It was cruelly hot and humid this evening in the New York Yankees' dugout at Cleveland. At one end of the long bench sat Casey Stengel, all alone. The Yanks were deep in a slump, and sportswriters have a way of avoiding the bench of a losing ball club. In the old days Stengel would have been surrounded, but now there were only two baseball reporters seated at the far end of the dugout, and they were silent in the oppressive heat. On the field the dispirited Yanks were taking batting practice.
Only the monotonous hollow sound of ball against bat and the resulting echo disturbed the quiet moment. Presently Casey's eyelids grew heavy, fluttered and then closed. Not for long, to be sure, but perhaps long enough...just long enough to dream.
The grand ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York rocked with the laughter of the 1,500 persons attending the annual dinner of the New York Chapter, Baseball Writers Association of America, on the evening of February 1, 1959. The speaker was Casey Stengel, and he had never been in better form. With the memory of his masterful handling of his Yankees in the superb seven-game World Series of 1958 still fresh in the minds of his audience, he played to the hilt the role of the eccentric genius, running on through nonstop sentences filled with obscure parenthetical asides and hilarious references to "this fella, that fella, the other fella." Then, abruptly, Casey was strangely silent. He stood for a long moment, staring up at the ceiling, and something about his manner caused a hush to fall over the assembly. Partly raised drinks were slowly lowered. Men exchanged glances in half alarm, half expectation of a bigger, better joke to come. At last Casey spoke:
"I ain't," said Casey, "going to beat about the bush. Here it is. I'm 69 years old. I won nine pennants for the Yankee organization, except I have to say it was the players that done it, with the help of Mr. George Weiss in the front office, and I just won another world championship. Now I been thinkin' things over and I decided this is the time to hang up old No. 37 and retire."
September 13, 1959
Stengel raised his voice and rushed on: "Yes, I'm quittin' and I got to say this. I'm turnin' over to whosoever Mr. George Weiss picks as new manager the greatest Yankee ball club I ever managed and I'm sayin' right now it's goin' to win again because it's got good everythin'—pitch-in', hittin' and the fellas that can make that double play and go for the big one when it's needed. It can't lose, I don't care who's manager. Even Bill McCorry, the travelin' secretary, could manage this ball club to the pennant. Thank you, one and all, and if you ever get out to Glendale, California drop in and see me in my private office at the bank."
The audience rose as one man, and the cheers for Stengel rattled the crystals of the great chandeliers. Stengel stood smiling, his hands clasped above his head. There were excited exchanges at tables here and there. Men shouted in each other's ears: "Smart move...quit winner...great time to go out...couldn't top his record anyway...one of baseball's immortals...cinch for Hall of Fame
Spontaneously, a mighty chorus sang For He's a Jolly Good Fellow. It was the most moving farewell in all baseball history.
General Manager George Weiss waited for a few days before announcing Stengel's successor. No one was surprised when Weiss named Ralph Houk, Yankee coach, who had frequently been mentioned as a candidate for the job when and if Ol' Case decided to retire.
When spring training had rolled around, the annual predictions were made. Milwaukee was the No. 1 selection to repeat in the National League and, as for the American, nobody dared to suggest that the Yankees could fail to win again. As one writer put it, "The Yanks have just too much hitting, pitching, speed, defense and depth. Weak spots in the Yankee lineup? There just aren't any weak spots."
But as the season opened (and Casey Stengel settled down in his job at the bank in Glendale, California), strange things began to happen. The powerhouse of Stengel's regime began to break down. Pitchers—even Stengel's "perfessional," Whitey Ford—couldn't seem to go the route. There was a rash of injuries and flu cases and mysteriously sore arms. Before June 1st the incomparable Yankees were, horribly incredible though it was, in last place. They rallied, but in early July they fizzled out, and again it was noted that they were not even playing .500 ball any more.
