The book: “Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character”
The author: Marty Appel
The vital statistics: Doubleday, 432 pages, $27.95, released March 28, 2017
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Barnes and Noble, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com, at the publishers’ website, or the writers’ website
The pitch: On Sept. 15, 1975, Casey Stengel wasn’t feeling well and checked in to the local Glendale Memorial Hospital, a short drive from his longtime home he shared with his wife, Edna, at 1663 Grandview Ave.
He wouldn’t return home. Cancer had spread too much in his abdomen and at 85 he couldn’t handle surgery.
“During his hospital stay,” as Appel writes on page 353, “he did what he always did – he followed baseball.”
That meant watching the NBC Game of the Week, Pittsburgh at St. Louis, with Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek, Stengel’s former Yankees shortstop, calling it.
“In those days, the playing of the national anthem was part of the telecast – unlike today … Knowing the ritual well, Casey decided to rise from his bed and stand for the anthem. ‘I might as well do this one last time,’ he said, as he stood barefooted in a hospital gown (open in the back), with his hands over his heart.”
That would seem to be in character with Stengel, eh?
When Stengel died not long later, and was then interred at Forest Lawn in Glendale with an oversized wall plaque near his grave site – not in Cooperstown, N.Y. as had been discussed — another one of his famous quotes was included: “There comes a time in every man’s life, and I’ve had plenty of them.”
Plenty of Stengel’s life-and-times books have emerged in our lifetime. But the character issue is exactly why Appel, the longtime Yankees PR man, decided another was necessary to educate another generation of baseball fan with new material.
In 2009, the MLB Network did one of those “Prime 9” lists, and in one about “Characters of the Game,” Stengel was voted first, ahead of Yogi Berra, Tommy Lasorda and Mark Fidrych. Characterize the way that the list was formed if you like – and some weren’t thrilled with how it ultimately was put together – but the residue was to produce one more large collection of stories about the one-time Brooklyn Dodger and manager and player who may have been better known for his second act managing the Yankees and Mets in New York during the 1950s and ‘60s.
But then again, this thick effort written in a somewhat matter-of-fact style might not be the best way to engage today’s young-ish baseball fans.
Appel acknowledges that in 1984, Robert Creamer produced a classic in “Stengel: His Life and Times.” It’s just hard to find it now. Almost as difficult as something published by Random House in 1962 called “Casey At the Bat: The Story of My Life,” by Stengel, as told to Harry T. Paxton.
There’s the 1958 hardback, “Casey Stengel: His Half-Century In Baseball,” by Frank Graham. In 1967, “Casey: The Life and Legend of Charles Dillion Stengel,” by Joe Durso. In 1976, “Casey Stengel,” a biography by Norman MacLean. Three years later, Maury Allen’s “You Could Look It Up: The Life of Casey Stengel.” In 1997, “Casey Stengel: A Splendid Baseball Life,” with Richard Bak.
We looked all of them up, as well as the one Ira Berkow and Jim Kaplan cranked out “The Gospel According to Casey: Casey Stengel’s Inimitable, Instructional, Historical Baseball Book” in 1992. They somehow left “hysterical” out of the title, but maybe just didn’t think of it in time.
The logic behind Appel’s book was that he and his staff could better research more smaller local newspaper stories that had been more difficult to cull in the pre Google-age. He also had an unpublished autobiography from Stengel’s wife made available that could add new perspective, as well as another unpublished memoir of Frank Crosetti, Stengel’s former Yankees coach.
The irony is in after plowing through all this material, “character” isn’t the word you always come away with about Stengel.
You realize how much he really did know about the game and the way he strictly managed based on his knowledge was what made him a Hall of Famer.
His character was just an endearing way for him to make him a media favorite. No wonder Rod Dedeaux and Tommy Lasorda were his close pals.
After taking Oakland to the PCL championship in 1948, the Yankees decided to hire him in ’49 and he rattled off five straight World Series titles through 1953. The Yankees’ run wasn’t in spite of him but largely because of him in many ways.
With the new stories, we also can roll back to a time win his rookie season of 1912 with the pre-Dodger Superbas, when he wouldn’t listen to teammate Zach Wheat’s advice on how to play center field against Pirates great Hans Wagner.
Appel, the Yankees PR man in the 1970s who helped coordinate Stengel’s trips back to New York for Yankees Old-Timers Days, also leans heavily on Toni Mollett Harsh, the grand niece of Edna Stengel and whose mother was Stengel’s secretary during his as a vice present at Glendale Federal Savings (owned by Edna Stengel’s family).
“I’m only a vice president,” he would say. “I’m not authorized to hand out samples.”
= A conversation with Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf
= A review by Neil Best of New York Newsday.
= A piece in the Christian Science Monitor
= A review by KirkusReviews.com: “Stengel is unquestionably one of baseball’s most significant characters, and Appel is the perfect fit to chronicle his life. One of the more skilled biographies baseball fans could hope to find.”
= A New York Times review of this book along with Paul Dickson’s book on Leo Durocher
= Worth tracking down is a book by the recently deceased Jimmy Breslin called “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?” which came from a Stengel quote and was about his time as the New York Mets manager in 1962, which came out in time for the 1963 season. It was reissued in 2002. And it has several covers.
= An event is planned in mid-June to raise funds for another restoration effort of Casey Stengel Field in Glendale through The Stengel Field Foundation