It was long after midnight. The bartender was falling asleep, and the only sound in the hotel was the whine of a vacuum cleaner in the lobby. Casey Stengel banged his last empty glass of the evening on the red-tiled bar top and then walked out of this place that the Chase Hotel in St. Louis calls the Lido Room.
In the lobby, the guy working the vacuum cleaner was on his big job—the rug leading into a ballroom—when Mr. Stengel stopped to light a cigarette and reflect on life. For Stengel this summer, life consists of managing a team called the New York Mets, which is not very good at playing baseball.
"I'm shell-shocked," Casey addressed the cleaner. "I'm not used to gettin' any of these shocks at all, and now they come every three innings. How do you like that?" The cleaner had no answer. "This is a disaster," Stengel continued. "Do you know who my player of the year is? My player of the year is Choo Choo Coleman, and I have him for only two days. He runs very good."
This accomplished, Stengel headed for bed. The cleaner went back to his rug. He was a bit puzzled, although not as much as Stengel was later in the day when the Mets played the St. Louis Cardinals in a doubleheader.
Casey was standing on the top step of the dugout at Busch Stadium, and he could see the whole thing clearly. That was the trouble.
In front of him the Mets had Ken Boyer of the Cardinals in a rundown between first and second. Marvin Throneberry, the marvelous first baseman, had the ball. Boyer started to run away from him. Nobody runs away from Marvin Throneberry. He took after Boyer with purpose. Marv lowered his head a little and produced wonderful running action with his legs. This amazed Stengel. It also amazed Stan Musial of the Cardinals, who was on third. Stanley's mouth opened. Then he broke for the plate and ran across it and into the dugout with the run that cost the Mets the game. (Throneberry, incidentally, never did get Boyer. Charlie Neal finally made the putout.) It was an incredible play. It also was loss No. 75 of the season for the Mets. In the second game Roger Craig, the Mets' starter, gave up so many runs so quickly in the seventh inning that Casey didn't have time to get one of his great relief pitchers ready. The Mets went on to lose No. 76.
Following this, the team flew to New York, where some highly disloyal people were starting to talk about them. There seems to be some sort of suspicion around that the New York Mets not only are playing baseball poorly this season but are also playing it worse than any team in the modern history of the sport. As this week began, the Mets had a record of 28 won and 79 lost and seemed certain to break the modern record for losses in one season. This was set by the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics, who lost 117 games—an achievement that was challenged by the Boston Braves of 1935, who lost 115 games and were known as The World's Worst Team. But by using one of the more expensive Keuffel & Esser slide rules, you discover that the Mets, if they cling to their present pace, will lose 120 games.
Figures, of course, are notorious liars, which is why accountants have more fun than people think. Therefore, you just do not use a record book to say the Mets are the worst team of all time. You have to investigate the matter thoroughly. Then you can say the Mets are the worst team of all time.
"I never thought I would have an argument," Bill Veeck says. "I was always secure in the knowledge that when I owned the St. Louis Browns, I had the worst. Now it's different. You can say anything you want, but don't you dare say my Brownies were this bad. I'll prove it to you. There are still a few Browns in the major leagues, and this is nine years later. How many Mets do you think are going to be around even two years from now? I'm being soft here. I haven't even mentioned my midget, Eddie Gaedel."
Reporting from Philadelphia is Pat Hastings, proprietor of the Brown Jug bar and a man who has sat through more bad baseball than anybody in America. For consistency, Philadelphia baseball always has been the worst. On nine occasions during Pat's tenure at old Baker Bowl and Shibe Park, both the Phillies and the A's finished in last place.
But Pat, who has viewed the Mets on several occasions this season, refuses to put any team in a class with them. "The 1916 Athletics had Stuffy McInnis, you got to remember that," he says. "And some of them Phillies teams could hurt you with the bat pretty good. There was players like Chuck Klein, Virgil Davis, Don Hurst. I seen 'em all. Why, we used to make jokes about Buzz Arlett. He played rightfield for the Phillies in 1931. People used to go out and get drunk if they seen him catch a fly ball. I feel like writing the fellow a letter of apology now. Why, he done more fielding standing still than some of these Mets I seen do at full speed."
