Thursday, August 22, 2013

157. Casey Stengel: The Old Professor as Student


Thanks to everyone who sent good wishes on my marriage, it means a lot to Andrea and I. After a beautiful wedding (Andrea looked amazing) and a relaxing honeymoon on Coronado Island (where the new Mr. and Mrs. Cieradkowski took in a Padres-Mets game at Petco Field), I'm back in my studio in Kentucky. As such, I'd like to introduce you to a little-known part of Hall of Famer Casey Stengel's baseball career. Of course known by all as the long-time manager of the 1950's Yankees, Stengel had a long career before that as a manager of last place ball clubs, and before that as a decent major league journeyman outfielder with Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. But before even that, Stengel got his start in professional baseball right here in Kentucky playing in the aptly named Blue Grass League.

Before he was Casey, he was known as Dutch. At the turn of the century all peoples of Germanic stock were called "Dutchmen" or "Dutch" (case-in-point, the "Pennsylvania Dutch" actually hail from Germany and Honus Wagner, of German decent, was called "The Flying Dutchman"). The nickname came from the German word "Deutsch" meaning "German people", but disinterested Anglo ears simply heard "Dutch" instead. So all Germans became Dutchmen. Enjoying a comfortable middle-class upbringing, Stengel's old man was an insurance salesman and while he tolerated his son's interest in sports, he pushed the boy to aspire to higher goals in life.

At Kansas City's Central High, Charley was an outstanding athlete, playing football, basketball and baseball with equal ease. In the summer of 1908 at age 16, Stengel joined the semi-pro Kansas City Benton's. The Benton's barnstormed as far west as Utah and Wyoming playing army and factory teams every day to turn a profit. While it was a great learning experience for the teen and a step towards becoming a pro-ballplayer, a career in baseball wasn't Stengel's ultimate goal: Dental college was his aim and baseball was a great way to save up for the tuition.

In his junior year, the 18 year-old's pitching garnered a bit of regional notoriety when the Central High baseball team became the Missouri State champions. In the deciding game Stengel, the team's left-handed ace, injured his pitching arm. When summer came, Stengel rejoined the Benton's, now re-named the Red Sox and embarked on another season barnstorming around the west. To rest his arm he took to playing the infield and outfield to stay in the lineup.

Dutch returned to Central High for his senior year but dropped out in February when he was offered a tryout by the local Kansas City minor league team. The Kansas City Blues played in the Class AA (equivalent to today's AAA) American Association, one of the country's three top minor leagues. When the team sent Dutch a contract calling for a $135 a month salary, the teen was so overtaken with nerves that he turned pale. Being under age, his father reluctantly signed it for him. It was after all temporary, his boy was going to become a dentist. 

Joining the Blues, Stengel soon found the competition to be way over his head. Seeing that the 19 year-old's pitching wasn't close to Class AA league standards, Danny Shay, the team's manager, put Stengel in the outfield to see what he could do. Though still not up to American Association quality, he showed significant promise and Kansas City sent kid to Illinois to play for the Class D (equivalent to today's A) Kankakee Kays. Stengel got into 59 games and was batting .251 when the league disbanded in July.

With the summer half over, Stengel was assigned to the Class D Blue Grass League in Kentucky. By the end of July he was roaming the outfield for the last place Shelbyville Blues. The low minors being a precarious business back then, the Shelbyville team couldn't turn a profit and was soon bought by a group of businessmen from nearby Maysville for $500. 

It was with the Maysville Colts that Stengel began to learn the trade of a professional ballplayer. Though mired in last place, the citizens of Maysville showered their new team with enthusiasm usually saved for a pennant winner. Stengel even had his first fan, a young Maysville boy named Robert Willocks who would carry his spikes and glove to the ballpark where his idol would in-turn get him into the game for free. Though he was barely hitting .220, Stengel earned himself a few prizes with his bat: in September he hit the team's first home run and received a box of candy and safety razor shaving kit. A second round-tripper the next week added a $3 hat to his prize winnings. Late in the summer the Old Mill Tobacco Company included the rookie outfielder in the set of trading cards they inserted in their cigarette packs. The grim faced boy who stares back at you from the orange-boardered 1910 card is a far cry from the grizzled and wrinkled old man who appears 54 years later on his last baseball card as manager of the New York Mets.

It was also in Maysville that Stengel began showing his gift for colorful shenanigans which he later became famous for in the majors. The Colts' home field, League Park, had an insane asylum just beyond its outfield wall. Running to the dugout from his center field position after each inning, Stengel, who was told that he needed to work on his sliding technique, would make a practice slide into third base. The inmates of the asylum watched from their windows and cheered him on with enthusiasm - they thought he was one of their own. On another occasion Stengel drew attention to himself when he pursued a fly ball past the boundaries of an un-walled in ballpark and caught the ball standing ankle-deep in a moving stream. 

When the Bluegrass League season ended, the Kansas City Blues called him up for the rest of their season. Stengel got into 4 games and hit .273 with a double. The 19 year-old ended his first season in professional baseball with a combined .237 with 18 doubles, 6 triples and 3 homers spread out over 4 teams and 3 leagues and was retained by Kansas City for the next season. But more than that, Stengel had made enough money playing ball during the 1910 season that he was able to enroll in Kansas City's Western Dental College, his ultimate goal. 

And so, that might have been the last we ever heard of Charley Stengel had it not been for his being left-handed: most dental tools were manufactured for righties and Stengel had a terrible time trying to use the equipment. After 2 winters studying at Western, Stengel gave up and decided to become a professional ballplayer. And the rest, as they say, is history - but wait - where did he get the name "Casey" from? Well, as a rookie with Brooklyn in 1912, his teammates took to calling him "Kansas City" after his hometown, later shortened to "K.C." and still later to "Casey".


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