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Casey Was No Clown

By Daniel Wyatt, July 13, 2014
Casey Stengel on October 13, 1948, a day after being named as the new manager of the New York Yankees.

Most baseball people were shocked when the New York Yankees hired Casey Stengel as their new manager for the 1949 season. Casey was supposed to be a clown.

In a turn at-bat as a Pittsburgh Pirate player 30 years before, Stengel tipped his cap at a booing Brooklyn crowd and out flew a sparrow he had tucked inside. It was Casey’s unique way of giving the fans “the bird.” In his first two Major League managing jobs, he needed a good sense of humor because he didn’t have much to work with. During stints with the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Braves from 1934 to 1943, he never finished higher than fifth. “The key to being a good manager,” he told a reporter, “is keeping the people who hate me away from those who are still undecided.” Then Stengel won two minor league pennants—with the 1944 Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association, followed by the 1948 Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League.

New York Yankees GM George Weiss, an old friend of Stengel’s when the two first met during the 1920s in the Class A Eastern League, took notice. Weiss—a stern, serious man—didn’t hire clowns. He hired people whom he expected to win. Right off, Stengel did not disappoint. He won five straight World Series in his first five years with the Yankees, a record still untouched today. “The Yankees don’t pay me to win every day,” he told the press, with a grin, “just two out of three.” He also said, “Most games are lost, not won.”

Stengel not only won this time around managing in the Majors, but he also had some fun doing it. He often talked in circles, which reporters called “Stengelese.” And they called him the “Ol’ Perfesser.” On one occasion, Stengel slid beside outfielder Bob Cerv in the dugout and said, “I don’t know if you know this, but one of us has been traded to Kansas City.” Speaking of St. Louis Browns pitcher Satchel Paige after a game, Stengel said, “He threw the ball as far from the bat and as close to the plate as possible.” But below that comical exterior, Stengel was a genius who didn’t miss anything. Some called him a “push-button manager.” But he knew what buttons to push. And when. Mimicking an old Frank Sinatra tune, Stengel did things his way.

In Stengel’s first year as Yankee skipper, with the help of slugger Phil Rizzuto and hurler Joe Page, New York stole the AL pennant from the Red Sox and defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series.

He made the bullpen a formidable weapon. Joe Page was his man in 1949. Page’s 27 saves, 13 wins, and 2.59 ERA in 60 appearances complimented a great starting staff of Vic Raschi, Eddie Lopat, Allie Reynolds, and Tommy Byrne. Into the 1950s, some of Stengel’s big stoppers were Johnny Sain, Jim Konstanty, then Bob Grim, followed by Ryne Duren. Stengel also used a fleet of relief pitchers in any given season (with Allie Reynolds between starts from 1949 to 1954) to finish games for him, while nearly every other team was sticking to that one main guy in the bullpen. The prime example was 1960, when the Yankees piled up a then-astounding 263 individual relief games. Stengel used four bullpen stoppers—Luis Arroyo, Bobby Shantz, Duke Maas, and Duren—plus Bob Turley in a starting-relief role. Six years earlier, in 1954, Stengel played a hunch and used rookie Bob Grim—AL Rookie of the Year that season—in a dual role, starting 20 games and relieving 17. He won 20 games, eight of those in relief. By 1957, Grim was Casey’s number one stopper with a 12–8 mark, 2.63 ERA, and a league-leading 19 saves.

While many managers were going with a four-man or four-five-man starting rotation in the 1950s, Stengel was mostly a five-man guy. He also did things like save his ace, lefty Whitey Ford, to start against the better teams, which was one reason why Ford never won 20 games under Stengel. He came close with winning seasons of 19 once and 18 twice. Although Ford faced mostly first-division teams, he still maintained an excellent won-loss record (133–69) throughout Stengel’s tenure and twice led the American League in ERA, in 1956 (2.47) and 1958 (2.01).

Stengel quickly proved that the Yankees didn’t win games on sheer power. He knew that the Bronx Bomber image—what the press stuck on the team as far back as Babe Ruth—was a myth. Sure, Ruth hit his magic 60 homers and Lou Gehrig his 47 homers when the Yankees won it all in 1927 with 110 wins. But the Yankees also had the best pitching staff in the Majors that year, by a wide margin, and one of the best defenses. Stengel’s teams were even better all-around. Pitching, defense, speed, and timely hitting combined with the long ball.

