Friday, March 31, 2017

"Casey Stengel: Baseball's Greatest Character"

Casey Stengel is one of the legendary names in baseball history, and everyone knows him as the man who led the Yankees to seven World Series wins and five straight titles from 1949-1953. He was also the man who put the Mets on the map in the early 1960s with his wit and clownish charm. There have been biographies written about him before, most notably Robert Creamer's wonderful book about him in 1984. So why another book about the life of the "Old Perfessor?"

Marty Appel, who worked for the Yankees for as their PR Director and producer of their local TV broadcasts as well as having written many books about the team and its stars, has answered that question, and he's hit one out of the park with his new tome, "Casey Stengel: Baseball's Greatest Character," which was just released by Doubleday.

For this book, Appel had access to an unpublished memoir by Edna Stengel (Casey's beloved wife), and it is an inside look at the man who was one of the most well-known people in America in the 1950s, but few really knew. The Stengels never had any children, as they thought they too old to begin a family. We learn about Casey's investments in Texas oil wells, and how the returns on that made him comfortable (but not really a millionaire) for life.

But Appel's book takes a ride through the baseball life of a man who just adored the game, and was simply miserable if he couldn't be a part of it. Casey was a good ballplayer with the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Braves. His career wouldn't have made him a Hall of Famer, but he could always hang his hat on the fact that he played on two Giants World Series championship teams in the early 1920s under the legendary John McGraw (and he hit the first ever World Series home run in Yankee Stadium in 1923). Playing under McGraw would be a great learning experience for Casey, and he would bring that knowledge with him as his managerial career got under way.

Appel takes us through Casey's life as he became a manager, and the results weren't anything special. He managed two mediocre clubs in the 1930s and 1940s, the Dodgers and Braves. He would then return to the minors to manage clubs in Milwaukee, Kansas City and Oakland, and won a title with the Oaks in 1948. That set the stage for his return to MLB, with the Yankees in 1949.

He managed the Yankees for 12 seasons, and put up the greatest resume any manager ever has: 10 AL pennants, 7 WS titles, and five straight to begin his tenure. But Appel points out that he had very complicated relationships with two of the team's biggest stars: Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. He and DiMaggio didn't speak much, and Joe had his own set of rules. Casey is painted as being disappointed in Mantle because he wasn't more like Babe Ruth in the numbers he could have put up. He also talks about the way Stengel treated Phil Rizzuto at the end of his career, especially embarrassing him by batting him ninth in some games. It was a slight Rizzuto never forgot. And Casey's complicated relationship with Billy Martin is also explored, and how their relationship was splintered when Casey didn't defend him after the Copacabana incident in 1957 that got him traded shortly after to Kansas City. Martin never really forgave Casey for that.

Appel also addresses the charges of Casey and racism. The Yankees didn't get their first black player until Elston Howard joined the club in 1955, and Appel deftly explains his behavior in the context of the day. He doesn't excuse some of Casey's callous remarks towards Howard.

We also see why the Yankees eventually let Casey go after the World Series loss in 1960, and the anger he had towards them for many years. (He stayed away from the Yankees and any events the club had for 10 years until he returned to have his number retired in 1970.) His return to baseball with the Mets in 1962 was in many ways was to stick it to his old employers in their own backyard. Casey rolled out the charm and the "Stengelese" as the Mets were historically bad, and it served the club well. (I must correct an error I found in the book. Not a major one. Marty called Ed Kranepool "an original Met." Having watched Mets games from my youth, Lindsey Nelson on TV would always go to great lengths when talking about Kranepool that he was NOT an original Met, as he was signed by the club in June of 1962, and an "Original Met" was someone who was with the club since their first game in April. Sorry, Marty.)

Casey will always be a beloved figure for what he did for establishing the Mets, and leading the Yankees to a decade of unprecedented success. He still loved baseball right up until his death in 1975, even watching the NBC Game of the Week in his hospital room as cancer was taking his life. The book is also a wonderful love story of Casey with his beloved wife Edna, who he slowly lost to Alzheimer's in the early 1970s. Casey Stengel was truly a renaissance man, more than just a clown or a great baseball manager. He truly enjoyed being with people, and loved the attention from the fans. He was a baseball lifer, and someone you'd love to have a beer with and talk about the game of baseball.

In 2009, the MLB Network ranked Casey as the most beloved character in baseball history. And it is a perfect title for Marty Appel's book. It's an enjoyable ride with one of MLB's most colorful figures. No matter who you support in MLB, you will enjoy this wonderful book.

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