day 37: the old perfessor

Today is 37 days, which is two days and five weeks of the omer: gevurah she’b’yesod.

I’ve included player position in my quest for diversity in this project, so today I’m excited to highlight my first manager. Casey Stengel did play right field, but he is best known as (and was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1966 on his strength as) a manager. As he joked to a Senate subcommittee in 1958 (during testimony about baseball’s anti-trust exemption), “I had many years that I was not so successful as a ball player, as it is a game of skill.” (You can see a couple more of his bons mots from that day here.)

I’ve profiled a few characters on this blog — and I thought I had a lot to wade through with Ted Williams, Adrian Beltre, and Rickey Henderson — but I think Stengel takes the cake. He’s (in)famous for so many things. He played on, coached, or managed 18 teams over his 52-year career, so it’s perhaps not surprising that he saw both unprecedented success and abject failure.

The good: He was a three-time WS champion as a player, and he hit the first WS home run in Yankee Stadium, in Game 1 of the 1923 series: a two-out, inside-the-park, ninth-inning shot to win the game. Ten years earlier, he had hit the first ever home run (also in-the-park) in Ebbetts Field. In 12 years as the manager, his Yankees won 10 pennants and seven WS championships, including five consecutive (still unmatched), 1949-1953. He holds the record for most WS wins by a manager, 37, and most series games managed, 63.

The bad: In nine years managing the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Braves he had nine losing seasons.

The ugly: He managed the expansion Mets for their first four years, finishing in last place every year, including a 40-120 season in 1962, the worst record by a 20th century club. He managed to keep his signature sense of humor about it, though: “I been in this game a hundred years but I see new ways to lose I never knew existed before.” At another time he cracked, “The Mets is like the WPA. We give everyone a job.” (To be fair, he and the other 1962 expansion team, Houston’s Colt 45s, were in those first years composed of ragtag players whom no one else wanted.)

At the same time, Stengel was the key factor behind the success of the establishment of the new New York franchise. Sportswriter Arthur Daley of The New York Times wrote,

He gave the Mets the momentum they needed when they needed it most. He was the booster that got them off the ground and on their journey. The smoke screen he generated to accompany the blast-off obscured the flaws and gave the Mets an acceptance and a following they could not have obtained without him.

His antics as a player were well known — catching fly balls behind his back; amusing the right field crowd by releasing sparrows from his cap; thumbing his nose at the opposing bench after hitting home runs; taking off his shirt in protest after getting ejected from a game after arguing with the umpire — but it was as a manager that he really perfected his clowning routine. As comedian George Gobel said: “If he turned pro, he’d put us all out of business.”

His inscrutable, rambling, and quippy way of speaking to reporters belied his acumen and knowledge of the game. It was dubbed “Stengelese” — and to be honest, makes me wince hearing it now that rambling unintelligibility is White House signature style.

He would fall asleep on the bench, and forget his players’ names, and have hour-long player meetings that were just him talking, and berate his teams (he and Jackie Robinson had an unfortunately highly contentious and highly public dislike of each other), but he gave the city a show, and over his career had a profound effect on the game itself. Commissioner William Eckert said of Stengel, “He’s probably done more for baseball than anyone.”

On the strength of his righteous tasks of making the game of baseball better, let’s count day 37 in honor of, as his biographer described, this “national figure, an average player, a controversial coach … a mixture of Santa Claus and Jimmy Durante as he duck-walked out to home plate with his lineup card.”

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