- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 18, 2009

“I’ll never make the mistake of turning 70 again.”

- Charles Dillon Stengel

Casey Stengel did not utter that famous quote at a news conference at New York’s Savoy Hilton Hotel on Oct. 18, 1960, during which the New York Yankees announced ambiguously that he would not return as manager the following season. He said it instead a short time later in the hotel bar after a few belts had loosened his always at-the-ready tongue.

This painful afternoon came just five days after the Yankees lost the World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off home run at Forbes Field in the ninth inning of Game 7.

Two years earlier, testifying memorably before a Senate committee, Stengel had described being discharged by the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves after failed managerial stints by saying, “We call it discharged because there was no question I had to leave.”

The same was true with the Yankees. Their chilly treatment of a man who had led the so-called Bronx Bombers to 10 pennants and seven World Series championships in 12 seasons reinforced the club’s image as a sterile, heartless outfit.

In his 1984 book “Stengel: His Life and Times,” baseball historian Robert Creamer relates how hypocritically Yankees co-owner Dan Topping tried to sugarcoat Casey’s ouster.

“He has been - and is - a great manager,” Topping blathered at the news conference. He added that the Yankees were paying Stengel $160,000 under a profit-sharing agreement and recommended that in this case the Baseball Hall of Fame waive its five-year waiting period for admission.

“Casey!” a reporter shouted. “Were you fired?”

Said the Ol’ Perfessor: “Write anything you please, quit, fired - I don’t care.”

Most media people had no doubt. In its final edition that afternoon, the New York Post blared the news with a humongous front-page headline: “STENGEL FIRED.”

In the accompanying story, baseball writer Leonard Koppett described Casey as speaking with “unconcealed bitterness” and saying: “My contract runs until November. After that, I won’t stay here and handicap this ball club.”

The Yankees’ dismissal of Stengel angered many New York fans. When Casey returned to the dugout two years later with the hapless (40-120) expansion Mets, they drew well despite losing 100 or more games in each of their first three seasons and playing the first two in the antiquated Polo Grounds. And when Shea Stadium opened in 1964, the Mets promptly outdrew a Yankees team that was winning its fifth straight pennant.

One reason for the Mets’ success, of course, was the return of National League baseball to Gotham after an absence of four years. Another was Stengel’s popularity and knack for reportedly saying colorful things about the Mets such as, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

Casey’s career provided conclusive evidence that a manager, no matter how smart, must have the players to succeed. Over 13 seasons with the universally lousy Dodgers (1934-36), Braves (1938-43) and Mets (1962-65), he had a winning percentage of .397 and never finished higher than fifth. From 1949 to 1960 with the lordly Yankees, it was .623.

How bad were his earlier tenures? Once Stengel went for a shave after the Braves lost a doubleheader and told the barber, “Don’t bother cutting my throat - I’ll take care of that later.” And when a taxi struck Casey and broke his leg in 1943, a Boston columnist suggested that the cabby be named Boston’s baseball man of the year.

The garrulous Stengel was generally considered a clown when the Yankees surprisingly named him to succeed Bucky Harris after the 1948 season. Then he was deemed a genius after winning five consecutive World Series at the start of his tour in pinstripes.

But even on the sad day when the Yankees tossed him overboard, Casey Stengel had the last laugh. As he rose to leave the bar, he told friendly reporters, “I’m taking a plane home [to California] - and I’m charging it to the club.”

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