That’s the same vision readers will have while reading Appel’s latest book, Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character (Doubleday; hardback; $27.95; 413 pages). That’s because Appel, who has written extensively about the Yankees — his portfolio includes 2012’s Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss; and Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain (2009) — has produced an entertaining look at the “Ol’ Perfessor.” He unearths facts about Stengel’s youth, his rough-and-tumble days in the minor leagues, and his eventual rise to the major leagues. And Appel strikes pure gold at every turn.
The label of “baseball’s greatest character” was not an arbitrary one, The MLB Network’s Prime 9 show made that determination in 2009, and they had plenty of evidence — Stengel’s ability to mangle the English language (his version was called Stengelese, as a Congressional panel famously discovered in 1958), and his talent for holding court with sportswriters for hours.
And those quotes, burned into a baseball fan’s soul: “There comes a time in every man’s life, and I’ve had plenty of them”; “I’ll never make the mistake of being 70 again”; and “If anybody wants me, tell them I’m being embalmed.” And let’s not forget his plaintive cry about the 1962 New York Mets: “Can’t anybody here play this game?” The Mets were awful, but Stengel was able to deflect the attention of fans and sportswriters away from his team’s terrible record because of his personality and colorful persona. He was a marketing genius before the term existed.
A definitive biography of Stengel already exists, written by Robert Creamer in 1984 (Stengel: His Life and Times). However, Appel gained access to Edna Lawson Stengel’s unpublished memoirs, which proved to be a valuable resource. Appel also notes that digitized newspapers and access to them via the internet enabled him to find information that was not as readily available when Creamer wrote about Stengel in the 1980s. Appel also tapped into an unpublished memoir of longtime Yankees coach Frank Crosetti and an audio interview with Roger Peckinpaugh.
Stengel himself might have called Appel’s researching ability “amazin’.” His bibliography taps a wealth of sources (including Creamer’s book), four of his own books and an unpublished 1963 manuscript that he co-wrote as a teen with Jeffrey Krebs, “Let’s Go Mets.” In addition to his own research, Appel builds his narrative with plenty of help from other sources. His bibliography includes books written by Peter Golenbock, Donald Honig, Fred Lieb, Roger Kahn, Richard Ben Cramer, Jimmy Cannon, Grantland Rice, Jimmy Cannon, Jimmy Breslin and many others. He also cites dozens of newspapers, and not just from New York. Websites are consulted, along with work done by the Society for American Baseball Research.
It’s a thorough presentation.
Stengel had a modest major-league career, playing with Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, the New York Giants and Boston Braves from 1912 to 1925. He batted .284 during his career and appeared in three World Series, hitting the first postseason home run—an inside-the-park home run — at Yankee Stadium in 1923. But it was the time spent as a manager — particularly his 12 years managing the Yankees — that cemented Stengel’s fame and a plaque at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Stengel won 10 pennants and seven World Series between 1949 and 1960. He came to the Yankees in 1949 after a successful minor-league managing career, but had flopped in the National League with Brooklyn and Boston.
He was considered a clown by critics, but Stengel, blessed with talented players for the first time in his managerial career, revolutionized the game. Although he hated being platooned by manager John McGraw when he played for the Giants, Stengel did the same thing with the Yankees, shuffling lineups and plugging in players. He was not afraid to send up a pinch hitter early to break open a game, and sometimes had his pitcher bat eighth in the lineup. He also was not afraid to yank a starting pitcher out of a game when he faltered, even if the game was in its early stages. The moves were unorthodox, but Stengel had a .636 winning percentage with the Yankees, compiling 1,149 regular-season victories.
Boston sportswriter Dave Egan, who watched Stengel manage the Braves poorly in the late 1930s and early ’40s, wrote that the Yankees were mathematically eliminated from the 1949 American League pennant race when Stengel was introduced as manager. “Stengel is not a baseball manager at all,” Egan wrote. “He is purely a baseball politician, which explains why he keeps cavorting into good jobs while his betters stand on the outside hungrily looking in.”
Stengel would get the last laugh, and as Appel writes, “Egan died in 1958, eight Casey pennants later.”
Appel uses Edna Stengel’s memoirs liberally, and it helps make Stengel more human. Sure, he was a winking, grimacing, smiling, wise-cracking manager, but his wife’s observations gave Stengel more depth; he was more than just a manager.
It’s certainly true that the 1949 pennant and World Series title changed Stengel’s life. “He had gone from clown to genius ‘overnight,’” Appel writes, “and suddenly he was baseball nobility.”
That credibility would not fade even after Stengel took over the Mets and never won more than 53 games in a season.
Appel’s research is certainly excellent and thorough, but a few glitches did slip through. For example, he writes in Chapter 18 that the minor-league Milwaukee Brewers went 102-1 in 1944 to win the American Association pennant. Perhaps Appel was thinking of his 2010 book, 162-0: Imagine a Season in Which the Yankees Never Lose. But that was a typo, albeit an eye-opening one. The Brewers actually went 102-51 that season.
A more unfortunate one comes in the same chapter, when Appel notes that Cookie Lavagetto was a hero in Brooklyn during the 1947 World Series when he robbed Joe DiMaggio of a home run and broke up Bill Bevens’ no-hitter. Appel is correct about Bevens, but it was Al Gionfriddo that robbed the Yankee Clipper of a homer during that World Series. He also misspells the maiden and married names of Babe Didrikson Zaharias in Chapter 35.
These mistakes, however, are peripheral to the actual narrative, so they really do not detract from or damage Appel’s credibility. And while this is a positive look at Stengel, Appel does not hesitate to cite his critics (and there were many), who looked at him not as a genius, but as a manager who was at the right place at the right time. It was the same type of charge leveled at Joe McCarthy, who was called a “push-button” manager near the end of his tenure with the Yankees. McCarthy answered his detractors with eight pennants and seven World Series titles; Stengel would do the same, with 10 pennants and seven World Series rings.
Success can silence your critics.
I doubt that Appel has many critics. He writes in an easy conversational style, at times throwing in little asides for humorous effect. He writes in Chapter 43 that an aging Stengel, in his final years, cursed at a young Yankees publicist in 1974 when prodded about responding to an invitation to an Old-Timers’ Day game. That publicist was Appel, who became the Yankees’ public relations director in 1973.
Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character is a fitting title for a unique figure in baseball history. Marty Appel brings him back to life, giving a new generation of baseball fans a taste of the brilliant, witty, sarcastic and irrepressible figure who dearly loved the game.