SPORTS WATCH

'The lovable Old Perfesser’

Casey Stengel’s early prejudice reflected the times in baseball, but the attitude really hasn’t altered all that much in 45 years

TRENT FRAYNE May 11 1992
SPORTS WATCH

'The lovable Old Perfesser’

Casey Stengel’s early prejudice reflected the times in baseball, but the attitude really hasn’t altered all that much in 45 years

TRENT FRAYNE May 11 1992

'The lovable Old Perfesser’

SPORTS WATCH

TRENT FRAYNE

Casey Stengel’s early prejudice reflected the times in baseball, but the attitude really hasn’t altered all that much in 45 years

No one anywhere is remembered more fondly than Casey Stengel, not in the half-world of sports anyway, for he was funny and a master of long-winded non sequiturs and adroit malapropisms that enchanted baseball scribes and baseball fans alike.

It was Casey who as the manager of the New York Yankees sidled up to reserve outfielder Bob Cerv one day and said quietly, “Nobody knows this, but one of us has just been traded to Kansas City.” It was Casey who said, following 10 American League pennants in his 12 years as the ranking thinker in the Yankee dugout, “I couldna done it without the players.”

And it was Casey who, in 1958 in Washington, upon being directed by Senator Estes Kefauver at a hearing to exempt baseball from antitrust laws “to give us very briefly your background,” replied: “I had many years that I was not so successful as a player, as it is a game of skill. And then I was no doubt discharged by baseball in which I had to go back to the minor leagues as a manager, and after being in the minor leagues as a manager I became a majorleague manager in several cities and was discharged—we call it discharged, because there is no question I had to leave.”

Casey charmed the excitable denizens of New York all through the 1950s, when the Yankees hardly ever misplaced the pennant. He was in his 60s then, frequently described as “the lovable Old Perfesser.” In his 70s he was particularly revered during nearly four seasons when he managed the fledgling New York Mets, a team so endearingly bad as to inspire a book by Jimmy Breslin whose title quoted Casey, Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?

In light of all this, the thing that happened when I, an old baseball fan and hopeless admirer of Casey Stengel, sat down with a new book called The Gospel According to Casey, was astonishment that he was a racist.

Maybe it was simply the times. Back in the 1950s, minorities were hopelessly denigrated, especially in baseball, which for generations

had observed a color line that barred black players from the organized leagues, both the majors and the deepest minors.

The articulate and beetle-browed Branch Rickey, who ran the Brooklyn Dodgers, broke that color line in 1946 by inserting Jackie Robinson into the lineup of Brooklyn’s No. 1 farm team, the Montreal Royals. I remember being in Montreal’s old Delormier stadium three years later, working for the Toronto Telegram covering Toronto’s all-white Maple Leafs against the Royals, who by then had three or four black Brooklyn farmhands.

I recall a conversation with a white Montreal outfielder recently traded by Toronto to the Royals. He gave me a sly grin and said, “You should get yourselves one of these jungle bunnies. They bring you luck.”

In this new book, largely a Stengel panegyric, there’s a chapter called “Casey on Race” in which the authors, Ira Berkow of The New York Times and former Sports Illustrated staffer Jim Kaplan, write that “Casey was 56 when Jackie Robinson made his major-league debut in 1947, and he carried the racial baggage of many whites born in the 19th century. He used all the vicious code words, and his reluctance to integrate the Yankees until 1955—reinforced

by team executives George Weiss, Del Webb and Dan Topping—probably weakened the entire American League.”

The book quotes Roy Campanella Jr., whose father was a first-rate Dodgers catcher: “Casey Stengel is so beloved that it may surprise some people that he was particularly insulting to blacks; he was a racist who used the word ‘nigger’ as if he thought it were appropriate.”

Still, the authors say that “any glib generalization about Casey’s racial attitudes clashes with his actual treatment of black players.” Also, there’s a long quote from Elston Howard, the first black Yankee player, who joined the team in 1955 and accordingly spent six seasons under Stengel: “I never felt any prejudice around Casey. He always bragged about me. I never saw any signs of bigotry. In Kansas City and Chicago they wouldn’t serve me in the restaurants until Stengel raised hell. Stengel told the hotel, ‘We came as a ball club and Elston Howard is part of the ball club. If he can’t be accommodated, we’ll leave.’ ”

And in Robert Creamer’s biography of half a dozen years ago, Stengel: His Life and Times, there were indications that knowing Elston Howard, who had spent the 1954 season in Toronto, altered Stengel’s thinking: “When Jim Brown, the famous Cleveland Browns running back, was dominating professional football, someone asked Stengel if he thought Brown would make a good baseball player. ‘Why wouldn’t he?’ Stengel demanded. ‘He’s

big and strong and a good athlete____I’d like to

sign that big, black—’ He stopped abruptly, liis racial sensitivities obviously heightened since Howard’s rookie days. ‘Goddammit, there may be too many of them but give me an all-star team of them and let me manage.’ ”

If Casey’s early prejudice was typical of the times in baseball, the attitude really hasn’t altered all that much in the 45 years since Jackie Robinson advanced from Montreal to Brooklyn and became one of the game’s great performers. Black players abound, of course, but owners exhibit a broad reluctance to give them managerial positions. There has been only one black general manager in the majors, Bill Lucas, briefly, 13 years ago at Atlanta, and in 45 years there have been only five black field managers. Currently Cito Gaston in Toronto and Hal McRae in Kansas City lead the Blue Jays and the Royals. Fired in the past were Frank Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles, Larry Doby of the Chicago White Sox and Maury Wills of the Seattle Mariners.

In recent years, baseball commissioner Fay Vincent has publicly urged club owners to give black candidates a better hearing when replacing their managers, but he has been addressing deaf ears. Of 16 teams replacing dugout geniuses since the start of the 1991 season, only one, McRae at Kansas City, has been duly knighted.

When AÍ Campanis was the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers a couple of years ago, he was asked on a national television show about the shortage of black managers (he was subsequently fired). “They don’t have the necessities,” Campanis replied. Even the lovable Old Perfesser could hardly have said it worse.