An incident that was not reported in the newspapers or shown by the television cameras occurred along about this time at Yankee Stadium. A man seized the microphone from the public-address announcer and screamed into it: "Bring back Casey Stengel!"
A little later this incident was destined to take on fearful significance. At the end of July the injury-, accident-, influenza-prone Yanks were staggering badly. In a week, they made 12 errors and presented opposing teams with 10 unearned runs.
There were some ominous, thinly veiled attacks on George Weiss himself. Where was the Yankee farm system, where were the replacements, what had happened to Mickey Mantle? He could hit for Stengel—most of the time, anyway.
Something had to give. In early August, a despairing Ralph Houk called a press conference and announced his resignation. Acting swiftly to fill the void, George Weiss called a second conference and announced that Houk would be succeeded by Bill McCorry, the Yanks' traveling secretary, as acting manager. Before the astounded sportswriters could get out a question, Weiss paid a glowing tribute to McCorry, who, he said, had once been a minor league manager (at Albany, N.Y.) and, moreover, had pitched for the old St. Louis Browns in 1909. Weiss said he had been deeply impressed by a fighting speech McCorry had made on the Phil Rizzuto postgame broadcast a few days previously. Viewers then remembered that McCorry had told Rizzuto that the Yanks needed some of the oldtime fighting spirit. "They ought to be scrapping with the umpires and getting thrown out of ball games," McCorry declared. "If they did that, I'm convinced we'd cop the old bunting [i.e., win the pennant) even at this late date."
McCorry's major and minor league experience was well known to the Yankee players. Someone had looked up his pitching record with the old Browns (he had won no games and lost two during the 1909 season), and he was affectionately known as "Old Oh-and-two."
Although he was clearly a stopgap manager, McCorry swung into action. His first act was to call a clubhouse meeting, which he threw open to the press. In a fighting speech, which was essentially the same as he delivered on the Rizzuto telecast, McCorry cried that he wanted "to see more scrap out there, more fighting with the umps even if it means getting thrown out of the ball game."
Things got no better. One day the fans began the chant that was to become a fixture of Yankee home games from then on. "We want Stengel," the chant ran. "Bring back Casey!" Banners calling for Stengel's return were so thick in the bleachers and grandstand that it was impossible for the guards to eject all of the guilty parties from the ball park.
Sensing the trend of public opinion, the sportswriters began to write pieces speculating about how Casey Stengel would have handled the team. "It is inconceivable," one of them wrote, "that Stengel would have permitted the club to become so disorganized. Under Stengel, Ford and Turley alone would have kept the club up there, and Casey's masterful platooning would certainly have minimized the effects of the injuries. Make no mistake about it, Stengel, and Stengel alone, was the genius responsible for the fabulous success of the Yankees."
As the Yankees themselves slumped on, the fans began to gather in little groups on Fifth Avenue outside the Yankees' downtown office. Speakers mounted stepladders to harangue the assemblies, recalling the old America First rallies of pre-Pearl Harbor days. Inevitably, the meetings ended with the ominous chant, "Bring back Casey Stengel! We want Casey!" Soon the war cry appeared on placards and small parades took form.
A LEADER APPEARS
It was inevitable that, in this highly charged atmosphere, a leader should appear. One did. He was a plumber's apprentice by trade, a young man in his late 20s. One night he shinnied up a lighting standard outside the Yankees' Fifth Avenue office and left dangling at the end of a rope a straw-stuffed effigy labeled "George Weiss." The crowd roared its approval and to the chant, "Bring back Stengel," they added, "Down with George Weiss!" The hero of the hanging episode gave his name to reporters as Fidel Brannigan of The Bronx.
Brannigan soon displayed rare talents as a rabble-rouser. He consolidated all the street-corner groups and marched them into Central Park to the Mall. On the Mall, Fidel Brannigan made a wild and almost hysterical speech to the mob and revealed his strategy for reviving the Yankees: he himself would fly to Glen-dale, California and try to persuade Casey Stengel to return as manager. The frenzied crowd roared its approval, and at once hats were quickly passed around to raise the price of a round-trip jet flight for Brannigan.
