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While “Three Nights in August,” which peers inside the mind of a great baseball manager, hangs around on the bestseller lists, there’s another, lower-profile book on the same subject.
I’m not sure whether Casey Stengel was a better manager than Tony La Russa is, but “Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel” by Steven Goldman is a better book.
Stengel is best remembered by non-fans and casual ones as a character, the Ol’ Perfesser, the cockeyed philosopher who had his own language, Stengelese, “only superficially resembling Sanskrit,” as Red Smith put it. He was the guy who once said, “The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided,” who famously lamented about his lovably woeful New York Mets, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”
A bird flew out of his cap once, on the field. He told a barber to make sure not to cut his throat: “I may want to do that later myself.”
Stengel had a good sense of humor and a nearly irrepressible desire to call attention to himself, but a lot of his act was just that, an act, a crazy-like-a-fox routine. Late in Stengel’s life, Goldman writes, a young reporter interviewed him and noticed that he was speaking in a comprehensible way. When he observed that Stengelese was a big put-on, Stengel said, “Son, this is gonna be our little secret, isn’t it?”
Fans know Stengel as the manager of the Yankees dynasty of the 1950s. He took over in 1949 and the team won five straight World Series, an unprecedented and unmatched feat. In the sixth year, 1954, the Yankees won 103 games and were the best second-place team in history. Then they won four more pennants in a row, twice winning the Series.
After a third-place finish in ’59, the Yankees won the American League again in 1960, losing one of the craziest World Series ever to the Pirates, outscoring Pittsburgh 55-27 but dropping four of seven games. Yankees owners Dan Topping and Del Webb fired Stengel, saying he’d grown too old. “I’ll never make the mistake of being 70 again,” he said.
But even that remarkable run, 10 league championships and seven World Series rings in 12 years, doesn’t get Stengel the respect he deserves. “You or I could have managed and gone away for the summer and still won those pennants,” Phil Rizzuto has said, and maybe he knows, since he was the shortstop. “That’s how good we were.”
These, after all, were the Yankees of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford, among lesser greats. Joe DiMaggio was still around for the first three years. Goldman quotes from the autobiography of Bill Werber, an infielder who played for Stengel in the minors in 1931: “Consistent pitching and timely hitting turned Stengel into a genius and convinced the sportswriters of the day that his nonsensical utterances were in fact the learned pontifications of a master.”
Before taking the Yankees job, Stengel had known only failure as a big-league manager, guiding the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Bees/Braves to nothing but second-division finishes over eight and a half seasons in the ’30s and early ’40s. After he left the Yankees he knew colossal failure as the first manager of the expansion New York Mets in the ’60s.
All of this stirred the great Warren Spahn, who started two games for Casey’s Bees in 1942 before going off to war, then spent part of his last year, 1965, pitching for Casey’s Mets, to say, “I’m probably the only guy who worked for Stengel before and after he was a genius.” When Stengel was hired by the Yankees in 1949, second baseman Jerry Coleman recalls, a headline read, “Yanks hire clown.”
“Forging Genius” sets out to debunk this popular line of thinking, and it does so convincingly and entertainingly. Goldman is an author at Baseball Prospectus and the man behind the highly readable Yankees blog the Pinstriped Bible on the team’s YESNetwork.com.
His thesis is that Stengel wasn’t a joker who suddenly became a “great” manager when he finally got some good players, but rather that his years of managing lousy players had made him a great manager, had forged his genius.
Not just anybody could have won with that great collection of players, Goldman writes, and he also goes to some length to convince us that that first team, in 1949, really wasn’t so great. DiMaggio was hurt, Berra hadn’t really come into his own yet as a catcher, Tommy Henrich was getting old, the infield was suspect, the starting pitching was only OK and the ace reliever loved the nightlife. This same team had finished third in 1948.
“Certainly, the experienced players and deep resources of the New York Yankees organization did not handicap Stengel in executing his role, (though the team was run frugally in those days, in no way resembling George Steinbrenner’s spendthrift operation today),” Goldman writes, “but even the Yankees fielded imperfect teams.”
Stengel had gone to baseball graduate school while playing for the great Giants manager John McGraw in the early 1920s, near the end of his playing career. He had learned to manage in minor-league stints in Worcester and Toledo.
But it was in Brooklyn and Boston that he learned how to get the most out of the least. He was a great teacher, a great coach, but his true genius was in deploying his roster.
He popularized platooning and the idea that the bullpen could be more than just a place for failed starters to go. Goldman shows him experimenting with these ideas during his years of losing, partly because he was an innovator and a tinkerer by nature, but partly because he had little choice. He never had any good players.
“When Stengel joined the Yankees in 1949,” Goldman writes, “and for most years thereafter, the team required a wise hand to smooth over its flaws. The years Stengel spent managing untalented ball clubs prepared him to recognize talent, distinguish it from the chaff, and utilize it in ways that enabled his teams to exceed the sum of their parts.”
That, and not when to call for a bunt or yank a pitcher, is what makes a great manager, though Goldman shows Stengel was pretty good at those things too. “He simply ran rings around other managers,” Goldman writes, detailing a few instances when Stengel outmanaged a foe. “It turns out that the class clown had been paying attention.”
“Forging Genius” is written in a style that will be familiar to readers of Baseball Prospectus and the Pinstriped Bible, breezy, but with some wonky talent evaluation — Goldman’s analysis of the ’49 roster falls just short of feeling like you’re going through spring training in real time.
And then there are a few of those where-did-that-come-from pop-culture references. I don’t want to spoil any surprises from the book so here’s one from the current Pinstriped Bible: “Sanchez more or less immediately failed his ‘roids test and, like Betty Hutton’s elusive Private Ratzkiwatzki in ‘The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,’ is out of the picture.”
You either like that sort of thing or you don’t. I do, in small doses, which are employed here. Either way, like its subject, “Forging Genius” offers plenty of substance behind the occasional chuckle.
“Because I can make people laugh, some of them think I’m a damn fool,” Stengel told reporters at a press conference after the Yankees hired him. “But as a player, coach and manager I have been around baseball for some 35 years … I’ve learned a lot and picked up a few ideas of my own.”
“Forging Genius” tells that story. Best book about a baseball manager this year.
Previous column: Emile Griffith documentary
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