Chapter Two from “Forging Genius”
By Steven Goldman
(First of Two Parts)
“Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U. S. Steel.” The line is variously attributed. It might have been said by the comedian Joe E. Lewis, whose son was the general manager of the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates; the great sports columnist Red Smith; Spinoza; or Maimonedes. Whatever its provenance, it perfectly encapsulated the preferred image of the New York Yankees. New York City’s American League ball club liked to portray itself as a horsehide IBM, an organization run with the clockwork precision that generated almost constant success. While the on-field victories that fueled this image were generated by players no less earthy or hard bitten than any of their contemporaries, the Yankees, seen through the lens of that era’s sports pages, appeared to succeed through high character, superior morals, management, and discipline, all held together by the esprit de corps of an elite military unit. Though the team had ridden to incredible riches on the back of Babe Ruth’s boisterous and often-boorish exploits, the organization saw Ruth as an excess to be tolerated. It was hoped that the fans, though they loved the Babe, would prefer to identify with the quiet efficiency of Lou Gehrig, “a self-effacing star who never gave a manager a day’s trouble.”
The Yankee formula meant victories and businesslike comportment. Deviation from the formula was not long tolerated. Hence the almost palpable sense that something had gone wrong when on October 13, 1948, the New York Yankees announced that Charles Dillon “Casey” Stengel had been hired to manage the team for the next two seasons, replacing the popular incumbent, Bucky Harris. Stengel, a fifty-eight-year-old veteran of nine lackluster managerial campaigns, was widely perceived to be a clown, “A second division manager who was entirely satisfied to have a losing ball club so long as Stengel and his wit were appreciated.” The general attitude among the newspapermen who covered the team, which they then transmitted to the public, was disbelief.
There was no reason for their skepticism, and the writers knew it. At mid-century, many of the New York sportswriters had been covering baseball since the days of Cobb and Wagner. Stengel had been associated with New York baseball almost as long, having played, coached, or managed in the city for all or parts of fourteen seasons from 1912 to 1917, 1921 to 1923, and 1932 to 1936. The same writers whose mouths were agape at Stengel’s hiring had spoken with him, drunk with him, and ridden the rails with him on the long trips to baseball’s distant outposts in St. Louis and Chicago (until 1958, baseball thought the American frontier ended at the Mississippi river and that “The Lewis and Clark Expedition” referred to an evening in 1921 when Duffy Lewis and Clark Griffith stayed out all night trying to find the best speakeasy in the District of Columbia). Their coverage of him had always reflected their apprehension of his intelligence and the bonhomie of their relationship.
Stengel’s unexpected association with the Yankees changed everything. The sportswriters of 1948, as with the political journalists of today, had only a sideline in reporting the events of the day. Their primary job was to produce storylines, in the soap opera sense of the word. With over a dozen area daily newspapers, game stories were a commodity product. What sold papers were heroes and goats, complex events and personalities reduced to morality plays, fairy tales without the sophistication.
New York City had three baseball teams in those days, and each had long had an established character, unchanging, like the cardboard leading men in the boys’ adventure serials of the time; unflinching square-jawed hero in episode one, unflinching square-jawed hero in chapter twenty-five. The Dodgers were bumbling and yet lovable. The Giants were hard-bitten and driven, as exemplified by a managerial line of descent from John McGraw to Bill Terry to Leo Durocher, the momentary interruption of which by the administration of the milquetoast Mel Ott inspired Durocher to quip, “Nice guys finish last.”
With the Yankees, the primary characterization was of a methodical, emotionless precision, more suited to a watch factory than an entertainment operation. There were half-truths in this. The Yankees liked to project this image, particularly in the years of owner Jacob Ruppert, secretary (“general manager” in modern parlance) Edward Grant Barrow, and manager Joe McCarthy. It was inspired by many things: a legitimate need to instill a sense of professionalism on the club after the players got out of control in the wild early 1920s, a sincere belief in esprit de corps, and the perception that the team’s fan-base consisted of snooty types who might otherwise go to the ballet if the ball club had too many rough characters (or African-Americans, or Hispanics . . .). Babe Ruth was a paradox for the Yankee ownership. He brought people to the ballpark—but perhaps he was bringing in the wrong people. Still, management somehow endured him for as long as he was at the top of his game. As soon as he slipped, he was gone. They never doubted they could keep winning without him, and as for the Babe’s cult of personality, they didn’t want it.
