By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (May 10, 2020) — Fifteen years ago this month, Steven Goldman’s book “Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel” was published.
It became a valuable addition to the rich oeuvre of pro baseball.
Goldman thoroughly explores Stengel’s years in baseball before he joined the New York Yankees as manager in 1949. Readers learn of how John McGraw, the great New York Giants skipper, influenced Stengel, with other tales from his years with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves as a field pilot before experiencing remarkable success with the Bronx Bombers.
Sparky Anderson, a Hall of Fame manager, once said, “Nobody was sharper than the Old Man. He was scientist and artist combined.”
Citing Goldman’s book in a 2013 article, “Casey Stengel was no joke while dominating baseball,” Investor’s Business Daily noted that Stengel amassed the 11th most victories of all-time (1,905 games) in his career and tied Joe McCarthy for the most managerial titles (seven) in MLB history.
“People made fun of him, but Casey was a deep thinker,” Joe Torre, manager of another Yankees dynasty decades later, was quoted as saying.
Former Yankees third baseman Bobby Brown, who later served as American League president, noted that Goldman had a knack for making lineup changes and platooning his players to maximize their productivity.
“He had the ability to put a player in the right place to do the most good at the right time,” Brown was quoted as saying by the newspaper. “Also, he made sure we were fundamentally sound.”
Goldman gives ample evidence and examples of Stengel’s managerial genius to back up his thorough reporting.
Naturally, he would’ve relished the change to interview Stengel, who died at age 85 in 1975.
“When I write, I like to stay out of the way and let the characters tell the story, and Casey was such a great talker that I’d relish the chance to get even more of him into the book,” Goldman revealed.
In a recent interview conducted via email, Goldman, a former editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus and host of the “Infinite Inning” podcast, discusses what he learned while researching Stengel’s life and baseball career and offers numerous interesting insights about the baseball legend.
How are you doing, all things considered during these unprecedented times?
Thanks for asking. I’m hanging in. I’ve been a work-from-home guy for a very long time (ironically, in part due to my health) and so the stay-at-home idea is not that wrenching a change for me. In fact, my sister jokingly asked me how I felt now that the rest of the world had “converted to (my) lifestyle.” But the truth is that I got out quite a bit in the pre-disaster days, whether for work or for personal reasons, and I miss the variety of experiences that one could have away from home, even in my very drab suburban enclave. If that’s the price of beating back the virus with the least loss of life, I’m more than happy to make that “sacrifice.”
April is always a time of year to look forward to the beginning (or early days in some calendar years) of the baseball season. And so it’s a reminder of the Casey Stengel book, too. Before you began the project, what piqued your interest in writing about Stengel? Was there a particular obsession or intellectual curiosity in him that surpassed other baseball personalities and topics?
He spoke to me—and still speaks to me—in so many ways. He was smart, funny, eccentric, and an innovator. He was also often misread by his contemporaries. People who viewed him at a distance felt that he was, as one sportswriter said, happy to have a losing team so long as he and his sense of humor were appreciated. That wasn’t true. His sense of humor was partly a defense mechanism in those situations, partly just who he was: He couldn’t help expressing himself in funny or acerbic ways. Those who knew him understood how intelligent he was, what a keen baseball mind he had, and how troubled he was when his early teams performed badly. Not that a lot of that was his fault. He wasn’t perfect—he had things to learn just like everyone else—but he began his major league career with two teams, the Dodgers and Braves, who were literally the-electric-company-is-about-to-cut-the-power broke at the time. In the latter case he was actually loaning the team money to keep it going. No manager, even the very best ones, can overcome a fundamental lack of talent. Because of that, Casey’s major league career seemed to be over when he was 52. That he could come back at nearly 60 and earn the respect that had previously eluded him seems like an incredible story to me. And, of course, like all of us, he was a bundle of contradictions. He could be compassionate and callous. He was a man born in the Victorian age who was still trying to relate to young men in the 1960s and not always succeeding. And, most troubling to us today, he was colorblind when it came to talent but used racist language, which you can’t excuse—it’s functionally racist even if he wasn’t literally prejudiced. One of the most valuable things our heroes can do is let us down so that we learn we’re all human. Casey was human.
What was your initial impression of the book when it was completed? And has your perception about it changed over the years?