In Brooklyn there is Joseph (Babe) Hamberger, who once associated with the old Dodgers and vehemently denies he ever saw a Brooklyn club as bad as the Mets.
"When Uncle Robbie [Wilbert Robinson] was managing, he didn't even know the names of the players," Babe says. "But he won two pennants. Casey was over here too. Ask him. He'll tell you. It got rough, but never like now."
Now all this is not being pointed out as an act of gratuitous cruelty. Quite the opposite. The Mets are so bad, you've got to love them. Name one true American who could do anything but root for a team that has had more than 135 home runs hit against it. In New York a lot of people root for the Mets. They are mainly old Brooklyn Dodger fans and their offspring, who are called the "new breed" in the newspapers. They are the kind of people who, as San Francisco Giant publicist Garry Schumacher once observed, never would have tolerated Joe DiMaggio on their teams at Ebbets Field. "Too perfect," Garry said.
The Mets are bad for many reasons, one of which is that they do not have good players. The team was formed last year when the National League expanded to 10 teams. ("We are damn lucky they didn't expand to 12 teams," Stengel says.) The other new team, the Houston Colt .45s, has done a bit better than the Mets. It's in eighth place, 11½ games ahead of New York. For players the Mets were given a list of men made available to them by the other eight National League teams. The list was carefully prepared and checked and rechecked by the club owners. This was to make certain that no bona fide ballplayers were on it.
"It was so thoughtful of them," Stengel says. "I want to thank all of them owners who loved us to have those men and picked them for us. It was very generous of them."
Actually, the Mets did wind up with a ballplayer or two. First baseman Gil Hodges was fielding as well as ever before a kidney ailment put him in the hospital. Centerfielder Richie Ashburn, at 35, is a fine leadoff hitter, although he seems to be on his way to setting some sort of a record for being thrown out while trying to take an extra base. If Jim Hickman, an outfielder, ever learns to swing at good pitches, he might make it big. Here and there Al Jackson and Roger Craig produce a well-pitched game. And Frank Thomas can hit. But all this does is force the Mets to go out of their way to lose.
And once past these people, the Mets present an array of talent that is startling. Most of those shocks Casey talks about come when his pitchers throw to batters. There was a recent day in St. Louis when Ray Daviault threw a low fastball to Charley James of the Cards. James likes low fastballs. He hit this one eight rows deep into leftfield for the ball game.
"It was bad luck," Daviault told the manager after the game. "I threw him a perfect pitch."
"It couldn't have been a perfect pitch," Casey said. "Perfect pitches don't travel that far."
One of Casey's coaches is the fabled Rogers Hornsby. Rajah was a batting coach during spring training and for the early part of the season. But all of his work now is done with prospects out on the farms. Which is good, because Hornsby hates to lose. Oh, how he hates to lose! One day he was sitting in the dugout at the Polo Grounds before a game, and you could see him seething. The Mets had been losing. So was Hornsby. He couldn't get a thing home, and he was in action at three or four different major tracks around the country.
"You can't trust them old Kentucky bastard trainers," he confided.
The general manager of the Mets is George Weiss, who was let go by the Yankees after the 1960 season because of his age. He is 68 now. George spent all of last year at his home in Greenwich, Conn. As Red Smith reported, this caused his wife, Hazel, to announce, "I married George for better or for worse, but not for lunch." She was pleased when George took over the Mets this year and resumed his 12-hour working day away from home.
The Mets also have many big-name sports reporters who write about them. This may be the hardest job of all. As Barney Kremenko of the New York Journal-American observes, "I've covered losing teams before. But for me to be with a non-winner!"
There are some people, of course, who will not stand still for any raps at the team. They say the Mets have a poor record because they lose so many one-run games. They point out that the Mets have lost 28 games by one run so far. However, this figure also means the Mets lost 51 other games by more than one run.
