My friend Steve Steinberg, who has joined me in several book events, is the co-author of a fantastic tome, “1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York,” along with Lyle Spatz. The book last week was awarded the Seymour Medal for the year’s best baseball history book.
Steve organized our event at the Museum of the City of New York, and is a tireless and passionate student and promoter of baseball history. I have learned much from him, and am so proud of him for winning this well-deserved honor.
The book is a great source of colorful stories, not only about the Giants’ John McGraw, but also his Yankees’ counterpart Miller Huggins, and of course Huggins’ star Babe Ruth. And look closely at the cover – one of those other Giants depicted there is none other than Casey Stengel, who not only played big for the Giants in their World Series of the 1920s, but did a fair job managing the Yankees in the Fall Classic in the 1940s and 50s as well.
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.)
It’s great to see old fans of the New York Giants — the baseball Giants, who played in Gotham from 1883-1957 — get a little moment of sunshine now that the team they’ve stuck with for all these years has finally won its first World Series since 1954.
I had the pleasure of meeting about 50 of them tonight at the New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society’s meeting. Steve Steinberg, co-author of “1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York,” and I gave talks to this group, which meets occasionally in a conference room in the Church of the Mediator on 231st Street in the Bronx. Group organizer Bill Kent orders pizza, collects money, and tosses cans of soda like a vendor pitching peanuts.
I learned a lot from these guys, most notably that one legend has it that Blanche McGraw — widow of the great Giants manager John McGraw, and reportedly the very last fan to leave the Polo Grounds in 1957 — placed a curse on the team that it would never win a World Series in San Francisco. The gentleman telling the story said it may remain intact, noting the Giants clinched each playoff series on the road, in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Arlington, Texas.
I’m ready for more: Steve and I have a second New York event planned for Wednesday night, Nov. 10, at 7 pm at a really special place, the Bergino Baseball Clubhouse, at 67 East 11th Street, New York, near Union Square and around the corner from the marvelous Strand bookstore.
Bergino is run by Jay Goldberg, who has built a sweet business selling artfully designed handcrafted baseballs. Steve and I will be telling stories, and selling and signing books. (I offer mine for $20, which is $5 off the cover price.) I hope to see you there!
I love the way Duane Kuiper has characterized this Giants’ season. He first nailed it early in the year, when heart-stopping, heat-throwing closer Brian Wilson nearly blew a lead in that inimitable way of his. But it describes everything the Giants are doing to us – the way they lost all those low-scoring games early in the year when the pitchers were brilliant and the hitters anemic, and then lost all those high-scoring games in August, when the hitters scorched everything and the pitchers fooled no one.
And yet the Giants stayed in the hunt, and kept us on the edge of our seats. And now they are in an honest-to-goodness race for the playoffs, 3 games out of first place and 1.5 games out of the Wild Card lead, with only 28 games to go.
Here we go again! I’ve already done it, even though I should know better – I’ve given my heart to this team, after all the times it has broken it in the past. I can’t say I’ll be satisfied with a near-miss of the playoffs; I want post-season baseball at AT&T Park. It is within reach.
Having said that, I want to report (since I have not updated this in ages) that I have had a glorious summer, filled with baseball games, book events, and family vacations from coast to coast. I will try to offer up a recap at some point, but a few baseball highlights include a book party in Portland, a pair of Mariners-Yankees games in Seattle (one with Steve Steinberg, co-author of “1921,” with whom I’ll be appearing in New York City in November), the SABR convention in Atlanta in August (stay indoors!), a brutal, sweltering Giant loss to the Braves at Turner Field, and a Bulls game in Durham, NC. And – I now have a bobblehead of Joe DiMaggio in a San Francisco Seals uniform, thanks to the Giants!
What could be better than that?
Ask me in October…