Oh, boy. Don’t ask me that question. Like most writers I have a hard time looking back at my work without seeing all the flaws and compromises. I think the story I told holds up. Casey’s niece told me that mine is the biography she points people to because it’s the one that really “got” him, and I’m honored by that. Mostly I wish I could revisit it. I wrote it in a period in which the Internet did not yet afford all the research resources it now does. I had to go to different libraries and spend hours reading microfilm. Were I to write the book today, I would still have to do that, because not as much has been digitized as I might wish. (If I had Bill Gates-ian resources I would endow libraries to scan the hell out of some inaccessible newspapers.) Still, there is so much more that I could find and add now that would provide additional color. When I write, I like to stay out of the way and let the characters tell the story, and Casey was such a great talker that I’d relish the chance to get even more of him into the book.
What was the most challenging aspect of researching a baseball icon who’d been a part of the game for nearly the entire 20th century? It would seem that there would be too much info on him, especially because of his time in New York City as a player for Dodgers and Giants, and later as a manager of the Dodgers, Yankees and Mets.
You’re right, and I find it very easy to get swamped by a project. When I discover a subject I really like, I immerse myself in it and then I want to tell you everything about it. Fortunately, I had a moment of clarity and restraint when the book came to me that restricted its scope. Most or all books on Stengel bullet through his early years to get to 1949-1965, the Yankees and Mets years. I felt that those were well explored, and what I wanted to know was how did he get to 1949? Where did the ideas that he used in 1949 and onward come from? Did they result from his experiences from 1890-1948? Because people consider losing teams boring, no one had really bothered to look. I think Tolstoy’s idea about families applies to baseball: All winning teams are alike, but each losing team is bad in its own way. That attitude has served me very well over the years. Still, the amount of research was huge, and as I said earlier, it could have been even larger. I looked at his whole career, even though the premise of the book meant that my main focus was 1934-1948. I had to or I wouldn’t have been able to show how his decisions were influenced by his accumulation of experiences.
In a nutshell, what would you say is the premise of this book?
That Casey’s vital contribution to the dynastic Yankees of 1949-1964 was his lack of complacency, and that he came by that attitude having spent nine seasons managing miserable (but often fascinating) teams. Far from just enjoying the opportunity to make sportswriters laugh, he had been paying very close attention.
And what are Stengel’s enduring traits and accomplishments that you felt were top priorities to highlight and illuminate?
We’ve touched on them already: He presided over the greatest example of sustained success in baseball history, winning five straight World Series from 1949-1953 and then adding another five pennants and two championships. He wasn’t solely responsible for those achievements—again, no manager can make a bad team good, and there were all kinds of special circumstances that led to that Yankees team having the dominance that it did. But he did make a contribution, and part of that was his emphasis on platooning and multi-position players. With both, he was way ahead of his time. The words “Replacement Level” were never said by Casey—the concept didn’t exist during his lifetime—but he understood very well what replacement level was and that his teams had to stay away from it. Add in that he was a character out of Mark Twain with his own unique American vernacular and you have a person worth cherishing. I think, most of all, though—and this speaks to me on a personal level given that I have always felt that I have never done enough or achieved enough—he couldn’t be a young man who made good so he became an old man who made good. He teaches us that there’s always hope and, as one of his key players later said, it ain’t over ’til it’s over.
How did you strategize and outline what you wanted the book to be about? Did a lot of the previously published material about Stengel wind up being unnecessary for your project?
I don’t feel like that was very complicated. The mission was to study the early years, see what the key experiences were, and judge how they reflected on the later years. If something reflected on that, it was in… I consulted all of the previously published work on Stengel. I believe in reading widely on any subject before I write. That said, I was trying to tell a story that those books neglected to one extent or another. If they had covered it, I wouldn’t have written the book. I’m not interested in doing anything that’s not new.
Who were some of the best interviewees you reached out to about Stengel? And what made them so helpful to you?
My favorite interview experience involved the former Yankees infielder and great Padres broadcaster Jerry Coleman. Again, the Internet wasn’t quite what it is now, and people were harder to find. I happened to see that the Padres were visiting the Phillies—about a two-hour drive from my home—and on an impulse, I called the team hotel and left him a message. I came back a few hours later and I had Coleman’s voice on my answering machine inviting me to visit him the following morning. He was so generous! So, the following morning I drove to Philadelphia and spent two hours talking with him as he got himself together for that day’s game. It was a wonderful experience. My only disappointment was that I ran into him at Yankee Stadium a few years later and he didn’t remember me at all.
Who were a few of the unheralded by absolute valuable primary sources that formed a key portion of the book? What secondary sources in particular were quite helpful?
