Watching the New York Mets on a bulky console black-and-white TV and hearing a curious old guy make men thrusting microphones into his face laugh by the way he mangled our language is one of my earliest and fondest little-kid memories.
The sly-as-a-fox bumpkin was one Charles Dillon Stengel. Announcers Ralph Kiner, Lindsay Nelson and Bob Murphy just called him Casey, and with great reverence. Because I was born in the cold December of 1957 and those Mets who had made a 71-year-old man their first-ever manager were christened in the cool spring breezes of 1962, that moniker was a funny name to me, bringing to mind train engineers and poetic ball-swatting players at the bat, with waxed mustaches of yesteryear. Yes, I was an imaginative little kid. What can I say? Besides letting me watch baseball past my bedtime on that shotgun apartment living room TV in Brooklyn, N.Y., my young parents read to their first child a lot, too.
Did somebody mention trains? One of Casey’s catchers on those Mets was named Clarence “Choo Choo” Coleman.
Catchers chugging out from behind the plate are nothing without pitchers. Yet the Mets’ mound staff was filled with men who were not very good.
One of the starting five was a fellow with the extremely appropriate name of Jay Hook. Hook was credited with earning the first victory ever in the history of the New York Mets. Unfortunately, it came after nine straight losses to start the team’s season. Hook started 34 games. Even though he led the team with 13 complete games, that means old Casey marched to the mound to give Jay the namesake Hook 21 times on the way to his season’s mark of 8-19. The Mets traded for Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell in mid-season, and after winning 90 and losing 86 over nine seasons combined with the Pirates and Cardinals, he concluded his career for the Mets with two starts, 17 relief appearances — and two losses without a win. The Mets had two pitchers that year by the name of Bob Miller. Fortunately, one was a lefty and one was a righty. Bob L. Miller was a right-handed starter whose record was 1-12. Bob G. Miller was a left-handed reliever whose recorde was 2-2 with one save. Not bad, you say? Not so fast. His ERA was 7.08, which means he gave up almost a run for every inning he appeared.
On the field, the best Met was center fielder Richie Ashburn, a two-time National League batting champion with the Phillies in, 1955 and 1958, but drafted from the Cubs, from which he had drifted thereafter. Ashburn, who hit .301 with seven homers and 28 RBI, by that time had accumulated three nicknames: “Putt-Putt,” “The Tilden Flash,” and “Whitey.” They could have added “Too Good for the Mets.” He was their all-star in 1962. He retired after the season. Ashburn was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1995.
But most of the Mets in 1962 were more along the lines of Gus Bell, Ed Bouchee, Sammy Drake and Harry Chiti. Even though they all got to the plate at least 40 times, none of them were able to hit two bucks. Yup, four so-called big-leaguers, all with a batting average under .200. And there was Don Zimmer. Yes, that Don Zimmer, later the gerbil-faced coach who found fame with the Yankees and Red Sox. Zim, playing 14 games for Casey with the 1962 Mets, had four hits in 52 at bats for a batting average of .077. The Zim failed to hit a buck.
Of course, they also had first baseman Marv Throneberry, a man with a reputation for a slugger who indeed cracked 16 round-trippers and drove in 49 runs in his 116 games for the Mets that season. But his most notorious moment came when he hit a triple against the Cubs in June but was called out as he stood on third, on an appeal play for failing to touch second base. When Casey came out to argue the decision, the first-base umpire came over and told him not to bother, because Throneberry had failed to touch that base on his way to third, too. Casey? He just went on to add to the Mets’ fans adoption of Throneberry’s nickname that earned Marv a Miller Lite beer commercials long after he retired. Yup, Marvelous Marv Throneberry was the name thereafter for their at best average ballplayer.
The Mets finished their first season with a record of 40 wins and 120 losses, a mere 60 1/2 games behind the pennant-winning San Francisco Giants. The Mets had a twin brother come into the league with them that year, the Houston Colt .45s. The Texan expansion squad was 64-96, which looks perfectly awful until you consider they finished 24 games better than the Mets. And also beat out the ninth-place Chicago Cubs, by the way, who went 59-103. Sorry, long-suffering Windy City Wrigleyites.
So what did loquacious Casey have to say about his Mets to writers and announcers?
“Come see my “Amazin’ Mets,” Stengel said, according to Wikipedia. “I’ve been in this game a hundred years, but I see new ways to lose I never knew existed before.” Of his three catchers, he said, “I got one that can throw but can’t catch, one that can catch but can’t throw, and one who can hit but can’t do either.”
And why not? Casey’ other nickname was “The Old Perfesser.”
But as a player, he became known for his antics. His bio on the site caseystengel.com reports: “In a game with Montgomery of the Southern league, Stengel lowered himself in an outfield manhole when no one was looking. As a fly ball sailed in his direction, he magically appeared out of the ground to shag it. The crowd gave him a standing ovation, and “Ol’ Case” had pulled off another one.”
And from Wikipedia: “In 1919, Stengel of the Pittsburgh Pirates was being taunted mercilessly by fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers, his old team. Somehow Casey got hold of a sparrow and used it to turn the crowd in his favor. With the bird tucked gently beneath his cap, Casey strutted to the plate amidst a chorus of boos and catcalls. He turned to the crowd, tipped his hat and out flew the sparrow. The jeers turned to cheers, and Stengel became an instant favorite.”
The way Casey talked was termed “Stengelese.” It was music to a young Mets fan’s ears.
Casey managed the Mets until he retired on Aug. 30, 1965, a month after he broke his hip … falling off a bar stool.
That gave me almost three more seasons to soak in the funny stuff.
When one of my favorite Mets of all time, first baseman Ed Kranepool, was coming up along with another young player, catcher Greg Goossen, Casey said: “See that fellow over there? He’s 20 years old. In 10 years he has a chance to be a star. Now, that fellow over there, he’s 20, too. In 10 years he has a chance to be 30.”
Kranepool played for the Mets 18 years and became their all-time hits leader (before being passed by David Wright). Goossen turned 30 in 1975. He was already five years out of the big leagues.
Casey Stengel, born on July 30, 1890, Hall of Fame inductee in 1966 by the Veterans Committee, died on Sept. 29, 1975, is also a legend for saying:
• “Being with a woman all night never hurt no professional baseball player. It’s staying up all night looking for a woman that does him in.”
• “Don’t drink in the hotel bar, that’s where I do my drinking.”
• “The key to being a good manager is keeping the people who hate me away from those who are still undecided.”
• “They say Yogi Berra is funny. Well, he has a lovely wife and family, a beautiful home, money in the bank, and he plays golf with millionaires. What’s funny about that?”
• “When you are younger you get blamed for crimes you never committed and when you’re older you begin to get credit for virtues you never possessed. It evens itself out.”
• “They got a lot of kids now whose uniforms are so tight, especially the pants, that they cannot bend over to pick up ground balls. And they don’t want to bend over in television games because in that way there is no way their face can get on the camera.”
And, finally, the favor returned by funny catcher, manager and Hall-of-Famer Lawrence “Yogi Berra:
• “He could fool you. When Casey wanted to make sense he could. But he usually preferred to make you laugh.”
Quotes, biographical information and statistics were mined from Wikipedia, brainyquote.com and caseystengel.com.
Here’s the link to the Wikipedia entry for Casey Stengel.
Here’s the link for caseystengel.com.
Here’s the link to brainyquote.com.
Here’s the link to the photo of Casey Stengel as Mets manager.