Casey Stengel showed all of baseball he was much more than a clown.
The New York Yankees named him their manager in 1949. Few believed he would succeed.
After all, it was a big move up. The highest any Stengel-managed team had finished in the majors was fifth in an eight-team league.
During losing seasons as a ballplayer and manager, Stengel had clowned around on the field to entertain fans. He once put a bird under his cap and let it go at home plate when his turn came to bat.
Managing the dignified Yankees -- the franchise of legends Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio -- was serious business, not horseplay. In 1949, many veteran Yankee players doubted Stengel the trickster would be up to the task.
Stengel the teacher, who taught fundamentals, and Stengel the strategist, who maximized his players' abilities, overcame the jeers.
He won five straight World Series titles starting in 1949. Adding world titles in 1956 and '58 for a total of seven, he produced one of the greatest managerial runs in history.
"When Stengel got the job, nobody could believe it," Bobby Brown, a third baseman for Stengel's Yankees, told IBD. "He overcame his reputation as a clown."
Brown added: "He had tremendous baseball ability and logic in his left-handed way. In the end, even the older ballplayers who had played for (former Yankee skipper) Joe McCarthy came to realize that Casey knew what he was doing."
George Weiss, the Yankees' general manager in 1949, took a gamble hiring Stengel. Ol' Casey was 59 by then, plus had a losing record managing the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves.
Big In The Minors
In 1944, Stengel managed the minor league Milwaukee Brewers to a pennant. Four year later his Oakland Oaks won the Pacific Coast League's pennant.
Still, skeptics ruled when spring training began in 1949.
"The image that Casey had coming to New York was of this very funny character, the guy with a bird under his cap," said Maury Allen, who wrote two books on Stengel. "Yankee fans were upset. Players were restless. What changed everything was that Casey won the first year."
In spring training, Stengel let DiMaggio and other veterans train on their own. For young players, Stengel ran two-a-days.
Stengel told his coaches -- Jim Turner, Bill Dickey and Frank Crosetti -- to tutor players on the basics.
He emphasized speed to first base, situational throws and caroms off the outfield wall.
The sessions that Stengel introduced at his first Yankee camp evolved into an instructional school two years later. The school in Arizona came a few weeks ahead of spring training in Florida.
Stengel groomed many players -- such as Billy Martin, Gil McDougald and Tom Sturdivant -- who geared the Yankee dynasty.
"The Yankees had a great teaching organization, but Casey made it even better," Whitey Herzog, who trained with Stengel's Yankees and went on to a winning managing career, told IBD.
Herzog added: "People talk about how Casey had all those home run hitters, like (Mickey) Mantle. But they were also the best base-running team in the league. They took the extra base better than anybody. Casey's teams were always good fundamentally. They beat you 3-2 more often than 10-2."
Stengel learned some of that while playing for John McGraw's New York Giants from 1921 to 1923. The future Hall of Famer took a liking to Stengel's gritty playing style.
Stengel often sat in the dugout next to McGraw, taking in points such as the delivery of opposing pitchers. McGraw taught hitters to scrap every time up to tire out the man on the mound.
Like McGraw, Stengel won in New York by playing smart baseball. "Casey would say, '(Al) Lopez in Cleveland has a team that can win 92 games and I have a team that can win 92 games. We're going to figure out how to win five or six more.' And he'd do it," Herzog said.
In early 1949, Stengel had to learn all about his players, not to mention the rest of the American League, where he hadn't played or managed. So he shuffled his players in and out of games to test their talent in matchups against the opposition.
With the Yankees aging at key positions, Stengel made room for young guys. He used rookie Jerry Coleman at second base after Snuffy Stirnweiss struggled. He gave playing time to outfielders Gene Woodling, Hank Bauer and Cliff Mapes when DiMaggio and Charlie Keller slowed down with injuries.
Stengel platooned left- and right-handed hitters, depending on the opposing pitcher. The moves made veterans and young players hungry for playing time, says Allen.
Stengel, a left-handed hitter, had himself been platooned. "Casey understood human nature," Allen said. "He knew how to motivate. He knew that by platooning players, they'd get angry at him. Almost every player he platooned hated him. They wanted to show him up when they did play."
Added Allen, "Casey studied to be a dentist as a young man, but he was really a master psychologist."
Stengel the dentist was what his parents thought he'd be.
Born in Kansas City, Mo., in 1890, Charles Stengel was athletically built as a kid. He learned to play baseball with his older brother.
In 1910, Stengel began playing minor league ball. He made $135 a month, not bad for a 19-year-old. He planned on saving enough money for dental school, but that career path went nowhere in part due to a lack of left-handed instruments, says Brown, who studied to be a doctor while playing for the Yankees.
As it was, Stengel made more money than expected playing ball. As a minor leaguer and in the majors, he often held out for pay raises.
Stengel drew the Casey nickname when he hit the majors. His playing high point came in 1923, when he hit two homers in the World Series for the Giants, who lost to the Yankees.
In 1927, he broke into managing by winning the pennant with the Toledo Hens. He returned to the majors in 1934 as manager of the Dodgers.
Stengel the savvy investor gave his managing career a boost. In 1936 a former Brooklyn player whose family was in the oil business advised Stengel to invest in Texas fields. Stengel did his homework, going to the Lone Star State with his wife, Edna, to learn all about pumping oil.
They invested $10,000, which turned into a handsome sum in following years. By 1937, Stengel had earned enough to invest in the Boston Braves, renamed the Bees. He also became the team's manager.
While not rich, Stengel's oil money let him give players spending money if they played hard.
Hot Bats, Good Gloves
During his Yankee run -- winning 10 American League pennants in 12 years -- Stengel juggled his team successfully. He put good hitters in the lineup early in games and later replaced them with good fielders.
Stengel would pinch hit for his starting pitcher in early innings if a chance came to take a big lead.
The Yankees and Boston Red Sox waged a fierce fight for the 1949 pennant. It came down to the final weekend of the season, with New York one game behind.
The Yanks won both games "in dramatic fashion," said Allen.
They were on the way to baseball's top -- and Stengel on the way to the Hall of Fame.
Source: Investor's Business Daily