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Book Review: Casey and Mr. McGraw by Joseph Durso

A wise and knowing biography of an American original.

Mickey Mantle in Crown with Casey Stengel

In my recent review of Joseph Durso’s classic biography of John J. McGraw, The Days of Mr. McGraw, I discussed his look back at one of the two most dominant managers in New York baseball history. Now, we’re going to consider his engaging look at the other one, Casey Stengel, and their combined importance and influence into the middle of the last century and slightly beyond. This is a centaur volume which includes the full text of The Days of Mr. McGraw as well as the complete Casey. The original standalone edition of the latter doesn’t seem to be available anymore except through some antiquarian, used or collector’s sites.

By the time I began paying attention to baseball the late John McGraw’s New York Giants had already evacuated to the sunset side. Coogan’s Bluff overlooked a graveyard of memories as the rickety Polo Grounds awaited its capital sentence, forestalled by the 1962 birth of the Mets, until they in turn left for Shea Stadium in 1964. My parents weren’t baseball fans, but my paternal grandfather Fischel, whose natural language was Yiddish, was a rabid “Yankiss” rooter. Casey Stengel, their manager, was, if not a god, something of a demiurge.

Since we drove from Lon Gisland into New York’s lower east side to visit my grandparents nearly every Saturday, religiously I might say despite our violation of the Shabbos, I was left to the proselytizing mercies of my grandfather who only wanted to discuss today’s game while my grandmother dished out kugel, varnishkes, fricassee and her transcendent apple pie. I would have to guess, relying on my own now-grandfatherly memories of 60 or more years ago, that of all the English grandpa knew at least half of it consisted of baseball terms mixed with bleacher seat epithets. I don’t think he realized how many of them were vulgarities. Such are the vagaries of assimilation.

Baseball, or to be more accurate Borg games—this was, oh, 1958—infiltrated my grandparents’ Avenue A apartment living room through two mediums. The first lingers in my mind’s eye—an oaken television and radio console resembling to an adolescent sitting on the floor before it nothing so much as a courthouse façade stained by factory soot. It was grandpa’s reward to himself for decades of driving a horse drawn bagel wagon from the bakery to the kretschmas, kave kroms and grocery shops of the schmateh district and I still pity the stevedores who had to lug it up three narrow Escher staircases to my grandparents’ living room. Its black and white TV screen, like the eye of a baby cyclops, was barely twelve inches and might have been less. Among other highlights of my early baseball education, I watched Roger Maris hit his 61st home run on that set. Below the screen were two fluted brown dials, one for power and volume one for the bountiful thirteen channels of the period. Below them was an oblong metal door behind which cowered picture control knobs useless for anything more than varied distortions. It also housed the radio channel window, AM only, with its vertical red needle gliding across fields of static in search of comprehensible noise. Underneath that was a cathedral-window shaped cutout extending to the trim just above the carpet faced with fraying gold lamé burlap, behind which lurked woofers and tweeters. If the room lights were dim you could make out through the fabric a flickering orange glow from the vacuum tubes. Extended at 45-degree angles from a black plastic box on the flat shelf on top a pair of telescoping rabbit ear antennae crowned this edifice. You could move them around in search of a signal and segue from fields of tweed to a halfway clear picture, sometimes, or to rising and falling barber pole bands, thence back to tweed, accompanied by white noise.

When reception was lousy, as it often was in those flagstone canyons of Alphabet City in the age of low gain, grandpa would turn off the TV sound. He had recourse to the radio, and the one-second censor’s delay was still but tinnitus in some newborn Prissy Gladgum’s ear. Yes, we lived on a primitive planet back then.

I vaguely remember watching a game between the Borg and the Tigers of Norm Cash, Rocky Colavito and Al Kaline (of whom Bill Lee famously said he had spent so many years in right field for Detroit he was covered with bird shit) on that little television screen. The Tigers won that particular game by a run or two but the highlight was a cap-slammin’ gesticulation-rioted performance by the man we knew as the Ol’ Perfessor over some supposedly blown call. The Borg were probably ten games out in front in the standings that late in the season (they won the pennant by eight games even though the Tigers won 101 during the ’61 season) but my grandfather shut the set off in disgust and got up to find his bottle of Schnapps. Then he chanted his favorite baseball mantra, “Ahhhh, the Yankiss stink.” Such was the Borg fan’s exaggerated sense of entitlement, even then.

The other means of ingress was the Yiddish daily newspaper, the Forvitz (Forward). I had already begun taking Hebrew on Sunday mornings at our local synagogue in preparation for my loss of innocence but that expanse of newsprint garlanded with those ancient letters, big and small, waving knives at my face, might as well have been one of Feynman’s blackboards festooned with differential equations. Grandpa swore by the Forvitz. He gravitated to it not because it connected him with the old country—all bitter memories, like Borg losses—but because, he claimed, it had the best baseball commentary in New York. He would read avidly about games, trades, rookies coming up, you name it. Best of all, he thought, were his Borg manager’s disquisitions to the writers, one Charles Dillon Stengel. Now ponder this, will you: the Forvitz correspondents would translate Casey Stengel into Yiddish. Then Grandpa would translate the Yiddishized Stengelese back into Yiddishized English for me. I wonder at never having had to learn to communicate by rubbing my legs together.

