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With the publication of Babe in 1974 (SI, March 18 et seq.), Robert W. Creamer set a standard of excellence for sports biographies. Now, a decade later, Creamer has demonstrated his skill once again with Stengel—His Life and Times ( Simon and Schuster, $16.95).
Casey Stengel wasn't the athlete Babe Ruth was, but his accomplishments in baseball were abundant and influential, and he was a far more interesting character than Ruth. Stengel was an original: a complex, hypnotic personality. But his ability to mesmerize sportswriters, fans. Congressmen—any audience at all—often served to obscure his achievements, even among some baseball people who should have known better. As Creamer, a senior writer for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, shows, the popular view of Casey the clown was only marginally valid: He did amuse and entertain a lot of people, and he knew he was good at it. But he was also a master of baseball, a seemingly simple game that is endlessly detailed and complicated in strategy and execution. Stengel's ability to command attention without apparent effort made him one of the most compellingly effective teachers and leaders the sport has known.
Who remembers what Stengel did as a player? Putting aside the years of clutch hitting and often inspired fielding and base running, just recall the 1923 World Series between John McGraw's Giants and Miller Higgins' Yankees. Stengel, who was playing for his idol, McGraw, was 33 and over the hill. He was often referred to then as "old Casey" and ran, as Damon Runyon wrote, on "warped old legs twisted and bent by many a year of baseball campaigns." Stengel won the first Series game with an inside-the-park home run in the ninth inning, pouring everything he had into a furious charge around the bases and a slide home. Two days later he decided the third game with another homer into the rightfield bleachers. "It was the first time," Creamer writes, "a player had broken up a 0-0 game in the World Series with a home run. It was also the first time a player had won two Series games with homers. And Casey's two home runs were the first World Series homers ever hit in Yankee Stadium."
A quarter of a century later, Stengel, by this time certifiably old, was hired to manage the Yankees, and Creamer reminds us of the scorn and giggles with which this was greeted—in baseball circles as well as by the press and public. Nearly everyone believed that the hiring of a "court jester" was a Yankee public relations ploy. New York wasn't the favorite for the '49 American League pennant, nor would it be the preseason choice for any of the next three flags. Stengel won the league championship for five years, despite the hostility of some of his players and an astonishing series of injuries and illnesses. He went on to win 10 pennants and seven World Series in his 12 years with the Yanks. If he wasn't a legend when he was hired by the Yankees, he was one when they fired him in 1960—for being, at 70, too old.
Creamer's view of Stengel's career—indeed, his life—emphasizes the man's hard, relentless courage, his refusal to ever recognize adversity as anything other than a spur to continue battling. Nothing became him more than the closing words he spoke at a testimonial dinner given him when the Yankees discharged him after he lost what would have been a record eighth World Series victory. Creamer writes, "At the end...he stuck out his chin and said, 'Don't give up. Tomorrow is just another day, and that's myself.' " It was typical Stengel, down to the last three words, which forced you to think of what he was trying to say.
Near the end of this book, Creamer provides one of the most remarkable pieces of Stengelese ever heard, read or witnessed. In 1973 Stengel, 82, speaking at banquets and meetings along the way, traveled 3,000 miles to Manchester, N.H. from his home in Glendale, Calif, for a sports dinner. He had talked all that day, nonstop as usual. Late that night he was asked by broadcaster Ken Meyer of Boston's WBZ to answer a few questions. Stengel never refused that kind of request. Meyer turned on the tape recorder, and for the next half hour Stengel barely paused for breath. It was—using his own favorite adjective—an amazing performance, and Creamer repeats it verbatim, using 12 pages in the process.
Stengel is a superb book about an outstanding man.