Casey had a great rapport with youngsters. He invented rookie camps, prior to spring training. A former outfielder, he worked with Mickey Mantle on how to play center field. He taught Billy Martin the finer points of playing second base by hitting grounders to him, and he hired former Yankee catching great Bill Dickey to work with Yogi Berra. 

Working with superstars such as Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle, Casey Stengel led the New York Yankees to ten American League pennants and seven World Series Championships from 1949 to 1960.

Stengel saw the importance of platooning, something he saw firsthand as a New York Giants player when the team was managed by John McGraw. Besides stars Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, Stengel had an outfield with left-hand-hitting Gene Woodling and right-hand-hitting Hank Bauer, among others, always enough players to interchange based on who was pitching. At first base, he had Bill Skowron, a righty, and Joe Collins, a lefty. In 1949 and 1950, he platooned Bobby Brown and Bill Johnson at third. Stengel would put good hitters in the lineup early, then take them out for better fielders in late innings. If his team was starting a rally in the opening innings, he’d often pinch-hit for the pitcher regardless of how well he was throwing because he always had plenty of good pitchers. Stengel could afford to pinch hit anytime because he also had the best bench in the Majors, thanks to GM George Weiss.

Outside of first base, infielders had to be multipurpose. Clete Boyer and Bobby Richardson were constantly moved around, never really settling in at one spot. And Tony Kubek would often play the outfield when he wasn’t at shortstop. Gil McDougald, the most underrated Yankee of the 1950s, was the most versatile infielder of all. Rookie of the Year in 1951, he later led the league in double plays three different times at three different positions—second base, third base, and shortstop. He also had some pop in his bat, collecting key hits on numerous occasions.

Then it all came crashing down. After the heartbreaking seven-game loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1960 World Series, Stengel and Weiss were both fired—as the story goes—for being too old at 70 and 66, respectively. At a press conference after the news was announced, Stengel told reporters, “I’ll never make the mistake of being 70 again.”

Though many considered the hiring of Casey Stengel to manage the Yankees after the firing of Bucky Harris a blunder, General Manager George Weiss had faith in his old friend. One of the most successful baseball executives of all time, Weiss was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971.

In the off-season, the Yankees hired Coach Ralph Houk as the new manager. Times were changing. Expansion to Los Angeles and Washington had put an end to the Yankees’ strong bench. In 1961, Houk had Ford pitch every four days. The lefty started 39 games and won 25 of them, losing only four. If he couldn’t finish the games, he had bullpen ace Luis Arroyo backing him up. Houk also did away with platooning, which many players hated, anyway. He picked a regular lineup and stuck by it. And it worked. Boyer became a standout at third base, while Richardson and Kubek did the same at their positions, second base and shortstop. It’s ironic. For a time in the late 1950s, Richardson was Stengel’s whipping boy. In some games, Stengel would bat Richardson ninth, behind the pitcher. “Look at him,” Stengel once said to a reporter, referring to Richardson. “He doesn’t drink, smoke, chew or stay out late, and he still can’t hit .250.” Under Houk in 1962, Richardson became the league’s best second baseman and a .302 hitter. 

Out of baseball for 1961, the Stengel–Weiss team was quickly hired by the expansion New York Mets prior to the 1962 season. As GM, Weiss once again set up the farm system and Stengel managed. But the team was dreadful for the first few years, finishing dead last in the 10-team National League from 1962 to 1965. But by 1969, a few years after Weiss and Stengel had retired from the game for good, the Mets won the World Series with some excellent players that Weiss had signed earlier into the organization, stars such as Jerry Koosman, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, and Cleon Jones.

Stengel and Weiss, however, will always be Yankees—10 pennants and seven championships in 12 seasons from 1949 to 1960 to their credit.

Looking back at Casey Stengel’s managerial career with the “Bronx Bombers,” the great Connie Mack said it best: “I never saw a man who juggled his lineup so much and who played so many hunches so successfully.” 

 

 

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