One who advances the one-run theory is Donald Grant, the Wall Street stockbroker who handles ownership details for Mrs. Joan Payson, the class lady who put up the money for the Mets. It is Mr. Grant's job to write letters to Mrs. Payson, explaining to her just what is happening with the Mets.
"It is annoying to lose by one run, but Mrs. Payson and I are pleased with the team's progress," Grant says. "She is perfectly understanding about it. After all, you do not breed a thoroughbred horse overnight." Grant obviously doesn't know much about horse racing.
Whether the Mets lose by one run or by 14 runs (and they have done this, too), it doesn't matter. They still lose. They lose at night and in the daytime, and they lose so much that the only charge you can't make against them is that their pitchers throw spitters.
"Spitters?" Stengel says. "I can't get them to throw regular pitches good."
Basically, the trouble with the Mets is the way they play baseball. It is an unchanging style of walks, passed balls, balks, missed signs, errors, overrun bases and bad throws. On July 22, for example, the Mets were in Cincinnati for a doubleheader. They not only lost both games, but they also had four runners thrown out at home plate in the course of the day. Nobody could remember when this had happened before—probably because it hadn't. What made it frightening was the ease with which the Mets brought the feat off. You got the idea that they could get four runners thrown out at the plate any day they wanted to.
In the first game Coleman was out trying to score from second on a single to left. In the second game Stengel jauntily ordered a double steal in the second inning. He had Chris Cannizzaro on first and Hot Rod Kanehl at third. Cannizzaro took off and drew a throw. Kanehl broke for the plate. The Cincinnati shortstop, Leo Cardenas, cut it off, threw home, and that took care of Kanehl. In the fourth inning Elio Chacon tried to score from first when the Reds messed up a fly in the outfield. But Vada Pinson finally got to the ball, and his throw home beat Chacon by a couple of steps. In the fifth inning Jim Hickman was on third. He broke for the plate as Kanehl hit the ball. Kanehl hit the ball square at third. The throw had Hickman by a yard.
The day before that, Roger Craig, the team's version of a big pitcher, had gone over to Stengel and volunteered for relief pitching in the doubleheader if he were needed. Stengel nodded. It was nice of Craig to say he would work between starts. And the next day the Mets certainly did need Craig. Going into the ninth inning with a 3-3 tie against the Reds, Stengel called on Roger to save the day. Roger took his eight warmup pitches. Then he threw two regular pitches to Marty Keough of the Reds. Keough hit the second one eight miles, and the Reds won 4-3.
Two days later in the first inning of a game in Milwaukee, the Braves had runners on first and second. Henry Aaron hit the ball hard, but Chacon at shortstop made a fine backhanded stop. As Chacon regained his balance, he saw Roy McMillan of the Braves running for third. Chacon yelled to Felix Mantilla, the Mets' third baseman. He was going to get McMillan at third on a sensational play. Mantilla backed up for the throw. Then he backed up some more. By the time Chacon threw, Mantilla had backed up three yards past the base, and when he caught the throw all he could do was listen to the crowd laugh. McMillan had his foot on third.
The Mets fought back, however, and had the game tied 4-4 in the 12th. Casey called on a new pitcher to face the Braves in this inning. He was R.G. Miller, making his first appearance as a Met. At the start of the season, R.G. was managing a car dealership and had no intention of playing baseball. Then Wid Matthews, the Mets' scout, came around to talk to him. Miller, Matthews had found, needed only 18 days in the majors to qualify as a five-year man under the baseball players' pension. R.G. had spent a couple of years with Detroit before deciding to quit.
"Go to Syracuse for us," Matthews said, "and if you show anything at all we'll bring you up. Then you can put in your 18 days. When you reach 50, you'll get about $125 every month until they put you in a box."
Miller went out front and spoke to the boss at his regular job. The job would be waiting for him after the season, Miller was told. So Miller went to Syracuse. He pitched well enough to be brought up. Now he came out of the Mets' bullpen to take on the Milwaukee Braves.
