The most amazing character in the history of baseball?
Casey Stengel, who once doffed his cap at Ebbets Field and a bird flew out.
He was the clown prince of the game who also won 7 World Series with the New York Yankees, including an unequaled 5 straight.
As the Mets’ first manager starting in 1962, he gave cover and credibility to the team that lost the most games in the history of the Major Leagues.
Respected baseball historian Marty Appel has just come out with a big new biography, Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character, published by Doubleday.
Marty took some time to speak with HuffPost about how his book has revived the memory of a baseball legend.
Michael: Tell me about the reception of the book, especially with younger fans.
Marty: Well, it’s in its third printing. It appears to be selling well, and that’s all been a nice surprise to me, because in the two plus years that I was working on it, I would tell people what I’m working on, and I found very, very few people under 40, who had even heard of Casey Stengel, let alone could tell you that he won ten pennants managing the Yankees, or was the first Mets’ manager. So I was really writing knowing that nobody under 40 even knows who this guy is.
Michael: Stengel was so radically different from the corporate, buttoned down image of the Yankees of 1949. So it must have taken enormous courage on the team’s part to trust the team to somebody who is just so far from their image.
Marty: That’s what a lot of people said back in ‘49. I’m not sure he had a lot of margin for error there. He really had to prove himself. And he, against the odds, won the World Championship in 1949, despite more than 70 injuries to the team. And then he won in ‘50, ‘51, ‘52, and ‘53. So you knock off five straight and all doubts are put to rest.
Michael: With that Yankee lineup, could anyone have won with them, or did it really take someone special like Casey to get the most out of the players?
Marty: There’s the temptation to say anybody could have done it: Charlie Grimm, Jimmy Dykes, other managers who sort of made a lot of stops in their career, in that era. But nobody else, before or since, ever won five straight World Championships. You’ve got to take your hat off and just give Casey his due. It was a remarkable thing to do, particularly with the tension of managing the established superstar of the game, in Joe DiMaggio and then breaking in Mickey Mantle, and Whitey Ford, and Billy Martin. So to Casey’s credit, he deserves a lot of the accolades.
Michael: The sense I have from your book is that he and DiMaggio never saw eye to eye. But then no one ever saw eye to eye, really, with DiMaggio.
Marty: He was royal. You had to treat him carefully.
Michael: Stengel had a knack for recognizing the individuality of a player and, most of the time, bringing out the best in them. Where did that come from?
Marty: I just guess from a long history of dealing with all sorts of people. That’s the beauty of hiring a very experienced manager. He was certainly experienced at managing bad teams. He’d never had a good one before. He won an occasional minor league championship but, certainly in the Major Leagues, no success at all.
You could say the same thing for Joe Torre, who came to the Yankees with the reputation of being a bad National League manager with no success. The two of them both had their tickets to Cooperstown punched in their first five years.
Michael: Would George Steinbrenner and Casey Stengel have gotten along?
Marty: Nobody has asked that question. I would think probably not, given Mr. Steinbrenner’s history with managers. Casey would have done what was necessary to get along with the owner; he was a good enough politician in baseball to know to do that. But I think inevitably it would have been doomed. Maybe even in year six, when he didn’t win in 1954, despite winning 103 games. That might have been when he got fired, just for not winning the pennant.
Michael: The sense I have from the book was that Stengel’s relationship with Mickey Mantle, I was trying to sort of get a handle on it. There was one aspect that was part father and son, at the same time, Stengel just never seemed satisfied with him? Is that possible?
Marty: Yeah, that’s what happened. He really thought the first Spring he saw Mickey Mantle for the first time that, “Oh my, the baseball Gods have given me Babe Ruth. I’ve got my own Babe Ruth here.” Except this Babe Ruth could switch hit, and could run like a deer.
But it didn’t work out that way. Mickey Mantle was a great player, maybe the greatest player of his time, but he wasn’t Babe Ruth. In a sense that was a let down to Casey.
Michael: What’s Stengel’s place in baseball history?
Marty: He was born in 1890, and his neighbor in Kansas City was a Hall of Famer from the 19th century, named Kid Nichols. He played for John McGraw, and he batted against Christy Mathewson. And by the time he was done, he was managing Tug McGraw and Ron Swoboda, and Cleon Jones. So, just the breadth of his baseball knowledge, and his role in being a part of history, is such an interesting sweep of 20th century baseball.