It’s a little early for baseball season, but we’ll get started early with someone with a World War I connection, but not a Kansan. Close though — a native of Kansas City, Missouri, Charles Dillon Stengel. He’s remembered by the nickname provided by the initials of his hometown — KC — “Casey.”
Casey was truly one of kind. Born in Kansas City on July 30, 1890, he played baseball but trained to be a dentist. He apparently wasn’t very good at the latter. He would later say:
I was a left-handed dentist who made people cry. I was not very good at pulling teeth, but my mother loved my work. Some of the people in the clinic didn’t share her views.
Stengel was a fair ballplayer, but he got into Baseball’s Hall of Fame for his talent as a manager. Perhaps he did show that being a good manager depended on the players you had, but he always got the most of what was available. As manager of the New York Yankees from 1949 to 1960, he won 10 pennants and 7 World Series titles — including five in a row.
But there were years before the Yankees when the players had less talent, and he is remembered for being the manager of the fledgling New York Mets in 1962, which had a record of 40 wins and 120 losses. He said about that team: It’s a good thing our team didn’t argue with the umpire or we would have only won 15.
There was also the words of another Hall of Famer, pitcher Warren Spahn, who as a rookie played for Stengel before the Yankee years, and played for him again with the woeful Mets’ teams. “I played for Casey before and after he was a genius,” Spahn said.
He could also evaluate a player like so few could. He told the press about one by saying: This young man is 21, and in another year he stands a good chance of being 22.
If you don’t know about Casey, you may be getting the idea there was something about the way he spoke, which was referred as Stengelese. He was gifted at making rambling statements that were intentional, but could also be funny. When Congress considered a bill to eliminate baseball’s reserve clause, which bound a player to a particular team, Casey testified. His testimony was long , rambling, had several tangents that amused everyone and left the senators knowing they had met their match. Finally, when Casey had to come up for air, a senator asked if this legislation was needed. Casey broke up the hearing room by simply saying No.
Here’s a sample from the hearing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_BveD5KgWg
This was only topped by the next witness, Yankee star Mickey Mantle. When he was asked his views on the subject, he broke up the hearing room with, “My views are about the same as Casey’s.”
So what’s the World War I connection?
Ball players during WWI were encouraged to volunteer for the service, as many believed if they could play baseball, they could shoulder a gun. Casey signed up, but it may have been as much about not wanting to play in Pittsburgh, where he had been recently traded, rather than any patriotic motive. Stengel signed up for the navy, and was assigned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. After four weeks of training, he was assigned to be a painter.
When the officer running the base baseball team found out that Stengel was there, he asked Casey to be a player and the manager. He told Casey, “You do this, and you won’t have to paint ships any more.”
Casey responded: It ain’t that I don’t like paintin’ your ships, it’s just that baseball is more my line of work and every man should do his own line of work if we are to win the war, got it?
The two men had an understanding, and Stengel was moved into more comfortable barracks with other athletes on the base.
Stengel described the situation: We specialized in playing those shipwreck teams, players who had been at sea for three or four months were still seasick. As soon as the ships came in, I jumped on board, got to the athletic officer, and scheduled those games at Prospect Park. I believe you could have a good record that way.
This was of course, hardly unusual. One might read more about this in Jim Leeke’s book, From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball During the Great War.
Casey did acknowledge a place for veterans later on. I have a great respect for veterans, having been one myself from the navy in World War I, and you can look it up.
I have to acknowledge Maury Allen’s 1979 book, You Could Look It Up: The Life of Casey Stengel. Allen was a sportswriter who became very familiar with Stengel, and the book does a great job in presenting one of baseball’s most unique characters.