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The Summer of Second Chances (Part Two)

Book Excerpt

Chapter Two from “Forging Genius”

By Steven Goldman

(Part Two of Two; click here for Part One)

In 1841, the United States had three presidents. In the Bronx, 1946 was the year of three managers. McCarthy’s replacement, veteran Yankees catcher Bill Dickey, refused to finish out the season under MacPhail. The season was completed under interim manager/organization man Johnny Neun. Neun “had let it be known after about a week that he knew now what McCarthy and Dickey had been talking about and, by God, he didn’t have to take that from anybody either.” The second-division Cincinnati Reds seemed a better option, and off he went.

That September, Stanley Raymond “Bucky” Harris was hired to serve in an undefined executive capacity (MacPhail acted as his own general manager, and Weiss, the club’s farm director since 1932, was on hand to take care of anything that might escape his notice. Barrow, ostensibly a consultant to the club, was also available, though MacPhail never called) and asked to evaluate the team. Almost a quarter century earlier, Harris had been the twenty-eight-year-old “boy manager” who had guided the Washington Senators to consecutive pennants in his initial seasons at the helm. After that the going was not nearly so smooth. Harris’s initial command of the Senators lasted until 1928, at which time owner Clark Griffith terminated him, in part for not following up on his earlier success, and in part for failing to recognize the talents of second base prospect Buddy Myer.

Harris moved on to Detroit, where in five seasons he failed to produce a first-division finish. Still in demand, in 1934 he became the first manager hired by Tom Yawkey as owner of the Boston Red Sox. The team’s 76–76 record was its best since 1918, but Harris clashed with general manager Eddie Collins and was dismissed. He returned to Washington, where sentimental Senators owner Clark Griffith was never loathe to reemploy an old pal. In the following eight seasons, the club finished fourth once and otherwise could be counted on for a sixth or seventh place finish. Harris made way for another Griffith buddy, Ossie Bleuge.

Harris then briefly managed the Philadelphia Phillies under owner Bill Cox, whose own term was foreshortened by Commissioner of Baseball Judge Landis after it was revealed that Cox had bet on his own club. Cox fired Harris after ninety-two games, claiming that he had called his players “a bunch of jerks.” In fact, the players threatened to strike when informed of Harris’s termination. Said Harris, “If there is any jerk connected with this ball club, it’s the president of it.” That seemed to have been the last encore for the graying, forty-six-year-old, non-boy manager. When MacPhail hired him, Harris had been serving as the general manager of the International League’s Buffalo club. This was actually fine with Harris; after two decades on the managerial merry-go-round, he desired to become an executive—preferably with the Detroit Tigers, but if their general manager’s job wasn’t open, a job with the Yankees would have to do.

It was MacPhail’s original intention to keep Harris in the front office and lure Durocher back to the Yankees (Durocher had begun his major league career as New York’s shortstop. He had been abruptly dumped after demonstrating that he was even less coachable than Babe Ruth. For the Yankees, one loose cannon was enough, especially when this midnight reveler was no slugger but rather the “All-American Out” and did not hesitate to confront the Victorian Barrow with profanity). Durocher was still in Brooklyn working for Rickey, and having experienced the Mahatma’s cerebral, civilized ways, he had no desire to re-experience the volcanic tantrum-a-day executive style.

The thought of stealing Durocher from Rickey, or even making him nervous about the possibility, had to be enormously titillating to MacPhail; Durocher’s feelings on the matter did not necessarily enter into his calculations. He had already taken a stab at Red Barber, the Brooklyn broadcaster, by offering to make him the highest paid broadcaster in the game. Barber ultimately turned MacPhail down, in part because Rickey was willing to match MacPhail. “My offer didn’t hurt you, did it?” MacPhail chortled to Barber. He had made Rickey spend more money. The next salvo, which brought yet another potential manager to the Bronx, involved stealing both of Durocher’s coaches, Chuck Dressen and Red Corriden.