I’m not the first Stengel biographer to note that he lived in the newspapers, in the things he said to the sportswriters and columnists every day.
Newspapers were more important to society then, and there were so many more of them. I really couldn’t say that one was far more valuable than the others. I had cause to regret, as others have before me, that sports was not a priority for The New York Times early in its existence because it’s the most easily available, best-preserved paper. In general, the nature of deadlines and the relationship between writers and players/managers meant that direct quotes were less a part of coverage than it is today, which means you really have to mine your sources to find the nuggets you can use. In terms of secondary sources, I’m partial in a sentimental way to the old Putnam team histories, a series that began in the 1940s. I’ve been able to amass the whole run (I had to “cheat” with reprints for four of the 16; the rest are originals). Baseball history has generally not taken itself very seriously. The stories in those books formed the basis of so much that came after, with no one checking what was really true—they just repeated them. The books vary in quality and you have to dig to get at the reality of what’s in them, but they’re still a lot of fun in terms of being a survey course that can point the curious explorer in the right direction.
I should also mention Ira Berkow and Jim Kaplan’s The Gospel According to Casey, which is the best collection of Stengel quotes out there—and it doesn’t even come close to being comprehensive. That would be impossible. For some reason my copy was printed backwards, an inconvenience that is in no way the fault of the authors. What I sometimes tried to do is figure out when and why he said something that was reduced to just a sentence or two in a book of quotations. I still do that sort of thing all the time in my research for the Infinite Inning podcast.
What media outlets, print and broadcast, and previously published baseball books were consistently useful to you as you wrote the book?
Is a library a media outlet? I should add that in terms of secondary works I also needed to have a strong grasp of the years in which Casey lived and run his baseball teams, so I did a lot of non-baseball research into what American life was like in his formative years—baseball in the Great Depression was different from baseball during World War II was different than it was during the postwar period, but because it was part of society as a whole, not separate from it. If you don’t understand one you won’t understand the other.
For sports fans and readers who have little or no knowledge about baseball from, say, 1910 to 1965, what do you hope/think the Stengel book can do in illuminating America’s baseball culture and Stengel’s place within the game?
Even if you’re not a baseball fan, Casey had a unique life and one I think of as quintessentially American in the way he would get knocked down and come back again. He had a taste for the surreal and those early teams cooperated in supplying him with a cast of eccentrics trying their best—mostly—to be good ballplayers. I’ve alluded to his being sabermetric in his thinking before sabermetrics existed. And at the most basic level, he was just funny.
And now that this book has had a shelf life of nearly a decade and a half in bookstores and online, what do you believe it has accomplished?
Again, this is a tough question for me to answer because I’m very much a glass half-empty guy when it comes to my own work. This remains the sole book I’ve published on my own, versus the dozen or so I coauthored or edited at Baseball Prospectus, and I’m proud that I did that much but I’d like to do more. For various reasons, and despite a great deal of effort, I haven’t yet. It’s been very discouraging. In terms of the book itself, I’ve seen it cited in various bibliographies and it makes me feel good that I contributed to the literature of the game. To be honest, though, I think it’s a niche book and not a lot of people know about it or knew about it when it came out. Does that sound self-pitying? I hope it doesn’t. Again, I’m very pleased that it happened, I’m grateful to those people who helped make it happen, but it’s just very hard for me to be objective about its place in the universe.
Do you have a favorite scene in the book? If so, why?
There are many little details I think about a lot: Casey and John McGraw staying up all night talking baseball over beer and, as dawn broke, eggs; the death of the talented but troubled Len Koenecke, who lost it on an airplane right after Stengel released him and had his head bashed in by the copilot; Casey’s frustration with Max West, one of the big prospects of his Braves years and someone he was given as a kind of consolation prize because his team couldn’t afford to bid on Ted Williams; and late-career Al Simmons mourning how another Braves prospect, shortstop Eddie Miller, was more important to the team than he was. There are dozens of moments, really.
Is there a favorite quote from or about Stengel that you think really underlines the book’s message?
“Don’t give up: Tomorrow is another day, and that’s myself.”
How has your current knowledge about American society and baseball been shaped by what you learned writing about Stengel earlier this century?