After Ruth, McCarthy would drill his charges in “the Yankee way”: “You’re a Yankee,” he would say. “Act like one.” Then he would go off and get blind drunk. “Riding the white horse,” they called it around the ballpark, after the manager’s preferred poison. Perhaps he would miss a couple of games, even disappear for a week. The writers, who had their own drinks—as well as room, board, and transportation—picked up by the club, would write that Joe’s gall bladder had been troubling him or that he had the flu.
Many of the players bought into the myth that McCarthy was creating. “I hope the pride which a player has in being a Yankee does not die out,” star outfielder Tommy Henrich said in early 1949:
It is something more than a tradition. It is a mental, almost physical lift for a player to put on that Yankee uniform. I like to tell the young players new to the club about this pride in being a Yankee. I like to tell them about the days when the Yankees walked out on the field and threw terror into the ranks of the opposition simply because they were Yankees…DiMaggio, Keller, Crosetti and I sit around in the clubhouse sometimes and talk about that very thing. About the history and prestige of this organization of ours.
The players even shared the organization’s beliefs about the nature of the men and women who came through the turnstiles. Eddie Lopat, one of the team’s pitching aces in the late forties and early fifties said, “Yankee fans were refined people for the most part. You’d hear the cheering but they were kind of sedate generally…the fans were controlled and there was control in the ballpark.”
There were also many players who did not subscribe. If the player was of only minor consequence, he was made to go away, like Roy Johnson, a reserve outfielder on the 1937 club. When McCarthy groused after the Yankees lost a close game, Johnson said, “What does that guy expect to do—win every game?” Not only was he gone the next day, but he had been sent to the Boston Braves, at that moment about as far as one could go from a pennant race and still be on the major league circuit. He was replaced by the rookie Henrich, who knew the McCarthy doctrine without being told. Then there was outfielder Ben Chapman. He was bigoted, conceited, rowdy, started fights, and was a southerner, which irritated a peculiar McCarthy prejudice. McCarthy dealt him to the Washington Senators for a lesser player, one even more violent, more bigoted (though in those lilywhite days bigotry was just a character trait, not a career-breaking defect)—and another rookie, Joe DiMaggio was on hand to take up any slack.
When no Henrich or DiMaggio was on hand to take the place of a recalcitrant field hand, the bad seed was simply allowed to persist, subject to harassment by management to mend his ways. Milton Gross of the New York Post wrote, “Through the years McCarthy has been pictured as some sort of baseball Buddha before whose sacred altar all his players had to prostrate themselves. Characters, individualists, rowdies and malingerers, so the story goes, could not play for McCarthy…This is sheer nonsense. McCarthy never gave away a problem child who had talent without getting his equal in return.”
The fireballing lefty Joe Page, an escaped coal miner whose liberation was an excuse to abuse alcohol, was so resistant to coaching and curfews that in 1946 he finally broke McCarthy’s spirit (Page’s was the last blow in a campaign begun by another even more notorious alcoholic, the team’s managing partner). “He was probably the biggest dissipater in the history of baseball,” said a contemporary pitcher. “Drinker, women…They’d send detectives out to follow him and he’d up getting the detectives drunk.” In 1947 Page was a national baseball hero and McCarthy was home in Buffalo with a case of nervous exhaustion.
Essentially, management shouted “semper fidelis” for only as long as it was in its interests to do so. Ruppert and Barrow were ruthless in making their team Ruth-less. Though the aging slugger backed them into a corner by refusing to back off his demand that he replace McCarthy, they made no effort to reach an accommodation. As for Gehrig, though Barrow looked at him as a son, when the first baseman first manifested signs of the illness that would ultimately take his life the secretary was amazingly quick to suggest that “it was about time for Lou to get himself another job.” That was it—no pension, no coaching sinecure—just, thanks for the 2,130 games of dedicated service. Good luck in your future endeavors, however brief they are likely to be. It fell to New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to give Gehrig a position on the city Parole Board.
Forced to choose among printing the Page version (every man for himself) or the Henrich version (all for one and one for all), or the truth—that the roster was not homogenous, united in pursuit of a single goal, but a blend of Pages, Henrichs, and guys just doing their job—the press went with the Henrich version. The fans were on board from the start, and over the years even the writers began to believe their own corn, began to believe what they were selling.
In Stengel’s case, they were selling the story of the stumblebum comic who inherited the world’s greatest baseball team. A familiar but indistinct figure to New York baseball fans, Stengel was best known for two things: letting a bird fly out of his cap during a game that took place in the foggily remembered years before the Great War, and hitting a game-winning home run off of Yankees pitcher “Sad” Sam Jones in the 1923 World Series. This would seem to have been a heroic act rather than a comical one, but Stengel corrupted the moment by thumbing his nose at the American Leaguers as he jogged around the bases.
