe. I don’t want people to think I am important, that I am the great man I am. When I quit, I might do a movie about Casey”. No need, Casey. Marty Appel, with the help of your family, has done an exceptionally fine job of telling your story for you in 2017.
Appel told me that “in Glendale, California, … Casey Stengel field … is in a sad state of disrepair. It was built in the ’50’s, and they’re using sales of the book to help raise funds for the restoration of the field…” Please purchase your copy from CaseyStengel.org to help preserve history.