Casey was a pragmatist. He had his off-the-field loyalties, but on the field his concern was with what a player could do to help him win. That suggests a mental flexibility that we would all do well to cultivate. We should always be open to challenging our beliefs and receptive to new ideas. Casey used to say, “I don’t need my hair parted by an ax to get an idea from the outside.” That’s what he meant, that he had an open mind. Similarly, when President Franklin Roosevelt (just eight years older than Casey) first ran for president, he said, “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.” In other words, he wasn’t interested in solutions to that matched his ideological predilections, he was just open to solutions. There’s a massive difference. The former is a bigotry of ideas and it’s self-limiting.
Do you think Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra enhanced each other’s colorful personalities in the public eye?
Casey never stopped praising Yogi, who was one of the very reasons he was hired by the Yankees—Casey’s predecessor, Bucky Harris, didn’t think Yogi could catch and pushed him to the outfield. He was let go for several reasons, and that was one of them. Initially, that praise was about bucking up Yogi’s confidence. Later, it was just being honest—Casey said the secret to his success was, “I never play a game without my man,” by which he meant Berra. Yogi was generally positive about Casey as well, but much less effusive, pointing out that while he liked him, he didn’t love him the way Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle did.
Do you think either one of them would’ve been as successful without the other? (The Yankees, of course, were built to win, and never shy about pursuing talent from other teams.)
The Yankees might have still been pretty good, because they kept coming up with other catchers—for example they had a young Sherm Lollar in 1948, but they traded him because he was behind Yogi. He went on to make nine All-Star teams with the Browns and White Sox and he wasn’t as good as Yogi, but they still would have been above-average at the position. That said, Yogi added a lot because he was an excellent hitter by the standards of his position (and often in general) who was weirdly durable for a catcher. Again, if Casey’s quest was to stay above the replacement level, Yogi’s durability really helped him meet that goal. From Yogi’s perspective, Casey was the manager who allowed him to be a catcher (with assistance from coach Bill Dickey). Had Yogi gone to the outfield, he would have been remembered as a good hitter and eccentric personality, but you probably could kiss the three MVP awards and the Hall of Fame goodbye.
Do you believe Stengel’s managerial style and leadership methods would be accepted — and are they in place? — in the 21st century in pro sports? Do you think he would’ve been successful as a big-league skipper if had tried to run a team in the 2010s in the same manner he piloted the Yankees in the 1950s?
He could be way too blunt, and he felt free to rip his players in the papers, something that was common into the 1980s but almost never happens now. He’d have to learn diplomacy, if not to curb that tendency altogether. He also wouldn’t have liked 12 or 14-man pitching staffs. As was also common through the 1980s, he tended to get by with 10 pitchers. He said he’d have liked to have more, but he needed room on the bench for his reserves—his pinch-hitters and defensive replacements and platoon partners. I don’t know if Casey could be Casey without his ability to have in-game flexibility. You see a lot of managers lose games because they can’t pinch-hit for a poor-hitting infielder or catcher in the late innings. Casey wouldn’t have lost those games because his preference was to gamble proactively by going for a big inning than it was to cover his ass by having an endless parade of relievers. He did in fact lose a few by pinch-hitting for all his catchers, but he figured he might as well try to win the thing and risk looking foolish with an emergency catcher than to leave a key run on base.
Sure, Stengel was a one-of-a-kind figure, but are there other managers and coaches before or after who possess more than a little Stengel-esque style in the way they run teams and mentor players? Can you offer a couple examples?
Sparky Anderson had some of the hyperbole and the unusual syntax. Joe Maddon has some of the inventiveness. Whitey Herzog, who considered himself a Casey disciple, had a lot of that inventiveness too. You have to remember, though, that Casey existed in a transition period for managers. He played for John McGraw, who owned a chunk of the Giants and was his own general manager. That was just about over when Casey came to the Yankees. He had a lot of input—part of the whole reason he was there was his baseball judgment—but he also worked for GM George Weiss, who had final authority. Thus it was, for example, that Billy Martin was traded away because Weiss thought he was a bad influence on Mickey Mantle. Casey would never have done that. Similarly, Weiss was an overt racist and was one of those resisting the integration of the Yankees, whereas if the team had been willing, Casey would have welcomed a Willie Mays with open arms, as he eventually did Ellie Howard (while still not policing up his language as much as we might like). Even more so than in Casey’s time, front offices are ascendant, and they’re informed by their analytics departments. It happens that many things Casey did would be consonant with what those analysts would have had to say had they existed in the 1940s, but he still would have had less latitude. In other words, today’s managers have less room to innovate in part because the things that Casey had to go out on a limb to try are now commonplace.
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