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Summers at Shea
Tom Seaver Loses his Overcoat & Other Mets Stories
By Ira Berkow
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 Ira Berkow
All rights reserved.
"Stained-Glass" Casey Stengel
August 2, 1968
Casey Stengel said he recently celebrated his 78th birthday. The baseball record book says it oughta be 79. No matter. Casey is one of those rare birds who never grows old. That's because he's never been young.
For proof, note the following account by Damon Runyon of how Casey Stengel, then 33 (or 34), hit an inside-the-park home run in the ninth inning to win the first game of the 1923 World Series, 5–4, for the Giants over the Yankees:
"This is the way old Casey Stengel ran yesterday afternoon, running his home run home....
"His mouth wide open.
"His warped old legs bending beneath him at every stride.
"His arms flying back and forth like those of a man swimming with a crawl stroke.
"His flanks heaving, his breath whistling, his head far back.
"Yankee infielders passed by old Casey Stengel as he was running his home run home, adjuring himself to greater speeds as a jockey mutters to his horse in a race, swore that he was saying 'Go on Casey! Go on!'"
Runyon added that Stengel's "warped old legs ... just barely held out" until he reached the plate. "Then they collapsed," wrote Runyon.
Three thousand miles away in California, Edna Lawson, Stengel's fiancée, proudly showed newspaper clippings of Casey's game-winning blow to her father. "What do you think of my Casey?" she asked.
Her father shook his head. "I hope," he said, "that your Casey lives until the wedding." Edna and Casey were married the following August, and Casey's warped old legs even made it up the aisle. ("For the bridegroom," Casey said at the time, "it is the best catch he ever made in his career.")
Casey Stengel sat in the New York Met dugout at Shea Stadium prior to the recent old-timer game there. If accounts by Runyon and others of his day even border on accuracy, then Casey has not changed appreciably. If he could run a home run home then, he could probably do it now, too.
His white hair is sun-tinged in spots. A wave flaps over the side of his face, which is wrinkled like a rutted road. His blue eyes water now and then and he wipes them with a handkerchief as big as a flag. His tasteful blue suit is specked with light brown, and looks almost natty on him.
And his legs. Of course, his warped old legs. He crosses them at the knee and one works nervously under black executive socks. On his feet are black slippers. A young man wonders if old Casey Stengel wasn't shod in them when he ran his home run nearly half a century ago.
Old friends greeted Casey. Younger fellows introduced themselves to a legend in the parchment flesh. Some players that played for Casey when he managed the Amazin' Mets dropped by to chat briefly. And Casey talked. Someone has described Everett Dirksen as having a "stained-glass voice." If that is so, then Casey's voice is cracked stained-glass. And his syntax is as cloudy as rubbings from time-worn church-yard tombstones.
About the lack of hitting in the majors this year, Casey said: "They ask you, you ask yourself, I ask you, it's them good young pitchers between 18 and 24 years of age that can throw the ball over the plate and don't kill the manager, isn't it?"
About the St. Louis Cardinals: "St. Louis can execute and do more for ya. I thought Baltimore was going to be something but I quit on 'em and then I thought Pittsburgh would excel but I quit on them, too.
"But you gotta admit they can run, St. Louis I mean. Yeah, we'll say they can run. And they got two left-handers who'll shock ya and now the right-hander is commencing to be like Derringer or some of the others was. And a three-gamer, too. Can pitch every third day. The center fielder is a helluva good player and the left fielder is doin' an amazin' job. The fella at third they always worry about but he's doin' everything anyone could want. The first baseman got lotsa power and the catcher's now throwin' out people."
An old sportswriter friend came by and said he had just seen Edna in the stands and she's looking as great as always.
Old Casey Stengel, who ran a home run home nearly half a century ago, jumped up on those warped old legs in black slippers and grabbed the old friend's hand.
Stengel's gnarled face beamed. "You got it, kid," he said, pumping the man's hand. "You sure do."CHAPTER 2
Casey Stengel the Vaudevillian
February 1, 1974
"Even though Babe Ruth ran me out of vaudeville," said Casey Stengel, "I still can't knock him."
