This week I will start an off-season feature where I’ll take a look back at the life and career of some influential people, both on and off the field, in the history of our beloved Mets. It’s only fitting that the initial one be dedicated to our first manager.
Charles Dillon Stengel was born in Kansas City, MO on July 30, 1890. Although gifted in Baseball, Football and Basketball, Stengel’s dream was to be a dentist. However, he was unsuccessful due to the fact that he was left-handed and most dental instruments were designed for right handed people. Baseball was his second choice and it was early in his career when Charles Stengel was given the nickname, “K.C.”, in honor of his hometown, but that quickly gave way to ‘Casey.’
Mostly used a platoon player, Casey appeared in 1227 games over a 14 year career and complied a modest 284 BA. From his early days as an outfielder with the Brooklyn Robins (later to become the Dodgers) teammates observed that Stengel had an innate ability to ‘lead.’ He became the 1st player to ever hit a ball completely out of Ebbets Field. In 1919, now playing for Pittsburgh, the Pirates came into Brooklyn to oppose Stengel’s old team. Dodger fans booed him mercilessly. Cat calls rained down onto the field. Unfazed, Casey walked to the plate and promptly tipped his cap to the disparaging crowd. A sparrow flew free from under his cap and the boos quickly turned to laughter. It was Casey’s tongue-in-cheek way of giving fans ‘the bird.’ His best offensive years were 1922 when he hit 368 and 1923 when he hit 339. In 1923, as a member of the NY Giants, Stengel became the first player to ever hit a Home Run in a World Series game in Yankee Stadium.
His success as a player was marginal at best. But, it was as a manager where Stengel left his mark. Nicknamed ‘The Ol’ Perfesser’, he is often remembered as a clown, a jokester. He is immortalized for his unique way of using the English language, what came to be known as ‘Stengelese.’ (see the comments section for some classic quotes.) But Casey was perhaps one of the greatest tacticians in history. Don Larsen once said of Casey, “He made what some people called stupid moves, but about 9 out of every 10 worked.” Connie Mack, the winningest manager in history, stated, “I never saw a man who juggled his lineup so much and who played so many hunches so successfully.” One of Casey’s many contributions was the platooning of players, something that had been non-existent since the turn of the century.
With 1,905 managerial wins, Casey is 11th all-time. Although he managed the Dodgers, Braves, Yankees and Mets (four teams that Joe Torre has also managed), Casey’s best success was with the Yankees. He won an unprecedented 10 pennants in 12 years (1949-1960) and also is the only manager in history to win 5 consecutive World Series (49-53)
After being upset by the Pirates in the 60 World Series, Yankee management fired 70 year old Casey. Stengel joked, “I’ll never make the mistake of turning 70 again.” In 1962, Casey was hired to be the Mets first manager. It was obvious that Mets were not competitive and would not be for a while. However, Stengel did what he was supposed to. He gave the NY media something to write about. He was the face of the ‘loveable loser’ Mets. And even though the Yankee dynasty rolled on, the Mets were featured just as prominently in the sports pages and drew just as many fans, if not more, than the Yankees. This was due in large part to Casey. “I’ve been in this game 100 years,” Casey once said about the 62 Mets, “but I see new ways to lose I never knew existed.” It was Casey who first coined the expression, ‘The Amazin’ Mets.’
In August 1965, Stengel fell, broke his hip and stepped down as Mets skipper. His # 37 became the first number ever retired by the Mets. It is–and will remain–the only number in team history ever worn by only one person. Stengel either played or managed for all four NY teams (Mets, Yankees, Dodgers and Giants.) In a baseball career that spanned from 1912 to 1965, Casey either played, managed or coached for 18 different clubs. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1966.
On September 29, 1975, Charles Dillon ‘Casey’ Stengel died at age 85. His wife of 51 years, Edna, died just three days later and the two are laid to rest, side-by-side, in Glendale, CA.