Dressen, who had managed the Reds for MacPhail, was considered the tactical brains of the Dodgers. He had been hanging around Brooklyn since 1939, waiting for Durocher to slit his own throat (Durocher cooperated on more than one occasion, but Durocher was a survivor). Dressen had a guaranteed contract with one out; he could leave the Dodgers only to take a managerial position. MacPhail doesn’t seem to have considered him for the Yankees job, but that may not be what Dressen was told.

To this day, it is not clear whether MacPhail actually wanted to hire Durocher, was merely trying to tweak Rickey’s tail, or even floated the rumor to help Durocher in salary negotiations with Rickey. Later, MacPhail denied having made an offer. Durocher insisted he did, and that he turned it down.

The story gets stranger; this was just the overture of what would be a watershed year for the Yankees. What follows is merely the sketchiest of outlines. In a ghost-written column, Durocher accused MacPhail of consorting with gamblers, something of which Durocher was constantly (and correctly) under suspicion. Rickey jumped in: why was there a double standard for MacPhail when everyone was always sniping at Durocher? Suddenly the case was a matter for baseball’s second commissioner, Happy Chandler.

As with most commissioners of baseball, Chandler weighed in with all the grace of a ten-ton gorilla and with twice as much mystery. He suspended Dressen for thirty days, either because he broke his contract, bet too much on the ponies, or both. He fined both the Yankees and the Dodgers organizations $2,000 apiece. As the piece de resistance, he suspended Durocher for the entirety of the 1947 baseball season. Finally, he slapped a gag order on everyone involved. They couldn’t say anything to defend themselves, and Chandler chose not to explain his actions—though the fact that Chandler owed his job to MacPhail might have had some bearing on his thoughts.

With the Yankees now down four managerial candidates, Bucky Harris became the manager by default. He reluctantly agreed to undertake the job, insisting on a two-year contract, after which he expected to return to the front office.

The 1946 Yankees had suffered from the lack of continuity in the manager’s office. Although the team had stars Joe Gordon, Phil Rizzuto, Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Keller, Bill Dickey, Tommy Henrich, and Red Ruffing together on the roster for the first time since World War II military service broke up the team, New York still finished a distant third, seventeen games behind the Red Sox. Many of the players seemed to have aged badly while away from the game and would clearly not last much longer, but with the team in such disarray it was hard to sort out the keepers. The pitching staff saw eighteen different pitchers take a turn in the starting rotation. Wartime first baseman Nick Etten bombed against regular competition, Joe Gordon hit only .210, there was no regular third baseman, and so on.

The list of problems was long and deep, and MacPhail threatened to gut the team. “Lindell, Johnson, Stirnweiss, Rizzuto, Bevens, Page and Robinson were in MacPhail’s doghouse,” said Weiss, who was himself desperately trying to get away from MacPhail. “He wanted to trade them, two or three at a crack, to Washington for Jimmy [Mickey] Vernon and to St. Louis for Jack Kramer and Vernon Stephens.”

Fortunately, the Dr. Jekyll version of MacPhail prevailed and he and Harris did a good job of sorting out the problems. In 1947 the Yankees ran away with the pennant. Already leading by 4.5 games at the end of June, the team buried the competition with a nineteen-game winning streak. As the boy wonder of Washington, Harris had made a spectacularly perspicacious move in taking pitcher Fred “Firpo” Marberry and converting him into a bullpen ace. This was a time when pitching complete games was a manhood issue for pitchers and the bullpen was considered the last refuge of wasted arms. Harris’s willingness to put a fresh arm in the game at the same time that the opposing pitcher was trying to figure out how to get some zip on his 150th pitch gave the Senators a tremendous competitive advantage. Now Harris repeated the move, taking wild, hard-throwing Joe Page—the same man who had helped to break Joe McCarthy’s spirits—and turning him into a reliever. At first, it seemed as if Page would break Harris’s spirits too, but by the end of the 1947 season he was “The Gay Reliever,” possessor of a 14–8 record with a league-leading (retroactively figured—the saves statistic had yet to be invented) seventeen saves. Harris fell in love; after each win, he would begin his postgame press conference with a toast to Joe Page.

