Harold Rosenthal, who wrote baseball for the New York Herald Tribune when Casey Stengel was managing the Yankees to 10 pennants in 12 years, said the other day, "I see they're digging up the old man." Rosenthal, one of the reporters Stengel used to call "my writers," spoke irreverently but fondly. He was referring to two practically simultaneous one-man shows—one on TV, the other on stage—in which actors deliver monologues based on things Stengel said and did during his long and colorful life (he died at age 85 in 1975). The TV production, starring Charles Durning, will be shown on The Hallmark Hall of Fame on PBS next Tuesday night. The stage show, starring Paul Dooley, finishes a limited engagement at New York City's American Place Theater this weekend.
By all means watch the TV show. It isn't as lively as the stage version, but it's still Casey Stengel, and Stengel, even watered down, is always worth paying attention to. The old stories (the sparrow under the cap, the grapefruit dropped from the airplane) are mixed in with passages of vintage Stengelese ("This fella runs splendid, great on the bases, best I ever see, which coming from the country in the state of Louisiana chasing rabbits all winter give him strong legs"), and Durning, a skillful actor, uses the material to considerable effect.
The format is fairly simple. The time is Feb. 13, 1969, in Glendale, Calif. Stengel, now 78 and retired from baseball, is being honored by the local Chamber of Commerce. He accepts a handsome sterling-silver tray and then regales the crowd with a rambling hour-long acceptance speech that includes stories from nearly every decade of his life. A typical Stengel performance. And it's fun. You'll probably enjoy it.
I think I'm trying to be polite. I believe most people who watch the show will enjoy it, and I applaud Hallmark and Durning and everyone associated with the production for putting it on. I only wish it were better, that more time and care and imagination had gone into the show's preparation. As it is, the production is slapdash and amateurish. There is one simple set: an open stage in a small auditorium. Durning wears a business suit, as Casey would have on such an occasion, and augments it only by putting on and taking off a couple of major league warmup jackets and a few baseball caps from the teams he played for and managed. The show makes no use of the magic that can be created on TV. The camera angles are pretty much the same throughout the hour, which gets kind of tiring, although midway, for some reason, we are given one brief shot from the side, as though we had crept backstage to peek at Stengel from the wings.
May 3, 1981
The monologue Durning was given to work with is skillful enough, a succession of gags and coherent anecdotes designed to tell the story of Casey's life. But if this soliloquy is supposed to represent Stengel at the top of his form, it's a pale imitation of the James Joycean scramble such a talk was really like, with its anecdotes wandering off in three or four directions at once, its nuances of description or definition lost on the uninitiated, the whole suddenly snapped together with an abrupt, incongruous but somehow relentlessly logical Stengelian ending.
But then it's probably impossible to recreate precisely a Stengel discourse—not to mention his gravelly, nonstop growl. Durning said he spoke to some people who had known Stengel and wished he had had time to talk to more. Dooley, in discussing the stage production with Ira Berkow of The New York Times, said, "I looked at film clips of Casey and listened to tapes, and I couldn't understand how he did it. He never seemed to stop for commas or periods. When I tried it, I hyperventilated. I had to find my own cadence or die."
Rosenthal's wry, amused remark points up the problem. You can dig up the old man, but that doesn't mean you can bring him back to life. Those who knew Stengel or who had the good fortune to hear one of his impromptu lectures on baseball and life and who are hoping for more of the same in the PBS production will be disappointed. Durning doesn't look or sound like Casey. (Nor does Dooley, for that matter.) It just isn't Casey. It's an actor playing a role.
Nothing wrong with that. What is wrong, though, is the failure to do more with Stengel as a character. In Durning, the TV people had one of the best character actors around, a man who has skillfully handled a broad spectrum of roles. If anyone could have gotten across the complexities of Stengel's nature, Durning could have: not just the rambling stories, but the caustic, sometimes brutal sarcasm; not just the amusing side of his lifelong love affair with baseball, but his serious, perceptive understanding of the game; not just the clown cheerfully gamboling his way through the years, but the intensely competitive man who, as Stengel himself once said, had "been up and down" in his life. We get little sense of those ups and downs, how he enjoyed the former and the strength and imagination with which he overcame the latter. The TV Casey is one-dimensional, a bit monotonous, oddly stolid.
The play is better. Not great, just better. The stage is small but the setting is imaginative: a mini-dugout, a mini-locker room, a ball-park organ and a lady organist who exchanges some dialogue with Casey. Dooley, also a first-rate actor, uses the entire stage and his graceful comical body to convey a more rounded picture of Stengel, from youthful ballplayer to middle-aged manager to ancient sage. One high point, surprisingly absent from the TV show, is Casey's memorable appearance in 1958 before a Senate subcommittee investigating baseball's longstanding exemption from the antitrust laws. Offstage a Senator asks questions, and Dooley/Stengel ripostes with baseball history cum doubletalk that remains some of the most unforgettable testimony ever heard on Capitol Hill. The ending of the play is impressive, too. Although sentimental, it is far more subtle and significant than the bland conclusion of the TV hour. Stengel, now an ailing octogenarian watching a ball game on TV, pulls himself painfully to his feet for the national anthem, growling to himself, "I might as well do this one last time." A touching moment.
The stage beats TV in this one, but even when your team loses, a ball game is fun to watch. Go watch Casey.