"Now this fellow in Atlanta is amazing. He hits the ball the best for a man of his size. But I can't say he hits the ball better than Ruth. Ruth could hit the ball so far nobody could field it. And that's even with the medicinal improvements today. They come along now with the aluminum cup and it improves players who only used to wear a belt and it's better for catching ground balls."
Stengel jumped up on his bowed, lumpy, but still spunky 84-year-old legs and hounded down an imaginary ground ball that bounded under the coffee table.
"I got an offer from Van and Skank, the biggest names in vaudeville — they were from Brooklyn — to go on the stage after the 1923 World Series.
"I hit two home runs to win two games in that Series. I hit one in the first game and one in the third game. And this was when I was with the Giants and the Yankees were already the Yankees with Babe Ruth.
"Now, I remember Ruth when he was a young pitcher with the Red Sox. I batted against him, and this was before he grew the barrel on his belly but he always had those skinny legs. Well, they figured they could make more money with him in the lineup every day instead of every fourth day so they moved him first to first base but they had a good fella there so they moved him to outfield.
"In that series I hit an inside-the-park homer to win the first game. I was 33 years old. And I had a bad heel so I wore a cup in my shoe. The cup started comin' out when I was roundin' the bases. All the pictures show my like this" — head with hunk of white hair thrust back — "and like this" — head flung forward, rheumy blue eyes wide, tongue thrust out from his deeply stratified face — "and puffin'."
"So then the vaudeville guys asked me, could I sing. Sure I can sing" — for this voice sounds like cracked stained glass — "and can I dance? Sure. They wanted to pay me a thousand dollars for a week. And I wasn't making but five thousand — maybe six thousand — for a season playing ball.
"I was riding high. But the Yankees and Ruth said, 'Better watch out,' after I got the home run. It was a threat to brush me back. In the third game I hit a homer over the fence to win the game. And I ran around the bases and I made like a bee or a fly had got on the end of my nose and was bothering me. I kept rubbing it with my thumb, and sticking my five fingers in the direction of the Yankee bench ... Commissioner Landis fined me for that.
"So I began to practice my dancing and I thought I'd be the new Fred Astaire. But then Ruth hit three home runs in the last game and the Yankees won the Series and vaudeville forgot about me and nobody heard from me again for 10 years.
"So now Ruth, he could have gone on vaudeville. Hell, he could have gone to Europe. It was near the end of my career and pretty soon I commenced managing. Ruth kept on hitting homers. Aaron is going to break his record, and so the National Broadcasting people asked me to talk for three minutes about Aaron being better then Ruth. I couldn't say that.
"It's a livelier ball today, and Aaron was up more times. And they use the fake fields, and the balls whoosh through faster. But Aaron is amazing the way he can hit 'em with his wrists.
"Now, Ruth struck out a lot. But any damn fool knows that nobody pays to see the world's greatest singles hitter. Or the world's greatest doubles hitter. Ruth was the world's greatest home run hitter and that's what everybody wanted. And that's what he gave 'em.
"It worked out okay for me, too. Because I'm still in baseball — vice-president of the New York Mets ballclub and in the Hall of Fame — and who knows what my future in vaudeville would have been. Just like I started out to be a dentist. The dean of my school said, 'Why don't you be an orthodontist?' That way I could have got a lot of rich kids and put a black filling in their mouth.
"The dean said, 'Always try to be a little different.' And today I make speeches all over. People ask me, Casey, how can you speak so much when you don't talk English too good? Well, I've been invited to Europe and I say, they don't speak English over there too good, either.
"So you can see why I can't knock Babe Ruth, even though he drove me out of the vaudeville business, can't you?"CHAPTER 3
Casey Gone but Still Baffling
September 14, 1976
Casey Stengel left more than a great baseball legacy when he died last September 29. What also remains is his estate worth $40 million. Casey went out in characteristic fashion, however, leaving a financial plight that is as inscrutable and transcendent as Stengelese.
Two wills of Stengel's exist. One was signed in 1932. The only person mentioned in it who's alive today is his wife, Edna. Now in her 80s, she is hospitalized and legally certified as mentally incompetent.