The Yankees won the 1947 World Series from the Durocher-less Dodgers—barely—with a curious decision by Harris to intentionally put the winning run on base in game four contributing heavily to the “barely.” Nonetheless, Harris’s job should have been secure. Instead, he was finished. His patron had self-destructed.

At the Yankees victory party, MacPhail came undone. He congratulated George Weiss as “the man who really built the Yankees,” and was happily emotional at the team’s triumph. He returned shortly thereafter, presumably drunk and in a rage. He found Weiss again, insulted him, struck him, then fired him. He announced to whoever was listening that he was quitting the team and leaving baseball. He then turned on his partner, Topping, who subdued him and led him from the room.

It is doubtful that MacPhail meant what he said; when he was with the Dodgers these sort of outbursts happened on a regular basis and never amounted to anything. The next morning the injured party or parties would hope that MacPhail had forgotten the excesses of the previous evening, or MacPhail would apologize. “Got a little drunk last night, didn’t we?” he would say to Durocher. This time no one was forgetting. First, this had been MacPhail’s most extreme outburst; second, this sort of thing did not happen to the Yankees. The next morning, though he attempted to apologize, Topping and Webb forced MacPhail to keep his promise to leave. Bought out for two million dollars, he never returned to baseball.

Harris now had to coexist with Weiss, a man as cold and sober as MacPhail was hot-tempered and inebriated, a humorless man who did not know he was humorless:

The Yankees have often been accused of being a hardheaded, hard-hearted organization of unsentimental businessmen with a bunch of talented but mechanical ballplayers carrying out their functions in the field. This isn’t so at all. We have simply always realized that modern-day baseball is a highly practical enterprise that has to be run systematically, and this includes everything from operating a good restaurant for members of the Stadium Club to two-platooning on the field when the circumstances demand it. But don’t you believe that there’s no sentiment left on the Yankees!

The Yankees ran another strong race in 1948, but Weiss felt a lack of discipline on the club had played a greater role in determining the final standings than anything the front-running Cleveland Indians had done. Weiss thought of Harris as “the four-hour manager.” He came to the park, coached his game, and then went home to his wife and an unlisted phone number that not even the Yankees had. When, in spring training, Weiss felt the players needed more practice and less time at the dog-racing track, he was chagrinned to discover that Harris was frequently at the track with them. “I have no objections to seeing them at the track,” Harris said. “At least this way I know where they are.”

When hiring managers teams inevitably, as if guided by an unseen hand, go from high-pressure to low-pressure personalities. In 1978, when George Steinbrenner of the Yankees fired Billy Martin and replaced him with Bob Lemon, he took the team away from a manager who pushed his team through anger and intimidation and gave it to a man whose basic attitude was, “Let’s all have some fun.” Joe McCarthy was always in charge. “McCarthy is the strict commander,” said outfielder Tommy Henrich. “He wants to be the absolute boss. Not much latitude for you; he likes you to do things his way, and he takes full responsibility.” Harris was more interested in maintaining a cordial relationship with his players. In his view, there were only two things a manager needed to know—”When to change pitchers and how to get along with the players.” “I really don’t care what a player does off the field,” he once said. “If he is able to do his job and give me 100 percent, that’s all I ask.” The problem with this formulation is that 100 percent is in the eye of the beholder, and when a player comes into the clubhouse with bloodshot eyes, just how close to 100 percent he really might be is open to doubt.

