I love New York!
On Thursday night, more than 100 people turned out to the Museum of the City of New York to learn about the Old Perfesser, Casey Stengel, and his long and storied life in baseball. (Need I remind readers that, long before he was a fabled manager of the Yankees or Mets, Casey Stengel was a player on John McGraw’s Giants?) I had the privilege of moderating a panel discussion with a group of amazing sportswriters: Marty Appel, Jim Kaplan, Steven Goldman and Steve Steinberg. The panel was completed with the great addition of Stengel’s grand-niece, Toni Mollett, who runs the Casey Stengel Baseball Center.
Steve Steinberg, Toni Mollett and I also had the great privilege of meeting Yogi and Carmen Berra at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on the campus of Montclair State University in New Jersey the day before, along with Dave Kaplan, a sportswriter who runs the museum.
Highlights from my two days in baseball heaven:
* Yogi Berra clearly maintains a great deal of affection for his old manager. “Casey got Bill Dickey out of retirement to come and help,” Yogi said. “He taught me a lot of things.” (Yogi did not utter any Yogi-isms, like his purported, “Bill Dickey is learning me all his experiences.”) “I played outfield sometimes,” Yogi said. “Casey liked guys who could play two positions. At one time we had three catchers in the field – Elston (Howard), (John) Blanchard and myself. Gil McDougal was an All-Star at second, short and third.” (UPDATE 3/17/2012: See comments below; the correct spelling is McDougald.)
* Upon hearing my connection to the San Francisco Giants, Yogi asked me to say hello to Dave Righetti. Perhaps acknowledging Stengel’s influence, Yogi recalled that, as manager of the Yankees, he turned Righetti from a starting pitcher into a closer.
* But life wasn’t all easy under Stengel. “If we were playing a double header,” Yogi recalled, “he’d say, ‘If we’re ahead, I’ll take you out,’ but he never did. One time, I said to him, ‘Here – you catch.’” Yogi said he once wanted a rest so badly, he began arguing with the umpire, trying to get thrown out. The ump said, “Yogi, if I’m gonna suffer, you’re gonna suffer with me.”
* Yogi’s museum is worth a visit for any baseball fan; it will re-open next month after an extensive remodel. I had a sneak peak and it’s going to be beautiful. In one case, there’s Yogi’s jersey and mitt worn during Don Larsen’s perfect game from the 1956 World Series; the glove is bronzed. Yogi pointed out how worn the mitt was, and told me that he used to insert “falsies” inside as padding to protect his hands.
* The panelists the next night were equally delightful. Marty Appel pointed out that “We wouldn’t be here at all if the Yankees had won the last game of the 1948 season.” Bucky Harris was managing the Yankees then, and was on the verge of a second straight pennant. Harris, however, had been hired by former GM Larry McPhail, and since McPhail was fired after a fight with owners Dan Topping and Del Webb (and replaced by George Weiss), Harris was on thin ice. As long as he won, his job was safe; when the Indians took the pennant in 1948, Harris was out, and Weiss brought in his man Stengel. Had the Yankees won that day, Harris may have stayed and ultimately won seven straight titles, and Stengel never would have had his big chance, Appel said. “Sometimes baseball comes down to one day.”
* Another little-known factor in Stengel’s development as a Hall of Fame manager: the disarray of the 1930s’ Brooklyn Dodgers, a situation that resembled, well, the disarray of their most likely descendants: this year’s Los Angeles Dodgers (with the team’s owners fighting in divorce court) and this year’s New York Mets, mired in the Bernie Madoff scandal. Author Steven Goldman said the death of Charles Ebbetts in 1925 plunged the team into chaos (with colorful stories, such as Ebbetts’ elaborate coffin not fitting in the grave, and in the time it took to widen the hole on that frigid April morning, one of his surviving co-owners caught pneumonia and died). Unable to bring in top-notch talent, the Bums resigned themselves to losing, and figuring, “Losing would be more fun with a fun guy,” hired Stengel, a famed baseball clown, to lead them. While Stengel played it for laughs, he also began experimenting with the platooning that made him so successful at Yankee Stadium. “While that’s considered an innovation of his Yankees’ years, the R&D for it happened in Brooklyn,” Goldman said.
* Most poignantly, Toni Mollett recalled coming to New York as a teen from Glendale, Calif., and going to Mets games to see her Uncle Casey. Stengel lived at the Essex House on Central Park South, and after the games, when the family would return, Casey would take his young niece for a walk around the block. “Come on,” he told her. “We have more work to do.” On that walk, many New Yorkers recognized the beloved and legendary manager. “They’d want autographs. They’d want a little Stengelese,” Mollett said. “Casey was such a well-loved character.” And he recognized his responsibility as an ambassador for the game, and within a few years the Mets were out-drawing his old employers, the Yankees.
* You can help Mollett keep Stengel’s vision alive, and bring the team concept to up-and-coming baseball players, by joining the Casey Stengel Baseball Center. I am.
* The day after the event, Marty Appel emailed fellow panelists: “I guess as the ultimate tribute to Casey, while we were sitting, the Mets were losing a doubleheader.” (And the Yankees won.)