The other will was drawn up in 1971. A number of would-be beneficiaries are still alive and relatively lucid. The problem is, Casey never got around to signing that document.
The courts must decide where Casey's shares in banks, stocks, oil wells, and real estate will go, and who gets his cash. Rather, who gets some of his cash.
"There are about 35 keys to safe deposit boxes that no one can find," said Herb Normal, the New York Mets' equipment manager and friend of Casey's since Stengel was the club's manager in the early 1960s.
"As I understand, letters were sent out to all the banks within a 100-mile radius of Casey's home in Glendale, California, asking if these keys belonged to any of their boxes. So far, nothing."
Stengel died at age 85, and for most of his public life — he became a major league outfielder in 1912 and managed many teams, most notably leading the New York Yankees to an unprecedented 10 pennants in 12 years, 1949–1960 — he was considered a clown or a genius or a treasure. Or all three.
If there was anything he understood nearly as well as baseball, it was money.
He was vice-president of a bank in Glendale, of which his brother-in-law and executor, John Lawson Sr., is chairman of the board.
As Casey got older and — if possible — more prolix, some nieces and nephews, according to Herb Norman, tried to declare him mentally incompetent as well.
"Once," said Norman, "Casey handed me a satchel and said to hang on to it for a while. I tossed it in my locker. For some reason, I looked in the satchel. It was loaded with bundles of cash! I counted up to $35,000!
"When I saw Casey I said, 'Why did you do that to me?' He said, 'Because I trust you.' I said, 'But why didn't you tell me?' He said it was part of a business deal and wanted to keep it quiet since he didn't want family after it. I said, 'But what if it were stolen?' He said, 'So what. ... By the way, take some.'
"The family situation landed in court. And the judge ruled, 'Casey, you're saner than I'll ever be.'"
Casey knew how important money was for his players and, when they deserved it, would go to bat for them with owners over salary.
Elston Howard, when a young Yankee catcher, was asked to make a trip to Japan with the Yankees one winter. He said he couldn't because his wife was expecting a child. Casey felt it was important Howard go for the playing experience, and told Howard to call his wife a few times a week from Japan and bill him.
"And I'll never forget one night we're having a party in Osaka and there's a phone call for me," said Howard. "It's my wife. She had the baby. Stengel had put in the call for me. It was a total surprise. Those phone calls altogether must have cost over $200. But I was grateful."
One of the players Stengel most respected was the Met infielder Rod Kanehl. Rod had little ability but played with gusto. After Kanehl finished his career, he was having a rocky time. Stengel sought to get him a job in baseball. At one Old-Timers' Day game at Shea Stadium, Kanehl, trying to be funny, began to rag Stengel.
"Hey, you old geezer," said Kanehl, "you made all your money from your old man watering down whisky in Kansas City." Apparently, there was some truth to Stengel's father's business, but not necessarily to how Stengel astutely amassed his own fortune.
Stengel grew ashen. "I've got money, you don't," said Stengel. "You're trying to get a job, I'm not. Don't ever ask me to do anything for you again."
This reporter had occasion to speak with Casey about money matters a few times. We sat in a dugout one afternoon several years ago. He was nearly 80. His face was as wrinkled as an old elephant hide. His blue eyes were watery, and he wiped them with a red handkerchief as big as a flag. The ears were floppy. His voice was rumbly and his syntax cloudy as rubbings from old tombstones.
I asked why the Los Angeles Dodgers were such a successful organization. Casey said, "You know the owner is smart because he keeps the seats clean. If you wear a clean dress it'll stay clean when you sit down. He runs a public park and he's not going to be arrested for being neat about it. And you know he's kept Alston ever since he got him. So that's number two on how you know how smart the owner is."
Stengel was noted for having an incredible memory, except for one blind spot. Names of people. He often mixed them up. Herb Norman remembers that when he and Stengel began working together, the old manager kept calling him "Logan."
After a month, Norman went into Stengel's office. "Casey," he said, "my name is not Logan. My name is Herb Norman."
Stengel looked at him with that gnarled, gremlin face, and said, "Do I make my checks out right for you?"
Excerpted from Summers at Shea by Ira Berkow. Copyright © 2013 Ira Berkow. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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