The price for employing this kind of manager is a laxity of discipline. Billy Johnson remembered that Harris was, “very quiet, very lenient.” He had what Tommy Henrich called a “leave them alone” style of managing. “He treated you with confidence,” he said. “He let me go my own way, and it was a pleasure to put out for him.” Once, when Henrich asked Harris if he should lay down a bunt in a situation that seemed to call for one, the manager replied that it was up to him. When he managed the Red Sox, Harris surprised his team by promulgating only one rule: No swimming. “You’re likely to get sunburned,” said Harris. When his players faced Bob Feller, the bullet-throwing “Rapid Robert” of the Indians, Harris had just one instruction: “Go on up there and hit what you see. If you can’t see it, come on back.”

“Under Bucky we were a very relaxed ballclub,” said Henrich, “too relaxed in my opinion.” In later years, the players clung to the myth of the jocks who policed themselves. Whitey Ford later said, “If a guy blew a play or a game because he came to work late after a long night of drinking or bouncing around, that’s when somebody like Hank Bauer settled it in a hurry. He’d grab you in the dugout and look you right in the eyes and growl: ‘Don’t fuck around with my money.’ And that’s maybe the main thing that kept the guys straight, the idea that you’re not only screwing yourself but you’re also taking money out of everybody else’s pocket if you screw up.” Even Stengel believed it: “They thought all you had to do at the Yankees is to be there on time, tend to your own business off the field and when they said play ball be sure you go out and play hard and play clean.”

But neither Ford, nor Bauer, nor Stengel were with the club in 1948, and it wasn’t true then, if it was ever true. Joe Page was a particular problem. After contending for the American League Most Valuable Player award in 1947, Page slumped to 7–8 with a 4.25 ERA. Hard living, and Harris’s indifference to it, were blamed. “Page burned himself out. He was drunk all the time for God’s sakes,” Jerry Coleman recalled. “He had a great year in ’47, and he couldn’t stand that. He had a terrible year in ’48. In fact, DiMaggio in spring training of ’48 said [to the pitchers], ‘You guys better finish your games this year,’ because he knew what was going on.”

In 1947, MacPhail had given Page a contract with a “good behavior” clause. On each of baseball’s eleven paydays he was to receive a different amount depending on whether Harris thought he had been behaving himself. Weiss abandoned the practice in 1948 and the team paid the price. “He couldn’t have two good years in a row,” Allie Reynolds told Dom Forker. “You can’t relax. He did.” Weiss hired a detective. Legend has it that Page seduced her, or vice-versa. Perhaps that was the whole point of the exercise.

Despite the detective’s reports that Weiss bombarded him with, Harris would not confront Page. He did fine Page at least once, but it was a half-hearted attempt at discipline. “I don’t kid myself,” said Harris. “Page’s great relief work put me back in business after I had been forgotten. I’d be an ungrateful so and so to turn on him now. This job isn’t that important to me.” He also subscribed to the conventional wisdom in baseball that alcoholism in players was something a manager sometimes had to put up with. “They told me a certain pitcher was drinking too much,” he said, possibly referring to Page. “He was. I didn’t say anything to him. I felt like Lincoln when his cabinet fussed about Grant drinking, and Lincoln said he wished some of his other generals would try Grant’s brand of whiskey.” Such was Harris’s loyalty to the reliever that at the end of the season he took Page aside and said, “Joe, whatever happens in the future, if I get let go, which is probably going to happen, it’s not on account of you.”

A manager less concerned with sparing Page’s feelings might have gone as far as to say, “not wholly on account of you.” Page was not alone in keeping late nights; there were multiple carousers including outfielder Johnny Lindell and pitcher Frank Shea. When the Yankees finished two and a half games out of first, rather than look at the finish as a noble failure, Weiss saw the glass as half-empty. More accurately, he just saw glasses. Beer glasses. Whiskey glasses. Rows of long-stemmed glasses wet with “Lindell Bombers.” These were actually extra-dry martinis, but Lindell had become so familiar with the drink that he had personalized it. “Bucky Harris is too damned easygoing,” Weiss cursed. “He’s lost control of the team.”