Next morning, accompanied by sportswriters from all the New York newspapers as well as the principal wire services, Brannigan landed at Los Angeles and was driven immediately to the Glendale National Bank. The receptionist, advised of Brannigan's mission, led the party to an office door marked, "C. Dillon Stengel. Walk In."
As soon as the TV cameramen signaled their readiness, Brannigan seized the knob and flung open the door.
Stengel was phoning. He looked up, recognized some of his former writers and waved a greeting. Then, putting his hand over the mouthpiece, he said, "Excuse me, gentlemen. I'm on the wire here with Wall Street, New York." When he had finished talking, Stengel smiled at his visitors. He looked years younger. His face had filled out, erasing the lines and wrinkles that Brannigan and the writers remembered so well.
"What can I do for you, gentlemen?" asked Stengel.
The sportswriters pushed Fidel Brannigan forward. Face to face with his hero, all the bravado vanished from the leader. His eyes filled with tears and he threw out his hands in supplication as he cried:
"Come back, Casey! Come back to us! They've ruined your ball club! It's a mockery! They don't know what they're doing! You could still save them, Casey! You'd know what to do with this fella and that fella and the other fella!"
Stengel stood up. "I am afraid," he said, "that I do not understand. When you say 'this fella, that fella, the other fella,' to whom, exactly, do you refer?"
A writer stepped forward, a look of utter bewilderment on his face, and asked incredulously, "Casey, what's happened to you? You've changed, Casey!"
Stengel held up a hand. "Please, it's not Casey. I am using my middle name, Dillon, now. It's more suitable in the banking business. You've heard of Dillon of the Wall Street firm of Dillon, Read and Co. Inc.?"
Another writer blurted: "You talk different, Casey! You're not the same man at all!"
Stengel nodded. "I dare say I have changed. Well, to tell you the truth, gentlemen, I placed myself under the care of a phrenologist upon my retirement from baseball, and in my sessions on his couch I found that I had been putting on an act in talking gibberish during all those years in baseball. I found I am as articulate as the next man."
"You don't mean phrenologist, Casey," a writer cried, "you mean psychiatrist!"
"No," said Casey, "I mean phrenologist, a fellow that measures your head and feels the bumps and flat places and is able to analyze your character from that. He did me a world of good. He says I now have a completely new personality."
Brannigan stepped forward. His face hardened. "Don't kid us, Stengel," he growled. "We didn't come here to talk phrenology. This thing back home has gone too far. Don't pretend you don't know about this fella and that fella and the other fella. If you don't, you'd better brush up. Maybe you haven't heard, Stengel, but the fans are marching in New York. I can control them for a while but not forever. This thing is spreading. Kefauver is going to bust it wide open in the Senate. Celler is determined to get to the bottom of things in the House. Rockefeller is calling a meeting. I can't answer for the safety of George Weiss. There are some ugly things being said about McCorry. They're saying maybe, with the big crowds they're drawing on the road, maybe they don't want to win! How do you like that, Mr. C. Dillon Stengel?"
Stengel drew himself up. His jaw jutted out and his eyes flashed. He pounded the desk with his fist. "No," he cried, "I won't hear a word against McCorry! Are you suggesting that McCorry would throw a game? McCorry is incapable of throwing a game or of throwing anything—even a baseball. He proved that as a pitcher for the Browns in 1909!"
"All right, forget McCorry," roared Fidel Brannigan. "What is your answer, C. Dillon Stengel! Will you come back as the old Casey—or won't you?"
Fidel Brannigan never got his answer. For in the hot and humid dugout in Cleveland, Casey Stengel—who had nodded for just a moment—woke up.
Casey woke up to the reality. He hadn't quit at the peak of his career. He was still old No. 37 and he was stuck with it.