Not only did he act funny, but he looked funny. By the time the Yankees got hold of him, Stengel’s face looked like a topographical model, creased and furrowed from too many day games spent staring into the sun, too many cigarettes, and late hours. Even his wide, smiling mouth was creased, with a tributary running down from the lower left-hand corner, a souvenir of the time a drunken teammate tore his lip during a fist-fight. (In a 1952 Life Magazine article, Clay Felker and Ernest Havemann wrote, “At the left side of his mouth, running almost to his chin, is a line as deep as a canyon. It has been worn there through the years by the restless rumble and roar of words pouring out of the side of his mouth like an eternal waterfall,” which is more romantic, but not true.) He had a wide, plunging expanse of nose and lively eyes bracketed by two giant jug-handle ears. Talking with sportswriter Tommy Holmes, Stengel referred to them as, “this here pair of palm-leaf fans.” “Whereupon Mr. Stengel raised both of his hands,” Holmes wrote, “and his fingertips touched a pair of awesome ears of about the same size, shape, and constituency of rib lamb chops.”
All of these elements were wonderfully malleable, and working them in concert Stengel could augment any anecdote, of which he had thousands, with a variety of comically contorted expressions. When telling a story about a horse-faced catcher, it was said that he not only looked more like a horse than the catcher, but “he looked more like a horse than Man-O-War.” Joe Williams, columnist for the New York World Telegram wrote, “No typewriter has yet been invented that can record the facial gyrations of Casey as he illustrates his yarns. He’s no Clark Gable to start with and when he gets through one of his workouts children are scared for miles around.” Joe Garagiola later called it “Casey Stengel’s change of face.”
Even in repose, the face was thought-provoking. People admired it in the same way they would a well-traveled trunk or a piece of distressed furniture. Harold Rosenthal of the New York Herald-Tribune felt that, “Casey Stengel actually grew better-looking as he got older. Not that he was any beauty contest winner but . . . his face had assumed a seamy dignity.” Yankees broadcaster Mel Allen said that Stengel had the face of a “sea captain or a range rider.” Jimmy Cannon wrote, “The old man has the face of an eagle who has flown into sleet storms. The lines in Casey Stengel’s face are gullies. The left eye winks in the hook-nosed face as he discusses baseball, like a ferocious old bird sitting on the top branch of the highest tree in the world, watching all the ballgames ever played going on beneath him at the same time.”
Only when Stengel spoke was the image completed. “Stengelese” had not yet been identified as such, but Stengel had always possessed his unique blend of mangled grammar, fin de siecle Midwestern idioms, and stream of consciousness dialogue. Sportswriter Jim Murray wrote, “Casey Stengel is a white American male with a speech pattern that ranges somewhere between the sounds a porpoise makes underwater and an Abyssinian rug merchant chant.” Another, on his first meeting with the manager, exclaimed, “My god, he talks the way James Joyce writes!” A bad player was a “road apple,” a scatological reference to the horse and buggy days. Someone who displayed naivety was a “Ned in the third reader.” To do well was to have “done splendid.” One did not begin, one commenced, and a player was not good, but remarkable. To hit down on the ball was to “butcher boy,” and on and on, often in reference to something that happened years before. Stengel was both an autodidactic baseball historian and Zelig-like eyewitness to history, and he liked to illustrate a point with examples from the past. There is an oft-repeated story wherein a reporter goes looking for Stengel to find out who the next day’s starting pitcher is. The reporter is gone for several hours. When he finally returns, one of his colleagues asks him, “Did Casey tell you who’s going to pitch tomorrow?” “No,” the beleaguered reporter replies. “He started to, but he got to talking about McGraw and the time he managed in Toledo and the Pacific Coast League and God knows what else. I think tomorrow’s pitcher is Christy Mathewson.” Once, when Shirley Povich of the Washington Post grew impatient after an hour waiting for a specific answer to his question, Stengel snapped, “Don’t rush me.”
Stengel also possessed a caustic wit, a superb sense of irony, and above all else was an indefatigable talker. The combination meant that he was always entertaining to listen to, if not always easy to understand. The serious listener was ultimately rewarded for his attention, but many dismissed his words as involuntary Dadaist babbling, early senescence, or both. Perfectly clear when he wanted to be—and that was almost always behind the scenes—Stengel used obfuscation as a way of putting a distance between himself and the press. Late in Stengel’s life, a young reporter interviewed the manager and was shocked to find him speaking in a perfectly comprehensible manner. “That jargon of yours is just a joke,” the reporter exclaimed.
