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In Sports

Casey Stengel (right) managed the Class AAA Milwaukee Brewers in 1944.

Stengel found success during single season in Milwaukee


When Charlie Grimm resigned as manager of the Class AAA Milwaukee Brewers in the spring of 1944 it was the greatest tragedy to befall the city since popular mayor Carl Zeidler had gone down with the merchant ship SS LaSalle off the coast of Africa two years earlier.

Or so readers of the Sentinel must've thought when sports editor Stoney McGlynn wrote that "Milwaukee cannot afford to lose Charlie Grimm" and beseeched the mayor, city council, chamber of commerce and all devotees of the national pastime to drop everything and convince "the most popular baseball idol in Milwaukee history" to stay and continue what Grimm and Bill Veeck Jr. had started when they took over the floundering local ball club in 1941.

"Do it now," pleaded McGlynn. "Tomorrow may be too late."

It was already too late. A day later, on May 6, Grimm became manager of the Chicago Cubs, who'd won their first game of the '44 campaign but then dropped nine straight.

But Grimm wasn't totally abandoning Milwaukee. He and Veeck were majority stockholders in the American Association league Brewers, who with Grimm at the reins had finished second in 1942 and a year later had won the Class AAA pennant. The '44 Brewers were the favorites to repeat as champions, and so far in the fledgling season they were in first place with a record of 8-1.

To keep things going in the right direction, Grimm turned the Brewers dugout over to a man the Sentinel called "one of baseball's greatest buffoons" -- Charles "Casey" Stengel.

"Ol' Case is a big league manager in every sense of the word," reassured Grimm, "and with his color, baseball shrewdness and the team he has to work for him, I believe he will be a big success."

Stengel had color like Milwaukee had beer. Born in Kansas City (hence the nickname) in 1890, he was a ballplayer for 14 years and in 1923 he won two World Series games for the New York Giants with home runs. But the jug-eared, bandy-legged Stengel was equally well known for his antics.

During a 1919 game at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, he picked up a sparrow that had knocked itself woozy flying into a wall and put it under his baseball cap. When Stengel next got up to bat, he doffed his cap to the crowd and the bird flew out and away. Even the umpires laughed.

"The higher-ups complained I wasn't showing a serious attitude by hiding a sparrow in my hat," Stengel later recalled. "But I said any day I got three hits (as he did in that game), I figure I am showing a more serious attitude than a lot of players with no sparrows in their hats."

Stengel's managerial career started in 1924, and by the time he landed in Milwaukee his resume included three years at the helm of the Brooklyn Dodgers, in which they never finished better than fifth place, and five years with the Boston Braves, who didn't fare any better.

The problem, Casey later explained, was lack of talent on the field, not in the manager's chair.

"When I think of some of those teams I had, I was wondering whether I was managing a baseball team or a golf course. You now what I mean -- one pro to a club."

During one game when he was managing the Toledo Mud Hens in 1929, Stengel called timeout and went out to chief umpire Tiny Johnson and asked if he had an alarm clock on him. "What's the idea of stopping the game to ask such a silly question?" Johnson asked.

"Silly, hell! Some of my boys on the bench left a 5 o'clock call and I wanted to set the alarm for them," said Stengel, pointing to his dugout where several players were openly snoozing.

Boston canned him in 1942, and when Grimm brought Stengel to Milwaukee in '44, even McGlynn calmed down and called him "the only man in baseball who could follow Grimm into Milwaukee and escape whole-skinned."

The only howl of disapproval came from the far away South Pacific, when Marine Corps Pvt. Bill Veeck took time off from fighting in World War II to wonder if Grimm had lost his mind.

"Stengel mentally is a second-division major-leaguer," wrote Veeck in a letter to his partner. "That is, he is entirely satisfied with a mediocre club as long as Stengel and his alleged wit are appreciated."

Veeck's fretting was for naught. For one thing, there were few "clerks" and "road apples" -- Stengelese for the kind of players he'd been saddled with before -- on the Brewers nine.