Miller loosened up easily, scuffed the dirt, looked down, got the sign and glared at Del Crandall, the Milwaukee batter. Then Miller threw a slider, and Crandall hit a home run. Miller, with his first pitch of the year, had lost a game.
"He makes the club," everybody on the Mets was saying.
Throneberry, the fast-running first baseman, has had his share of travail this year, too. In fact, anytime you meet some old-timer who tries to bore you with colorful stories, you can shut him up quickly with two Marv Throneberry stories for every one he has about players like Babe Herman or Dizzy Dean.
Throneberry is a balding 28-year-old who comes out of Memphis. He was up with the Yankees and once even opened the season as a first baseman for them. After that, he was with the Kansas City A's and the Orioles. Throneberry is a serious baseball player. He tries, and he has some ability. It's just that things happen when he plays.
Take the doubleheader against the Cubs at the Polo Grounds early in the season. In the first inning of the first game Don Landrum of Chicago was caught in a rundown between first and second. Rundowns are not Throneberry's strong point. In the middle of the posse of Mets chasing the Cub, Throneberry found himself face-to-face with Landrum. The only trouble was Marvin did not have the ball. During a rundown the cardinal rule is to get out of the way if you do not have the ball. If you stand around, the runner will deliberately bang into you, claim interference, and the umpire will give it to him.
Which is exactly what happened to Marv. Landrum jumped into his arms, and the umpire waved him safely to first. Instead of an out, the Mets now had to contend with a runner on base—and that opened the gates for a four-run Chicago rally.
Marv had a big chance to make good when the Mets came to bat. With two runners on, Marv drove a long shot to the bullpen in right centerfield. It looked to be a sure triple. Marv flew past first. Well past it. He didn't come within two steps of touching the bag. Then he raced toward second and careened toward third. While all this violent motion was taking place, Ernie Banks, the Cubs' first baseman, casually strolled over to umpire Dusty Boggess.
"Didn't touch the bag, you know, Dusty," Banks said. Boggess nodded. Banks then called for the ball. The relay came, and he stepped on first base. Across the infield Throneberry was standing on third. He was taking a deep breath and was proudly hitching up his belt when he saw the umpire calling him out at first.
It was suggested to Throneberry on a recent evening that his troubles, and those of the entire Mets team, come from unfamiliarity. A year of playing together might help the team considerably, Throneberry was told. Marv took this under consideration.
"I don't know about that," he allowed. "They's teams been established for 30, 40 years, and they's still in last place."
Marv has been rankled only once all year. It involved Ed Bouchee, whom Stengel put on first for a couple of games. In San Francisco, Craig, who has a fine pickoff motion for a righthander, fired to first and had Orlando Cepeda of the Giants clearly nailed. But Bouchee dropped the throw. Two windups later, Craig again fired to first. He had Cepeda off the bag, with all his weight leaning toward second. It was an easy pickoff. The ball again bounced out of Bouchee's glove.
Back in New York, when Bouchee stepped out on the field at the Polo Grounds, the fans gave him a good going-over.
"What are you try to do, steal my fans?" Throneberry complained.
It is a long summer, but the man who is probably finding it longest is Weiss. "I've been in baseball since 1919," George said, "and this is only the second time I have had a second-division team. My first year in baseball I had the New Haven club, and we finished seventh. That was in the Eastern League. This year is, I must say, a bit of an experience. No, it is certainly not funny to me. But you could say I am not doing things halfway. When I finally get in the second division, I really get there.
"The job this year was simply to get a club started. Why, we couldn't even hire office personnel at first because we didn't have an office. Now we have what I think is the finest office in the majors. Of course we don't want to confine ourselves to leading the league in office space. The main thing is to build up our scouting staff. We had great scouts with the Yankees. Kritchell, Devine, Greenwade. We have Wid Matthews now, but we have to wait until contract time and some of the other good scouts become dissatisfied with their organizations. Then we can make moves. But right now all we can do is hope the players come along and it gets a little better. Anyway the manager is doing a fine job, isn't he?"