“Son,” Stengel said, “this is gonna be our little secret, isn’t it?”
Before and after Stengel, certain managers were given a free pass by the press despite decades of losing records and disappointing finishes. After the early 1930s, Connie Mack of the Philadelphia A’s clearly wasn’t trying—to him, a perfect season was one in which the A’s got off to a hot start, stimulating attendance, and then dropped off rapidly so players could not demand raises—but he was a beloved Philadelphia institution, so no one called him on it. Mack protégé Jimmy Dykes managed for twenty-two seasons without exceeding eighty-five wins or finishing higher than third, yet no one ever questioned his fitness for the job. Gene Mauch first gained notoriety for managing the Phillies to an astounding September collapse in 1964. His next good season came after nineteen consecutive years of mediocre finishes. Nevertheless, during that time, Mauch was frequently called a genius. (Of Mauch and Alvin Dark, Stengel said, “They’re so slick; they think they invented the game.”)
Stengel’s puckishness encouraged observers both in and out of baseball to judge his record harshly. In an era in which sporting competition was often all-too-glibly contrasted with war (and this in the interwar years, after the stubborn “battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton” mentality had been interred beneath Flanders fields), Stengel’s willingness to laugh at the bleakest times was interpreted as complacency. One contemporary, observing Stengel delivering a monologue at a party, said, “It never fails. Casey Stengel is funny to everyone except the guy who pays his salary.”
The general attitude towards Stengel on the part of baseball writers, observed Fred Lieb, their dean, was that Stengel was a highly amusing fellow, but he lacked the proper pedigree for the Yankee job. One writer asked Lieb, “Is this serious? Are they really going to put a clown in to run the Yankee operation?” Dan M. Daniel, veteran reporter for The Sporting News, told Jerome Holtzman, “When Casey Stengel got the Yankee managing job, we thought he was in there to tell jokes and while away a season or two until the club could get tightened up and reorganized.” Arthur Daily of the New York Times quoted a colleague as saying, “Ole Case had better win the pennant or else be awfully funny.” “Stengel?” said another in disbelief, “Why, he won’t even be around on June 15.” “Casey may not win the pennant,” said the Washington Post, “but you can bet he’ll leave us laughing when he says good-bye.” Red Smith summed up: “When the rumor that Stengel would be hired was going around World Series press headquarters, a good many men expressed astonishment. They just couldn’t reconcile their conception of Stengel, the court jester, with the Yankee tradition of austere and business-like efficiency.” And silence. During World War II, reporters had asked McCarthy who would play second base if his keystone star George Stirnweiss was drafted. “Let me worry about that,” McCarthy said, and then proceeded to do his best impression of a cigar-store Indian. In one close game, McCarthy decided that Lefty Gomez was providing an unseemly amount of dugout chatter and ordered him into the clubhouse. “Lefty,” McCarthy said, “you go in and stay in, and if we want you we will call you.”
Stengel’s most vociferous and vituperative critic from his days in Boston, Dave Egan (the self-styled “Colonel” of the tabloid Boston Daily Record), sought to bury the manager before he had even begun:
Well sirs and ladies, the Yankees now have been mathematically eliminated from the 1949 pennant race. They eliminated themselves when they engaged Perfessor [sic] Casey Stengel to mismanage them for the next two years, and you may be sure that the Perfessor will oblige to the best of his unique ability…[the New York writers] will love Stengel. If it’s stories and mimicry and home-spun humor they want, they’ll get it from Stengel by day and by night, each day and each night. They’ll get everything from him, indeed, with the exception of the pennants to which they have become accustomed.
On another occasion Egan speculated that Stengel must have been hired because one of the Yankee owners owed him money.
As if Stengel needed one more thing to damn him in the eyes of the public and the press, it was widely felt that he had acquired the job because Yankees general manager George Weiss had long had a hidden agenda to hire his old friend Stengel, and that Bucky Harris, who in two seasons with the club had won the World Series the first year and finished two games out of first place in the second, had been stabbed in the back as a result of it. This was barely half true. Weiss had long wanted to employ Stengel and there was nothing stealthy about it; he had first suggested Stengel to the Yankees earlier in the decade and had used him in the Yankees farm system in 1945. It was also patently unfair to say that Harris had been stabbed in the back or otherwise, unless one considered it a case of self-impalement. The exact circumstances of his dismissal were well known to the writers, but either out of the same misplaced sense of delicacy (and bribery) that had protected McCarthy or willful obtuseness, they refused to see, never mind say, that the “austere and business-like efficiency” that Red Smith referred to had long been a thing of the past. Stengel’s hiring was, paradoxically, an attempt to revive them.