"This gang doesn't need any master-minding on my part," enthused Casey after the Brewers started his tenure off by taking a double-header from the second-place Columbus Red Birds on May 7 at Borchert Field, the home diamond at N. 8th and W. Chambers Streets.

What the Journal called the "larruping Stengel forces" won 12 straight games through the middle of the month. On May 24, the Brewers set a new American Association record by beating the Toledo Mud Hens 24-0. By June 6, when all baseball games were canceled on account of the Allied invasion of Europe, the team was solidly atop the standings and never looked back.

They weren't shutout until Kansas City beat them 5-0 on July 5, and by the All-Star Game on July 26 the Crew was 10½ games in front.

The All-Star Game was at Borchert Field that year, pitting the league leaders against a team of top players from the other teams in the American Association. The crowd of 12,000 was disappointed when the All-Stars won 12-0, but manager Nick Cullop told Stengel, "I beat you, but I had to have the rest of the league gang up on you to do it."

The Brewers clinched the pennant on Sept. 7, and before the regular season ended five days later with the team taking two from Minneapolis to finish with a record of 102-51, the mighty Casey announced that he wasn't coming back in 1945.

"I did not want to work this season," said Stengel. "I took this job to help out my friend, Charlie Grimm. I've enjoyed running the Brewers. I like the players and I think they like me, and I think Milwaukee fans are great.

"You know, there are a lot of people around the circuit who like to yell at Old Case, and I enjoy having them do it. It's been a good summer."

Not a great one, though. Later that month, the Brewers lost a best-of-seven playoff series to Louisville. But the greatest days for the man they called "The Old Perfessor" were still ahead.

In 1948, Stengel was hired to manage the New York Yankees, and proceeded over the next 11 years to win seven World Series (the Yankees were runner-up three times, including to the 1957 Milwaukee Braves).

When Stengel was let go in 1960 because the Yankees thought he might be too old to keep up his high standard of managing, he ruefully commented, "I'll never make the mistake of being 70 again."

Two years later, he was manager of the New York Mets, a National League expansion team whose awfulness was neatly summed up by its skipper when Stengel groused, "The only thing worse than a Mets game is a Mets double-header."

He finally retired in 1965, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame a year later, and died on Sept, 29, 1975.

In his 1997 biography, "Casey Stengel: A Splendid Baseball Life," Richard Bak wrote that as Stengel's fame grew he "increasingly moved from Point A to Point B not on a straight path, but rather via a series of convoluted historical detours that butchered grammar, slaughtered names, and often left listeners believing that Stengel was speaking in tongues."

This was the case in 1958 when the voluble Stengel testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on a bill that would exempt baseball from antitrust regulations. His testimony ran to more than 7,000 words, and following him to the microphone was Yankee star Mickey Mantle, who puckishly said, "My views are just about the same as Casey's."

"If you will redefine just what Casey's views were, we would be very happy," said Sen. Estes Kefauver.

When the mood was on him, Stengel was stunningly vivid and succinct. Broadcaster Curt Gowdy invited him out for some beers once and Casey knocked the first one back tout de suite. Why was he drinking so fast, Gowdy wondered.

"It's been that way since the accident," said Stengel, and when Gowdy gingerly asked what accident that was, Casey answered, "When somebody knocked over my glass."

Milwaukee had him for only one season, but no Beertown baseball manager before or since was his equal as, to borrow the Stengelese Casey once employed in praise of one of his ballplayers, "the perdofious quotient of the qualificatilus."

Talkbacks

Braktune | March 5, 2011 at 10:17 a.m. (report)

Thanks for the article. Every so often an article like this shows up (i.e. research based as opposed to describing a night of drinking). Given the nature of this site there certainly is a place for both but it's always entertaining to read the less fluffy pieces. Just wanted to let management know there is at least 1 fan of the more detailed pieces.

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wstphl | March 5, 2011 at 9:39 a.m. (report)

Great article Pete. Never knew Casey was actually KC. Gotta love the originals..

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