Control aside, there was also the issue of the club’s composition. “DiMaggio and Henrich are reaching the end of the line,” Weiss worried in July 1948, “and there’s no one in sight to replace them.” The Yankees would soon be experiencing a youth movement. Harris, who preferred to work with veterans, lacked a sure touch with young players, rushing some, unnecessarily holding others back. Throughout 1948, he and Weiss struggled over the disposition of players like pitcher Bob Porter-field and outfielder Hank Bauer. Meanwhile, Harris’s handling of Yogi Berra threatened to permanently destroy the young catcher’s confidence in the field. Because the Dodgers supposedly embarrassed Berra by stealing at will in the 1947 World Series, Harris would not commit to him as a catcher, shuttling him from the plate to the outfield throughout the season.

All of these actions were consistent with Weiss’s view of a lackadaisical manager buffeted by fate. “God gets you up in the morning in good health and guides you safely through traffic to the ballpark,” Harris said a few year later. “When your turn comes, He takes you by the hand and leads you up to the plate. Then He taps your shoulder. ‘Son,’ He says, ‘you take it from here’—and drops you flat on your puss.” Similarly, the fate of the Yankees was also out of Harris’s hands. “It all depends on the Big Fellow,” Harris would say, referring to Joe DiMaggio. Since Weiss was already envisioning a future without DiMaggio, this could hardly have been reassuring.

As soon as the Yankees’ third-place finish was interred in the history books, Harris was let go. He played the victim, saying, “It was like being socked in the head with a steel pipe.” Though he had known exactly what was coming, the idea that an assassination had taken place stuck. After the season, two sportswriters observed Del Webb approach Harris at a party. “What does Webb want with Harris now?” one of them asked. “He came back for the knife,” said the other. On the day of Stengel’s reintroduction to the New York press, John Drebinger of the New York Times hinted at the great injustice of it all.

The fifty-seven-year-old Stengel succeeds Bucky Harris who, engaged by Larry MacPhail before the 1947 campaign, won a pennant and world championship in his first year with the Yanks and this year kept what generally was regarded a badly outmatched club in the race until next to the last day, only to be dismissed for a reason as yet not explained by anyone.

In the light of this, most observers, always kindly disposed toward the engaging Stengel, were viewing his forthcoming assignment with some misgivings.

Even Bill Veeck, owner of the champion Indians and ostensibly Stengel’s friend, said publicly that Harris would return with another team and make “the Yankees executives that fired him eat their words.” All of these references to the martyr Harris were disingenuous at best. It was as true in 1948 as it is today that both executives and journalists are familiar with every player’s peccadilloes. Baseball is a small community with few secrets. The executives don’t employ that information for competitive advantage because as the Good Book says, let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Every team has its malcontents and miscreants and so no one is free to speak. Besides, it doesn’t pay to be puritanical because that alcoholic wife-beater might help you win a pennant some day. As for the journalists, their silence was at first secured by perks and then by the importance of maintaining cordial relations with the teams. The stab in the back was alive in the Bronx, all because the real, more compelling story of a ball club with its head in a bottle could not be told.

Casey Stengel wandered into this carnival and then was accused of being the carnival. With the writers predisposed towards finding fault with him, that first press conference, held over a sumptuous lunch at the 21 Club, did not go well. Introduced by Dan Topping, Stengel said, “Thank you, Bob . . . uh, Dan.” Bob was Topping’s sybaritic brother, his partner in the National Football League’s Brooklyn Dodgers team (later the New York Yankees of the AAFL; such was the second-tier status of professional football in those days that an association with baseball was seen as a corrective to the pervasive lack of interest in the sport), but otherwise a man of leisure. The great Joe McCarthy had made the very same error in his first press conference when he thanked Colonel Huston, Jacob Ruppert’s unlamented former partner of nearly ten years gone by. Nonetheless, for the writers this was strike one.

