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There are some things that should be understood about Casey Stengel, who died last week in California at the age of 85. Despite the patronizing nicknames of Ol' Case and The Perfessor, he was not lovable and he was not cute. He was a tough man, as sure of himself as anyone you are ever likely to know. He was a gifted public clown but not a private one, not the sort who worked for laughs to curry favor.
Oh, he could entertain friends—and anyone else within hearing distance—and leave them helpless with laughter, but he never played the fool for them, not even when he was lying on the floor of a hotel lobby at two in the morning, demonstrating the proper execution of the hook slide. He was lecturing, teaching, telling, explaining, illustrating, his arms waving, fingers gesturing, mouth grimacing, eyes winking. He was noted for saying, "You could look it up," but a more significant pet expression was, "Now let me ask you this." Like Socrates, he would pursue a theme with his listeners—his students—and the insights he would develop were sometimes astonishing.
Contrary to what people thought who laughed at him without really listening to him, he almost always made sense. Not that he was easy to understand. His monologues wandered, his references were cryptic, his descriptions fragmentary. But he was a genius—quick, intuitive, loaded with bits and pieces of information that he would whip out and apply to a situation. If you knew his subject and the people he was talking about, what he said was a revelation. "My God," said a reporter hearing him for the first time, "he talks the way James Joyce writes."
Critics who denigrate him as a manager like to point out that of the four major league teams he ran, three never finished higher than fifth, and one of those never higher than 10th. It doesn't matter. There is a story about a fine poker player who described a better poker player by saying, "When I have the cards, I clean the table. When he has them, he cleans the room." When Stengel had the players, and the resources to get more, he cleaned the room. Ten pennants and seven world championships in 12 years, which is what he did with the New York Yankees from 1949 through 1960, is the superlative managerial performance of all time, such an extraordinary achievement that people accept it without thinking about it—like the sun. "I couldn't have done it without the players," Stengel said ingenuously. Neither could the players have done it without Stengel.
Casey was an original. There was no one like him before he came on the baseball scene in 1910, and there will not be again. He was always at home in his time. He knew the uses of the past, but was more interested in the present and the future. He was never 60, or 85, or 22, or 40. He was simply Casey, all the time, all his life. Those who remember him half a century ago say he had then the same gravelly voice, the wink, the double-talk, the rambling stories that became famous when he did.
He had contempt for dumb ballplayers, even those with talent, but he loved smart ones. His favorite was Billy Martin who, despite his lack of skills, was always alert, alive, perceptive. Martin reciprocated the affection. After the Yankees lost the 1955 World Series, Stengel's first defeat in postseason play, Martin stood in the empty clubhouse with tears in his eyes and said, "It's a shame a man like that has to lose."
But Stengel, whose career was a roller-coaster ride of success, failure, success, never really lost. As he once told a biographer, "I'm a man that's been up and down." Defeat to him was only a temporary setback. Death, for all its finality, seems no more than that.