Last week I wrote about the New York Mets and, inevitably, Charles Dillon Stengel, whose profound summation of his life—“I’m a man that’s been up and down”—gave title to the story. This time I’d like to write about that same lefthanded dental-school dropout from Kansas City—the abbreviation of which gave name to the man.
Casey did not, as one might imagine, owe his sobriquet to the ballad “Casey at the Bat,” published two years before his birth. Yet that origin would have been apt, for Stengel is baseball’s literary giant, its James Joyce … no less than Yogi Berra may be said to be its philosopher king. To me, he is baseball’s most interesting figure, a protean artist of infinite riches.
For this column, let’s confine ourselves to his playing days, which began in the minors in 1910 and ended there in 1931, when he played in a handful of games while managing Toledo in the American Association. Stengel was a solid if unspectacular outfielder with the Dodgers, Pirates, Phillies, Giants, and Braves. A highlight of his early years took place on a Sunday at Ebbets Field, on May 25, 1919. Stengel had been traded to Pittsburgh before the 1918 season, but spent most of that season in the military. Returning to play in his spiritual home, Casey was well on his way to an 0–for–4 and had just made an inelegant play in the outfield. When he sauntered in from the field at the end of the sixth inning, his Pirates trailing by 5–0, the crowd “guyed him,” in the words of the New York Sun. Bowing to the grandstand, he politely doffed his cap, and out flew a sparrow that a spectator had handed to Stengel. The crowd convulsed in laughter even though he had flipped them the bird.
In 1923, as a platoon outfielder with the Giants, Stengel hit the first World Series home run in Yankee Stadium history, winning Game 1. He hit another to provide the only run in Game 3. His reward was to be traded to the last-place Boston Braves one month later.
Of his dash home in Game 1 Damon Runyon wrote,
This is the way old “Casey” Stengel ran, running his home run home, when two were out in the ninth and the score was tied and the ball was still bounding inside the Yankee yard.
This is the way–
His mouth wide open.
His warped old legs bending beneath him at every stride.
His arms flying back and forth like those of a man swimming the crawl stroke.
His flanks heaving, his breath whistling, his head far back.”
To us, Casey seems to have been born old, crusty and bandy-legged. Yet when he made his big-league debut with Brooklyn on September 17, 1912, the Eagle reported the following day:
It may be stated in the most polite circles that he did break in … with a loud, resounding-crash, such as has been made by few minor leaguers landing In the majors, Stengel is light-haired, hits and throws lefthanded, is fast on his feet and seems to have a good eye for fly balls. Against the miscellaneous collection of pitchers shoved into the fray by Pittsburg yesterday he made a record in five times at bat of four straight singles, followed by a base on balls, stole two bases and drove in two runs. He also gave every indication of being full of pep and self-confidence and promises to be a strong bidder for a regular job in the Brooklyn outfield.
Fast on his feet! Full of pep! Breaking in with a bang! Below, in Casey’s own words, is the story of that debut, offered up in the early 1940s, before George Weiss brought him on to manage the Yankees.
One day in Kankakee, Illinois, in 1910 these two ballplayers—teammates of mine—were sitting on a bench watching me practice in the outfield. I’d haul down a flyball, hurl it into the infield, then toss my glove into the grass, take a run, and slide into the mitt. “He won’t be with us long,” one of them observed. “You mean he’s going up?” asked the other. “No,” replied the first, “there’s an institution here to take care of guys like that…!”
I was only practicing three things at once, like running, throwing and sliding. And I fooled them, because two years later, in September, I got off a train in New York, a brand-new suitcase in one hand and $95 in my pocket. The next day was my greatest in baseball. I was reporting to Brooklyn.
The bag was Kid Eberfeld’s idea. He was back from the majors and playing with us at Montgomery, Alabama, in the Southern League when manager Johnny Dobbs gave me the offer to join the Dodgers. The Kid and Mrs. Eberfeld came over to say goodby and good luck while I was packing. I had one of those cardboard valises … they’d last about a thousand miles if you got good weather, but if you ever got caught in the rain with one, you’d suddenly find yourself walking along with just a handle in your hand.
Well, they told me I couldn’t go to the big leagues with a thing like that and made me lay out $18 for a good one. I’d gone two and a half years to dental school and I was trying to save up enough tuition dough for another year. It cost about $150 plus more for instruments and everything, and I was short enough of cash without buying a bag. “You won’t come back,” said Eberfield. “Never mind the money. Forget about being a dentist.”