He seemed indecisive when predicting the club’s future, and even acknowledged his unfamiliarity with the team. He had not seen the team play in several years, he said. “Now I must study the Yankee situation and draw my own conclusions.” In elaborating, he displayed a guilelessness that belied his reputation as a champion obfuscator. “This is a big job, fellows,” he told the writers, “and I have barely had time to study it. In fact, I scarcely know where I am at. There’ll likely be some changes, but it’s a good club and I think we’ll do alright. We’ll go slow because you can tear a club down a lot quicker than you can build it up.” Throughout his career, Stengel had always showed an uncharacteristic reticence when it came to making predictions. Strike two.

Stengel was asked to express his feelings about managing Joe DiMaggio, who was there at the press conference. In old age, DiMaggio was known as a man who clung to the title of “Baseball’s Greatest Living Baseball Player” as though he had received it by divine decree rather than fan poll, a man who would not attend baseball functions unless he were introduced last (even when sharing the bill with a fellow luminary like Mickey Mantle or Ted Williams on a day dedicated to them). This was not the eccentric pride of an old man. He had always been that way; when DiMaggio said that he always played hard because, “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first or last time. I owe him my best,” he was displaying his hyper-developed sense of professionalism, but not altogether selflessly. His dedication had to be acknowledged, honored, or the man was not happy. Pride of accomplishment, in a job well done, was inextricably entwined with pride of self.

Stengel could have been expected to praise his star center fielder. He did not. “I cannot tell you very much about that, being as since I have not been in the American League so I ain’t seen the gentleman play, except once in a very great while.” DiMaggio, not a loquacious man, was very good at nonverbal communication. He frowned. Insufficient genuflection resulting in team MVP getting his nose out of joint: strike three. You’re out.

Stengel was called upon to defend his relationship with George Weiss, something he would be asked to do frequently between the announcement of his hiring and the beginning of the season. Here he was very direct. “I didn’t get this job through friendship. The Yankees represent an investment of maybe two, three million dollars. They don’t hire you just because they like your company. I got the job because these people think I can produce for them.”

Stengel knew he was floundering. “Somebody asked a question about DiMaggio and I said I didn’t know DiMaggio. I could hear the hum in the background. When they asked about a pennant I could hear that hum again and I knew what they were talking about. They were saying, ‘This bum managed nine years and never got into the first division.”

“Because I can make people laugh,” he said, “some of them think I’m a damn fool. But as a player, coach, and manager I have been around baseball for some thirty-five years. I’ve watched such successful managers as John McGraw and Uncle Robbie work. I’ve learned a lot and picked up a few ideas of my own.” He was almost sixty years old, nearing retirement age. He had managed for almost twenty-five years, apparently without merit. “Let them think it’s a joke,” Stengel said, “and maybe I’ll laugh when I fool them.”

Only Red Smith of the Herald-Tribune saw through the hypocrisy inherent in holding Stengel up to a mythical conception of the Yankees:

The old Yankee tradition ceased to exist several years ago when a man named MacPhail arrived. The old owner was a wholesaler who ran a brewery. His successor was a retailer who opened a saloon in the park. There is a new Yankee tradition now, which resembles the old as a chromium and red barstool resembles Chippendale.

There is, therefore, nothing incongruous in the notion of a comedian running the Yankees. But it is erroneous and unjust to conceive of Casey Stengel merely as a clown. He is something else entirely—a competitor who has always had fun competing, a fighter with the gift of laughter.

The next day, bravado restored, Stengel and newly appointed pitching coach “Milkman” Jim Turner toured Yankee Stadium and made a cameo appearance at a press luncheon time for Topping’s Yankees football team. This time Stengel was a hit, breaking up the room by saying, “When I heard that old Pepper Martin [the former St. Louis Cardinals star] was playing football in Brooklyn, I figured that Dan Topping must have had something of that sort in mind when he brought me here.”

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.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
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