All the fates should have aligned to mold me into a Borg fan. But they didn’t. The spring before my twelfth birthday I became a Mets fan for reasons I can no longer recall. Peer pressure, more than likely. Regardless, that demotic hash of twice-translated Stengelese stayed with me. I’m sure I was not alone in this. In addition to his baseball achievements, Casey doubtless set back lexicography three decades. With the possible exception of Professor Irwin Corey’s acceptance speech to the National Book Award committee for Gravity’s Rainbow on behalf of Thomas Pynchon, I know of no other episode of public extemporaneity to rival the Ol’ Perfesser’s congressional testimony to the Estes Kefauver Antitrust Committee investigating major league sports in the good ole USA. Because we live in a charmed age, you can still watch some of it on YouTube. Tape your ribs first.

Once you’ve listened to this wondrous disquisition and caught your breath, you will be pleased to know Durso thoughtfully included an appendix which contains the gist of Casey’s testimony so you can hold it near, as it were your own.

Ah, yes, Durso. Grandpa didn’t read him; I discovered him, as I mentioned in my review of Mr. McGraw, when the forklift deposited the Sunday New York Times on our doorstep. As with The Days of Mr. McGraw, that great sports editor of yore provides meticulous details about Casey’s rise from a farm kid through the minors, beginning with a Kankakee club that folded halfway through his first season of pro ball, through a series of peregrinations through the minors, independent leagues, and finally the majors with the Robins (also variously named the Superbas and the Dodgers, by which thy shall be knownst today), the Phillies, the Giants and the Boston Braves, thence back to the independents and, from there, all but miraculously, to the management of Zeyde’s beloved Yankiss in 1949. Here Casey settled in for a record-mauling decade of championships. What’s not as well known is what a medical disaster the Yankees were in 1949, with seventy-three off-the-roster injuries to his stars and supporting cast alike. You will read with your mouth hanging open about how Casey improvised, patchworked and inspired his beaten-up team and managed them to his first World Series championship. Baseball’s clown prince had become its prince, period.

Though most of us who can remember his Borg and Mets days remember his exploits as a manager, Durso paints wonderful kinetic murals of less well remembered peccadillos as a ballplayer in the deadball years. He describes Casey’s hilarious, game-winning inside-the-park home run for the Giants in Game One of the 1923 World Series, for example, when his shoe came loose rounding third and he had to hobble on his gimpy legs hard enough to score. Or how about the time Casey was thrown out of a game for arguing with an umpire, and when he came to bat the next day bowed as if in respect to the same arbiter, then doffed his cap and a live sparrow flew out from beneath it? Perhaps best of all, Durso recounts the time Casey and his teammates cooperated on a goof of mythic proportions: Casey showed up as a spectator, dressed in a suit and straw hat, and heckled his own team’s pitcher until said pitcher challenged him to try to hit one of his serves. Casey strode down to the field dressed in his Sunday finery and promptly slugged a home run, then ran the bases raising his hat in salutes to the fans.

Of course, after his Borg days—when some players grumbled he was too old and sometimes fell asleep on the bench in the middle of a game—he was fired after the 1960 World Series won by Bill Mazeroski’s legendary Game 7 home run. Then followed a couple of years’ hiatus at the end of which he found himself back in what was now the funereal atmosphere of the Polo Grounds managing the sparkling new Metropolitans. Shortened in no time to the Mets, the team quickly took on the nickname The Amazins’ after their venerable manager’s favorite adjective. You would think Durso hard pressed to equal the pageant of unlikely events which constituted Casey’s life thus far but the stories of the Mets years exceed even those. The Ol’ Perfessor was faced with a gang of has-beens, wannabees, misfits and vagabonds—“journeymen” seems like too much of an understatement—and fashioned a cultic, riotus fan base for a team that elevated losing to a metaphysical principle. I’m sure everyone has heard some of the stories of those days but until you read Durso’s book you are likely missing out on some of the best ones. It’s not certain how much longer he could have kept it up before he fell off a barstool and broke his hip early in the 1965 season and was forced to retire. He went back to his winter home in Glendale, California where old number 37 and his beloved wife Edna tended their citrus crop and ran their family bank until Casey left us in 1975. All of baseball mourned, and a goodly part of America with it.

And The Amazin’s? Once in a while you may hear them thusly referenced but for the most part, as the generation which grew up with them shuffle off to assisted living facilities, however impoverished or posh, or go into that good night, however gently or raging against the dying of the light, Casey and his amazin’ legacy are become myth, legend, dust. Durso’s beautifully written, wise and knowing biography of an American original will bring them back to life every time you open it and start reading.