When Casey Stengel stepped into his new role as the manager of the New York Mets in 1962, he was already a baseball legend. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1891 as Charles Dillon Stengel, “Casey” enjoyed a long stint as a player before he turned to managing. His five-decade-long career included leading the New York Yankees to an astonishing seven World Series victories.
Stengel’s highly idiosyncratic expressions became as legendary as he did, both during his lifetime and after. This “Stengelese” consisted of sayings like these: He once told his players to line up alphabetically, “by height.” He felt honored to have a ballpark named for him, especially since he’d been “thrown out of so many.” And then there’s the classic line when he said it felt great to meet so many “friends that I didn’t used to like.”
The left-handed Stengel started out as an outfielder with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1912. It was during these early days that he acquired the nickname “Casey,” for “KC,” as in Kansas City.
He went on to join the Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Giants, and Boston Braves. One of Stengel’s greatest achievements as a player was when his two home runs helped the Giants win Games 1 and 3 of the 1923 World Series, although they ended up losing the series 4-2 to the Yankees. One memorable moment that perfectly captures the essence of what it was to be Stengel: as he zoomed around the bases for a home run in Game 1, his shoe flopped off.
In the seventh inning of Game 3, Stengel struck a homer that flew right out of the park, putting the first score of the game on the board. But his achievements for the Giants didn’t stop them from trading Stengel to the less-stellar Boston Braves in 1924.
He turned to coaching in the early 1930s, although initially he didn’t distinguish himself. He coached for the Dodgers first, then spent five years with the Braves, achieving nine losing seasons over the collective nine years he spent with the two teams.
In 1949, he became the Yankees’ interim manager. At first, fans and pundits ridiculed Yankees owner George Weiss’ choice of Stengel, saying his antics on the diamond and his frequent bouts of verbal nonsense would doom the team.
But that’s not what happened. With Stengel in charge, the Yankees and their fans enjoyed 12 years at the top of their game. The first year he came on board, the Yankees won yet another Subway Series, beating the Dodgers 4-1.
The Bronx Bombers went on to win the World Series again under Stengel’s leadership six more times, in 1950, 1951, 1952, and 1953, then again in 1956 and 1958. Stengel’s Yankees also appeared in three additional World Series, giving them a pennant total of 10.
Then came 1960, with Stengel entering his 70s. The Yankees let him go. Dan Topping, the club’s executive, said he wished Stengel was still in his 50s, but the time had come to look toward the future with someone new. Stengel’s reply, in pure Stengelese, was that he’d “never make the mistake of being 70 again.”
But after refusing the offer of managing the Detroit Tigers, he found his second act with the Mets, a brand-new ball club trying to take the place of the Dodgers, who had decamped to Los Angeles, and the Giants, who’d left for San Francisco. He told the press, considering his age of 71 at the start of the team’s first season in 1962, that most of the people who shared his age were “dead at the present time.”
Those early Mets went out of their way to earn their nickname of “Loveable Losers.” Stengel’s biographer, Joe Durso, wrote that Stengel was the “ringleader” of a circus of a team. He couldn’t seem to lead them very far out of the slump they’d fallen into from their first game, in which they’d lost to the St. Louis Cardinals 11-4.
They next lost 4-3 to the Pittsburgh Pirates. To add insult to injury, their original home base at the Polo Grounds was flooded by a steady, gray, drizzling rain that April day. But the fans cheered for them anyway, shouting words of encouragement and enjoying the thrill of a homerun scored by Frank Thomas halfway through the game.
Passing the Torch
That first season, Stengel’s team ended up in 10th place in the NL. He had some decent players, but they weren’t the freshest new talent—10 of them that first season in 1962 were born before 1930, and their battle fatigue showed in their lackluster play. In all, the “Loveable Losers” lost more than 400 games between their debut and Stengel’s retirement in 1965. He once said that his team constantly found “new ways to lose.”
As he prepared to retire after breaking a hip, Stengel had the idea to hire beloved Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, whom the Yankees had let go as a manager. Berra had built up an extraordinary record with the Yankees under Stengel’s management. But Berra didn’t help the Mets much, and retired from play after four games.
It was new manager Gil Hodges (who was one of Stengels’ Mets debut players in ‘62) who turned the team’s fortunes around in 1969. He led them to become the “Miracle Mets” in their first World Series victory.
After his official retirement, Stengel stayed on with the Mets as vice president. In 1966, making an exception to the usual five-year rule, the members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America unanimously elected him to the sport’s Hall of Fame. Casey Stengel died of lymphatic cancer in Southern California in 1975.
His quarter-century as a manager saw him lead three mediocre-to-awful clubs, and one so extraordinarily good that it remains a legend. And he gave us fans a joyous history of grit and dedication to his game, along with plenty of memorable moments and shining witticisms that could have come from no one else.