Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character by Marty Appel
Casey Stengel: Baseball's Greatest Character is the latest baseball book by Marty Appel, the former Director of Public Relations for the New York Yankees and author of the 1996 CASEY Award-winning book Slide, Kelly, Slide. The many books about Casey Stengel’s baseball career create a challenge for any biographer to present a new perspective on the legendary Yankee manager. While some biographies are cut and dry in their facts about Stengel, Appel’s biography succeeds by portraying one of baseball’s most famous denizens as the charismatic manager and a man with his own flaws and hindrances, setbacks he slayed before reaching the Baseball Hall of Fame. Appel spends little time tracing Stengel’s lineage, which can make the beginning of any biography a laborious ordeal to read. Appel instead focuses on the highlights of Stengel’s upbringing in Kansas City, how he fell in love with baseball, his dabbles in dentistry (he was weeks away from graduating), and the woes and struggles Stengel endured trying to break into the majors that ended with a career .284 batting average.
Appel revisits stories that made Stengel legendary without sounding redundant. One of those stories includes Stengel’s 1919 trade to the Pittsburg Pirates from Brooklyn where he later faced his old team amidst the jeers of Brooklyn’s fans. Many know this story about how Stengel took a live sparrow, placed it under his cap, and after approaching the plate, turned to the booing fans, lifted his cap, and gave the crowd the bird. What makes Appel’s version so interesting is the vivd detail he uses to describe the story without sounding like a biographer recycling old stories. Appel not only tells these stories with new detail, but he adds a level of emotion that puts his readers right here in the stands.
Absent of biases, Appel capably gives equal attention to Stengel’s struggles and highpoints to show a colorful but objective account of his strengths and weaknesses as a player, manager, and man. Like Robert Creamer before him, Appel’s biography does not shy away from Stengel’s struggling years and the challenges that almost made him quit baseball. After his playing days ended, Stengel became a manager first for the Brooklyn Dodgers, then for the Boston Braves, who were then known as the “Bees.” Appel describes these trying years as a test of Stengel’s baseball knowledge he had accumulated during his playing days, particularly under the tutelage of the New York Giants’ manager John McGraw. Stengel struggled in vain to make these teams into winners. In fact, his hand at managing the Boston Bees became so difficult that when a cab hit Stengel late one April night in 1943, Boston writer Dave Egan suggested that the cabbie be named “Man of the Year,” a severe jab at Stengel’s competence and character. But it is in these particulars that make Appel’s biography shine. Appel does not dwell on tedious details, but instead offers enough insight into Stengel as a baseball player and a man to make any baseball fan, whether he is an avid or casual one, feel satisfied.
Appel does not ignore the more callous side of Stengel either. He describes incidents that insulted and embarrassed future Hall of Famers and key players alike. Towards the end of shortstop Phil Rizzuto’s playing days with the New York Yankees, Stengel expressed his disappointment in Rizzuto’s hitting by putting him at the very bottom of the lineup behind the game’s starting pitcher when it was customary for pitchers to hit last (in the days before the designated hitter). Such passive aggressive moves tested the respect many of Stengel’s players had for him. Appel also addresses the accusations that Stengel harbored racist sentiments towards his black players like catcher Elston Howard (who he sometimes referred to as “eight ball”), the Yankees’ first African American player. Challenging for any biographer to explain, Appel expertly establishes a context in which readers are not expected to excuse Stengel’s behavior, but rather understand why he would use such insensitive and casual language that people today would consider bigoted or politically incorrect.
After years of disappointment at the helm of National League teams, Stengel was given a chance to manage the New York Yankees in 1949, a point of convergence for his wisdom and the future superstars the Yankees were developing in their farm system that made him into the Hall of Fame manager for which he is remembered. Despite Stengel’s cold relationship with a stubborn and indifferent Joe DiMaggio, who later retired in 1951, Stengel guided the Yankees to ten pennants and seven World Series Championships. During his reign as the Yankees’ skipper, Stengel mentored superstars enshrined in Cooperstown today such as Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and his future protégé, Yogi Berra. While Stengel found tremendous success with the Yankees in the 1950s, his age and a World Series loss to the Pittsburg Pirates led the Yankee front office to let him go in 1960. “I’ll never make the mistake of turning 70 again” Stengel quipped after his release from the Yankees.
Another strength of Appel’s biography is in his description of Stengel’s days with the hapless New York Mets. Hired to manage the expansion team in 1962, Stengel came nowhere close to repeating his glory days with the Yankees. With a motley crew of cast-offs and has-beens, Stengel’s Mets managed to win only 40 games and lose 120 in their inaugural year, an undesirable Major League record. Appel describes the Polo Grounds, the Mets’ home for their first two seasons, as a place Stengel filled with people still mourning the New York Giants’ departure only five years earlier. Stengel’s main role as the Mets’ manager was more along the lines of a public relations director than a manager. As a former baseball PR director himself, Appel recognizes and illustrates the significance Casey Stengel played in the Mets’ initial years by creating a fan base that thrives to this day. Stengel knew how important it was to create a fan base and through his charm, charisma, and storytelling abilities, he played a major role in creating that stable fan base.
Appel closes his biography by describing Stengel’s ride into the sunset of his life still deeply in love with the game that he had loved and had given so much. Appel describes how a few days before he died, a bed-ridden Stengel tuned in to watch the NBC Game of the Week on television. Aware that the National Anthem is not usually aired on TV, Stengel managed to pull himself out of his hospital bed to stand in front of the TV with his hand over his heart. “I might as well do this one last time,” Stengel quipped. As Stengel prepared to slide across home plate one last time, he refused to allow illness and fatigue to curb his love for the game.Any competent writer can restate specific facts and details about a subject, but Appel’s portrait of Stengel’s life is painted with grace and agility. The pace of Appel’s biography is what makes the book particularly strong. Appel does not spend too much time on one detail over another; each aspect of Stengel’s life is given its due attention.
Mary Appel’s Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character is a balanced and powerful biography that breathes new life into the legend whose career not only transcended the lives of so many well-known players from John McGraw to Billy Martin, but is told by a biographer whose knowledge of the New York Yankees is second to none.
Review written by R. Zachary Sanzone, March 2017