Keeping Score: A maestro in pinstripes

  • Marty Appel’s biography on Casey Stengel, who coached the New York Yankees for 12 seasons and won 10 pennants during that time, all while becoming arguably “Baseball’s greatest character.” CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/CHIP AINSWORTH

Friday, November 17, 2017

Good morning!

In autumn, 1949, the New York Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in five games. They won five straight World Series titles, seven in all, and 10 pennants in 12 years.

Can you say dynasty?

The Bronx Bombers were loved and loathed in a metropolis that was home to the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, and the passion they engendered inspired Damn Yankees, about a deal with the devil that won the 1955 Tony award for best musical.

The Yankees’ 60-year-old skipper was a showman in his own right, a trait that Marty Appel explores in his latest book “CASEY STENGEL, Baseball’s Greatest Character” (399 pp. Doubleday, $27.95).

It’s familiar territory for the Brooklyn-born Appel, who was 24 years old in 1973 when George Steinbrenner hired him to be his public relations director. He subsequently coordinated “Old-Timer’s Day” games and used his Yankees connections to write biographies of Thurman Munson, Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra.

Stengel became an iconic New York sports figure whose life was chronicled by Robert W. Creamer in his 1996 best seller Stengel: His Life and Times.

Appel used Creamer’s book, among others, together with periodicals and an unpublished memoir by Stengel’s wife Edna. As a tip of the cap to New York film critic Jeffrey Lyons, he included the “Notes of Leonard Lyons” as part of his research.

Appel struck gold reading digitized editions of mid-sized broadsheets like the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, Abilene Reporter-News and Moberly-Monitor Index, getting enough new information “to justify a new biography of this fascinating man.”

Charles Dillon Stengel was born in Kansas City in 1890. His friends called him Dutch but a teammate dubbed him “KC” for his hometown roots. He played his first pro season for the Kankakee Lunatics, named after the Illinois Eastern Hospital for the Insane that was across the street from the ballpark.

In the offseason, Stengel enrolled in dental school with his teammate Billy Brammage. He pulled one tooth and quit, realizing a left-handed dentist like himself wouldn’t be adept using tools designed for right-handers. “My quitting was the greatest thing to happen to dentistry,” he joked.

Called an “appleknocker” for his country roots, Stengel won $10 by catching a greased pig before a game in Newark. He kept his hair slicked back under a slightly tilted straw hat, and after he broke in with the Dodgers his former teammate Norm Eberfield, aka “The Tabasco Kid” told him to ditch the cardboard suitcase.

Stengel batted .286 with 60 home runs and 535 RBIs in 14 seasons with five teams, mostly the Dodgers and New York Giants. He was a drinker and fighter, and manager John McGraw once mistook the aftershave a barber had slapped on his face for “cheap gin” and fined him $200.

His buoyant career was defined the day he caught a bird and put it under his cap. When he came to bat, he doffed the cap and “… from out of the darkness of the headpiece there flew an irate but much relieved sparrow,” wrote the New York Times.

Not many baseball men have ruled the roost for as long or transitioned from player to manager as easily as Stengel.

A month after his last at-bat in Boston on May 19, 1925, Stengel became a player-manager for the Worcester Panthers. Attendance was poor and he left for Ohio to hone his managing skills with the Toledo Mud Hens.

His trajectory to a big league job landed him in Brooklyn for three years, followed by six seasons with the National League’s Boston Bees (later called the Braves). It was the worst time of his life, wrote Appel. After a Patriots’ Day game, he was struck by a car crossing Kenmore Square and broke his leg. The driver took him to St. Elizabeth’s hospital where he spent the next 53 days in traction. “His leg never healed perfectly,” writes Appel.

Fate and good fortune converged on an autumn day in 1948 when Stengel answered the phone and the voice from across the country said, “Fly right to New York. We want you to manage the Yankees.”

The Bronx Bombers’ cornucopia of talent included Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio and the immortal Snuffy Stirnweiss. Their charming new manager, they quickly learned, wasn’t Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky in the clubhouse.

Stengel imposed a midnight curfew and scouted for hungover players at breakfast. “The guys I looked for were those who were having a double tomato juice and black coffee. Chances are they’d gone out about 3 a.m. to write a letter.”

He forbid players from frequenting Derby Lane — a St. Petersburg greyhound track with fine dining, band music and quiniela wagering, but DiMaggio went anyway. “A quiet defeat for Stengel,” observes Appel.

His gruffness translated to wins. If a player wasn’t producing, he’d pencil in someone else. One season he wrote 92 different lineup cards. He treated Billy Martin like a son, but the day he was traded to Kansas City, Stengel summoned him into his office and said two words: “You’re gone.”

Of the 300 mourners who came to his memorial service on Nov. 4, 1975, Yogi Berra was the only player. Perhaps he remembered Stengel calling him a smart player after word got out about his seventh-grade education.

Even in those days a manager needed to have a good rapport with the press, and Stengel knew how to schmooze. After games, famed sportswriters of their time, Grantland Rice and Red Smith, were floored by his diction and sentence structure: “You newspaper fellers don’t understand me so good,” he scolded. “When I say I don’t want a feller, that’s vice-versa, in reverse, understand?”

Wherever he held court — in the dugout or down the baseline — writers huddled around him. Inevitably, their long stretch of silence would end with a burst of laughter. Stengelese was a linguistic phenomenon.

Appel includes plenty of entertaining asides. Billy Martin got a nose job in 1947; the Yankees had a Japanese scout named Bozo Wakabayashi; catcher Gabby Street caught a baseball that was dropped 550 feet from the top of the Washington Monument. It was his 13th try.

Mostly though it’s about Stengel. He owned oil wells, smoked Kents into his 80s and “closed bars all over the country.”

“His mind seemed as keen after eight drinks as after one,” wrote Fred Lieb, an early baseball historian. “In that respect, he was a man in a million, maybe a hundred million.”

His appeal, writes Appel, was universal. “He attracted kids like the pied piper,” said sportscaster Hank Greenberg. “He’d wink a lot, and had a lot of good- natured teasing in him.”

Stengel’s buried in California next to his wife Edna, at Forest Lawn in Glendale. An inscription near the grave concludes with his quote, “There comes a time in every man’s life and I’ve had plenty of them.”

Appel dug hard to find those times, and in so doing makes his case that Casey Stengel was indeed baseball’s greatest character.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached by email at sports@recorder.com.