The manager certainly is. This is, everybody agrees, Stengel's finest year. When he was running the Yankees and winning 10 pennants and becoming a legend, Casey never really struck you as the one they wrote of in the newspapers. His double-talk was pleasant, but it had a bit of show business lacquer to it. And he could be rough on young players. Norman Siebern, once a tremendous outfield prospect, never got over a couple of Casey's tongue-lashings. And Bobby Richardson and Clete Boyer weren't the most relaxed players in the world under Stengel.
But here with the Mets, at age 73, Stengel is everything you ever read or heard about him. The man has compassion, humor and, above all, class. There is no grousing and no screaming that players are letting him down. Mr. Stengel came to baseball this year ready to stand up no matter how rough it became. Well, it has become awful rough, and he is standing up as nobody ever has. And trying. He talks to the players, and he makes all the moves he knows. When they do not work out, he simply takes off his cap, wipes his forehead, then jams it back over his eyes and takes it from there.
In the rare instances when he does have the material to work with in a situation, that old, amazing Stengel magic is still there. Two weeks ago in St. Louis, the Mets won two against the Cards, and one of the wins was a result of Stengel's moves.
Curt Simmons, a lefthander, was pitching for the Cards, and Stengel sent up Gene Woodling, a lefthanded hitter, to pinch-hit. Normally, this is not protocol. But Simmons had been coming in with a screwball as his best pitch. In a left-against-left situation, a screwball breaks toward the hitter and is easy to follow. Simmons had to go with a fastball. Woodling hit it on top of the roof in right, and the Mets had two runs and a ball game.
"I remembered another thing," Casey said after the game. "Once when I had Ford goin' for 20 games over with the Yankees, Woodling beats him with a home run down in Baltimore. What the hell, don't tell me he can't hit a lefthander. I remember him doin' it, and that's why I put him in there."
A few lockers down, Woodling was talking about Stengel.
"I was with him for five championships with the Yankees," he was saying, "and he and I had our differences. It's nothing new. Everybody knew that. But I've never seen anybody like him this year. This is a real professional."
You could see it a day later, when Casey and his Mets came into the dressing room after losing a doubleheader to the Cards. The manager had a wax container of beer in his hand, and he was growling about a call that he said cost him the first game.
"The man don't even know the rules," Casey was saying. "My man was in a rundown between third and home, and when he tries to go to home the catcher trips him right on the baseline. You could see the chalk was all erased. The umpire don't call it. Costs me a game. It was an awful thing."
He kept talking about this one play, as if nothing else had happened during the long afternoon. He was going to give "my writers," as he calls newspapermen, something to put in the paper the next day. And maybe it would give these 25 beaten players getting dressed in the room with him something to get mad about. Maybe it would help a little.
When he stopped rasping about the play for a moment, he was asked about a couple of costly plays by Throneberry and Neal.
"Aaahhh!" Casey said. "Bonehead. They was bonehead plays. Damn bonehead plays." His eyes flashed.
Then he leaned back and spoke in a soft voice. "Look," he said. "I can't change a man's life. I got four or five guys who are going to make it up here. The rest of them, we just got to get along with. I'm not goin' to start breakin' furniture because of them. It's the man and I got him and I can't change his life."
Then he got dressed and a guy named Freddie picked up his suitcase and led him out of the dressing room. They had a taxi-cab waiting across the street, in front of an old, one-story brick-front place named Gus & Marge's Tavern. Casey pushed through the crowd and got into the taxi. He was carrying on a running conversation with the crowd as he shut the door and the taxi started to pull away.
It was, you figured, the way it should be. For more than 50 years now, Casey Stengel has been getting into taxis in front of old saloons across the street from ballparks. He has done this with great teams and with bad teams. Now he has the worst outfit anybody ever saw. But even if the players don't belong, Stengel does. He'll be back next year.
God help him.
This is one of 40 classic Sports Illustrated stories to be presented during 1994 as a special bonus to our readers in celebration of SI's 40th anniversary.