Baseball's Top Managers and How They Got That Way
by Leonard Koppett
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CASEY STENGEL | The Met
The saga of the early Mets, which Stengel created, is even better documented than his Yankee history. This coda added only one item to his method of managing and needs only the briefest summary here.
The attempt to start a third major league, The Continental, was driven by New York's desire to find a replacement for the Giants and the Dodgers, who had fled to California in 1958. It seemed possible in 1959, but was sidetracked when the majors offered to expand. The American League took in Los Angeles (the Angels) and Washington (to replace the original Senators, still owned by the Griffith family, who became the Minnesota Twins) for 1961. The National would add its two teams, New York and Houston, in 1962.
The guiding force behind the New York effort was Bill Shea, a lawyer with strong political connections, brains, and energy. The new franchise, to be called the Mets, belonged to Mrs. Charles Shipman Payson, a Whitney and a sincere New York Giant fan. Rickey, between Pittsburgh and his last St. Louis connection, was advising her, along with Shea. They hired Weiss as club president (a sham title to get around his contractual obligation to the Yankees not to take another "general manager" job), and Weiss got Stengel. The rationale was sound. An expansion club would be hopelessly uncompetitive at first, so it needed attention and identity. Who could give it that better than Stengel in New York?
For their part, both Weiss and Stengel nurtured the hope of somehow embarrassing the Yankees for discarding them.
The Yankees, of course, reeled off three more pennants under Houk and a fifth straight under Berra in 1964. The Mets, forced to play their first two seasons in the Polo Grounds because Shea Stadium wasn't completed until 1964, lost 120 games the first year and 111 the second. Then they moved into Shea Stadium and lost only 109. In July of 1965, leaving a party at Toots Shor's, Stengel fell and broke his hip. It was impossible to manage anymore, and in August, out of the hospital and leaning on a cane, he made his formal farewells. Wes Westrum took the reins and finished a 112-loss campaign.
The expansion Mets, becoming cult figures by losing in an amazing variety of ways, had no chance no matter who managed them. Casey, in his seventies, certainly lacked some energy and alertness, but what was remarkable was how much of both he retained. He tried to teach, knowing he was going to lose games anyhow; some players responded, some did not. But he really put more effort into promoting the team than into managing it. (Among the coaches he had in the first three years were Hornsby, Cookie Lavagetto, Solly Hemus, Westrum, and Don Heffner, all of whom managed in the majors before or after, and pitchers like Red Ruffing, Mel Harder, and Ernie White.) And he really did sell tickets, more than the Yankees were selling, while spreading baseball's gospel.
Both in promoting and teaching he was "giving something back to baseball," an obligation he felt with the deepest sincerity. His remarks became more sarcastic, funnier, and more pointed about his team's deficiencies. The players hated this, but a new generation of writers ate it up and the public loved it. He wouldn't deny what anyone could see: His team was a "fraud." He had expected the expansion assignment to be tough, but never imagined the team would lose as much as it did, for so long a time.
And the last item of his managing technique? The very insults and wisecracks that his players resented were a method of protecting them in a way they never understood. The day of locker rooms crammed with microphones, cameras, and tape recorders after every game had arrived. By going into his harangue in his office, for half an hour, he was keeping a mob of reporters away from the lockers of players who had just messed up another day. No matter how much they resented reading the critical remarks he made at their expense, they would have read and heard worse if they had to face an onslaught of immediate and embarrassing questions on their own. Casey's jibes were, at least, selective and limited in number. If the whole squad had been exposed to the journalistic wolfpack after every daily disaster, their feelings would have been hurt much worse than they were.
In his own way, Casey felt he was acknowledging tender egos and contributing to the future of those young players who might have a future, offering a bit of protection until they grew harder shells.
It was a technique later managers would formalize, without comparable wit and liveliness, by funneling reporters through their offices for the first wave of postgame questions.
And it was a technique derived from one of McGraw's viewpoints developed in a simpler time but profound enough even then: Since a manager has to deal with the press, whose activity can affect his club's performance in various ways, a manager should understand how the press (not yet the "media" then) does its work, just as you want to know how the groundskeeper does his.
Knowing when to bunt is not enough.
Excerpted and reproduced from The Man In The Dugout, Expanded Edition: Baseball's Top Managers & How They Got That Way by Leonard Koppett, by permission of Temple University Press.
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