So I got to New York. It was in the evening and no use going to the park then, so I asked a cabdriver for a place to stay, and he drove me to the Longacre Hotel at 47th Street. I checked in and went down and sat in the lobby. I was afraid to go out, it was so dark, but finally I walked down to 46th Street and then hustled back, for fear I’d get lost. About twenty minutes later I went as far as 45th and back. I kept adding another block each trip and had been clear to 42nd Street and returned by midnight when I decided to turn in. The next morning I started for the park. Brooklyn played then at the old Washington Street grounds at Fifth Avenue and Third and with the help of an elevated and a streetcar I made it. The gateman found out what I wanted and waved toward the clubhouse. “Go on down there,” he said … and, as I walked away, he called after me, “You better be good.”
I’ll never forget walking into the locker room. There was a crap game going on in one corner. The only fellow who paid attention to me was Zack Wheat. He introduced me around. Nobody shook hands. Some grunted. A few said hello. I walked over to the game and decided maybe I ought to get in good with the boys by participating in their sport, so I fished out $20 and asked if I could shoot. Somebody said, “Sure,” and handed me the dice. I rolled ’em out. A hand reached for my 20 and a voice said, “Craps, busher,” and I never even got the bones back. I was about to reach for more money when I felt a tap on my shoulder and there was manager Bill Dahlen.
“Are you a crapshooter or a ballplayer, kid?” he asked. I told him I was a player and he said, “Well, get into a suit and on that field while you still have carfare.”
I hustled, believe me, and I’ve never touched dice since, either. I got to the bench and just sat there. I knew better than to pick up a bat and go to the plate. Elberfeld told me what happened to rookies who tried that. Finally Dahlen came over and said, “Let’s see you chase a few,” and I ran like hell for the outfield. Behind the fence was a big building with fire escapes all down one side and guys in shirtsleeves were parked on the steps, passing around pails of beer and getting set for the game.
I never expected to play, but just as the umpires came out, Dahlen told me to “Get in center.” Hub Northen, the regular center fielder, had been sick, and I guess they decided they might as well get me over with quick. My first time at bat we had a man on first and Dahlen gave me the bunt sign. The pitch wasn’t good and I let it go by. Claude Hendrix, the league’s leading pitcher, was working for Pittsburgh and George Gibson was catching. Hendrix threw another and I singled to right-center. When I got to the bench after the inning, Dahlen stopped me. “Didn’t you see the bunt sign?” he asked. I told him yes, but that down south we had the privilege of switching on the next pitch if we wanted to. “I don’t want you to carry too much responsibility, kid,” he said, “so I’ll run the team, and that way all you’ll have to worry about is fielding and hitting.” My ears were red when I got to center field.
Up on the fire escape the boys were having drinks on my hit and I could hear them speaking real favorably of me. I heard somebody holler, and it was Wheat telling me to move back. Hans Wagner was at the plate. He larruped one and I went way back and grabbed it. In the dugout Wheat said, “Better play deeper for him.” I thought of the catch I’d made and said to myself, “I can grab anything he can hit.” Two innings later he came up again and Wheat waved me back, but I wouldn’t go, and wham! old Hans peeled one off. The ball went by me like a beebee shot, and he was roosting on third when I caught up with it.
I got three more hits right in a row. The first time Hendrix had fed me a fastball, figuring why waste his best pitch, a spitter, on a busher. He was pretty mad by the time I combed two blows off his spitter and another off his hook. Once I was on first Dahlen gave me the steal sign and away I went. I beat Gibson’s throw, and Wagner just stood there, looking down at me. Never said a word. I stole two bases, and when I came up the fifth time we’d knocked Hendrix out and a lefthander was pitching for the Bucs.Pittsburgh’s manager Fred Clark hollered at me, “All-right, phenom, let’s see you cross over.” I was feeling cocky enough to do it so I stepped across the plate and stood hitting righthanded and I got a base on balls!
Two days later the Dodgers were playing the Cubs. I came to bat for the first time that day with nobody on. Cub catcher Jimmy Archer looked up to me and said, “So you’re the new Brooklyn star, huh? A basestealer, too, huh? Well, I hope you get on and go down.” I got on and, with two out, Dahlen gave me the green light. I was twenty feet from the bag when I saw Johnny Evers with the ball. I tried to slide around him, but no use. He really crowned me. As I lay there, he pulled up one pants leg. “Oh, tryin’ to spike me,” he growled, although I hadn’t even touched him. “I’ll stick this ball down your throat if you ever try it again, busher!”
My greatest day was over. And my real education had begun!