In 1945, Colonel Ruppert’s heirs had sold the Yankees to a trio of investors comprised of Del Webb, a construction magnate instrumental in the creation of the modern Las Vegas; Dan Topping, heir to an aluminum fortune; and Larry MacPhail. The mercurial MacPhail would be the active partner, having already successfully run major league teams in Cincinnati and Brooklyn. In each case he had taken a second-rate franchise and transformed it. If the franchises he had left behind were not necessarily winners, he at least left them in far better shape than he found them. MacPhail did not stay long in either Cincinnati or Brooklyn due to his own erratic behavior. Christened “Lucifer Sulphurious,” by Dan Parker of the New York Mirror, MacPhail was an alcoholic given to dramatic outbursts of temper and public tantrums. As an executive he was effective only up to the moment of his inevitable self-destruction. Leo Durocher, who managed the Dodgers for MacPhail and estimated that the “Roaring Redhead” had fired him twenty-seven times between 1939 and 1942 (only to treat the termination as water on the bridge when he sobered up) wrote, “They always said this about MacPhail: Cold sober he was brilliant. One drink and he was even more brilliant. Two drinks—that’s another story.”
As befits a man with a rash temperament (at the close of the first World War he had taken part in an unauthorized attempt to abduct the Kaiser. He failed to get the monarch but did manage to kidnap his ashtray), MacPhail was an innovator. His greatest attribute was that he did not accept boundaries, clichés, old beliefs. At his direction the Cincinnati Reds became the first team to install lights, disproving the old notion that night baseball could not succeed in the majors. He repeated the trick in Brooklyn and New York. He began the regular radio broadcast of Dodger home games, shattering the myth that to do so would mean a disastrous decline in attendance. In the process, he unilaterally shattered the pact under which the three New York teams had agreed to embargo such broadcasts (MacPhail’s other contribution to baseball radio came when he inaugurated the Brooklyn career of broadcaster Red Barber). He also began Durocher’s managerial career, trusting him though many in baseball felt his was a borderline criminal personality.
MacPhail was also a great promoter, inaugurating Ladies’ Days, the stadium club, and a wide variety of pregame entertainments, and was a good judge of baseball flesh who took particular pride in foxing his former patron/perennial antagonist Branch Rickey of the St. Louis Cardinals when making a trade. As George Weiss later said, “Larry could have been the best executive in baseball if he had a little more emotional stability.” Durocher wrote, “There is not a question in my mind that Larry was a genius. There is a line between genius and insanity, and in Larry’s case it was sometimes so thin that you could see him drifting back and forth.”
There was no institution with which MacPhail did not feel free to tamper. When he transferred his flag to the Yankees he immediately began to tamper with a New York institution, Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, and rapidly left the man a twitching, quivering wreck who had to be fortified with alcohol. MacPhail, “the extra-colossal, super-spectacular, ring-tailed quintessence of everything Ed Barrow wasn’t,” questioned, doubted, second-guessed, harassed, and threatened summary dismissal. McCarthy had never had that kind of interference before; that the manager should be insulated from the dilettantes in the executive suite had been one of Barrow’s cardinal rules. MacPhail was no “sportsman” as Ruppert had been. He was, as Bill Veeck might have described him, an operator.
In late May 1946, McCarthy had one final blowup with Joe Page. As the Yankees waited for a team flight to take off, McCarthy cornered Page and began asking questions like, “What the devil’s the matter with you?” “When are you going to settle down and start pitching?” and, “How long do you think you can get away with this?” These were not questions designed to promote relaxed conversation, and when Page rose to the bait, McCarthy exploded, vowing that Page would be sent to the Yankees farm club at Newark, this time to stay.
For twenty-four hours, Page’s career hung by a thread while McCarthy stewed. In fifteen years with the team, he had never before dressed down a player in public. He apparently had an epiphany: “He shouldn’t go. I should.” He promptly resigned.
(Part Two, coming soon…)
Steven Goldman writes the Pinstriped Bible (as well as the Pinstriped Blog)
for the Yes Network. He is one of the finest baseball analysts in the country. His first book, “Forging Genius” examines the career of Casey Stengel. Anyone who enjoys Goldman’s work will love this book. For those of you who are not familar with Goldman, but are Yankee fans, or simply fans of baseball history, this book is for you too. Order it now at Amazon.com.