I'll never forget the first spring training game in 1956, my rookie year. I had come up through the New York Yankee organization, and we were about to play the Dodgers in an exhibition down in St. Petersburg, Florida. Mickey Mantle got sick before the ballgame, and our manager, Casey Stengel, never one to do things the hard way, decided not to change the whole lineup around. He just crossed out Mickey's name and wrote mine in the third spot: H-E-R-Z-O-G. Now, I had no more business hitting third for the great New York Yankees than the hot-dog vendor in Section C, but I wasn't going to pull Mr. Stengel aside and say, "I don't know if I'm ready, Sir." He was a legend. The Yankees were a legend. It was one of those times you just sharpen up your spikes, take your best shot, and live with the consequences.
Well, Carl Erskine was pitching for the Dodgers that day, and he was known throughout baseball for a breaking ball that swooped down on you like a falcon on a chipmunk. In those days, they threw you the curve till you proved you could hit it -- which I can tell you flat-out, I hadn't -- so it didn't take a genius to know what was coming down the pipe. My first time up, Carl broke off a hammer on a 3-2 count -- snapped the damn thing right off -- and I took it for strike three. Never even moved the bat. Welcome to the big show.
Next time I come up, my ass is still a little red, and this time the bases are loaded and the game's on the line. And I'm getting ready to leave the dugout, swinging my two bats a little bit, when Stengel summons me over to him. For some reason I still don't understand, Casey was always singling me out for special instruction, and I still had no idea what to make of it, or him. "Hey, Doctor, c'mere a second," he says. He grabs me by the flannel and looks me in the eye, and I look up into that wrinkled old mug of his, and he says, "Just go up there and tra-la-laaaahhhh."
I don't know if I've heard him right. I say, "What?" He says, "Doctor, just go up there and tra-la-laaahhhh." And he walks away.
Now I'm standing there, a major-league game between the Yankees and the Dodgers on the line, and I'm thinking, What in the hell is this guy talkin' about? Am I in St. Pete or on Mars? I mean, the wheels are spinning fast. I'm picturing myself going up to home plate and dancing a jig, but that image goes kind of blurry. The game won't wait for you to figure it all out. So I just take my bat up there and dig in, and I'm back to my own thoughts: Bases loaded, okay, he got me with the hook last time. He's going to try to get ahead of me and spin me another one. And sure enough, I get behind in the count, and I'm sitting on the curveball, and here comes a big banana, bending downward, and my eyes light up. I swing hard and clean, and I'm telling you, I clocked it -- a line drive like I never hit before. A game-winner for sure.
Well, Charlie Neal's at second -- I'm left-handed, and I pulled it -- and he jumps up, spears the damn thing, and turns it into a double play. Inning's over!
In my game, a thin line divides the heroes from the screwups, and as I'm standing there in the batter's box, it ain't hard to figure out which side my ass is firmly planted on. I head back to the dugout, and there's Casey looking at me. He's got a little bit of a smile, almost like he's having himself one hell of a fine time, and he puts a big hand on my shoulder. I look into that creased-up face, and he says, "See what I told you, Doctor? Just tra-la-la." And he wanders off, shaking his head.
A great teacher leaves you to translate for yourself, and Casey, with that mumbo jumbo of his, sure fit that bill. At the moment, all I'm thinking about is that I damn near knocked in some runs and won the game, but now I've got this to chew on, too. As I'm trotting out to center field, still turning it over in my mind -- maybe it was then, maybe later; it's hard to know -- it comes to me. Sometimes it really is better just to go up there and relax. Swing easy, put it in play. It's what the big power hitters tell you: It's when they ain't trying for homers that the ball jumps out of the park. Just meet it and let something happen. Tra-la-la.
As time passed in my career, I realized Casey had left my mind full of nuggets like that: little ideas on fielding, hitting, approaches to baseball, every one of 'em essential to understanding it right and clean as a well-hit ball. It's still for bigger minds than mine to understand how a man can invent his own language, or why he might think to do it in the first place, but Casey did. And I finally figured out that spring that even though I had no idea what the hell he was talking about half the time, when Casey Stengel came up to me and started spewing that "Stengelese," he was offering me an education. I turned into a world-class translator, boy, and it's a good thing: If I hadn't been, my life would have turned out a whole lot different.
I first met Casey in 1955, when I came to the early camp with the Yankees that they used to call rookie school. I was a young centerfielder, and I was full of piss and vinegar and other nasty concoctions. The Yankees had given me a bigger signing bonus than they'd given that kid from Oklahoma, Mr. Mantle, and I figured that was about right. I had good speed and a strong bat, I knew the game, I was a hell of a handsome devil, and I knew I was bound to be a big-league ballplayer and a big shot or go broke trying. Yankee Stadium seemed like as good a place as any. Even though I grew up in a little Illinois town not forty miles from St. Louis -- the heart of Cardinals territory -- the Yanks had always been the team I dreamed about, the one I wanted to play for. I don't know if young players today have a clue how the very idea of Yankee Stadium, with its facade and monuments and history, used to mesmerize anybody who gave a damn about the game, but it did. That's me: only the best. Well, I'd taken the bus with a buddy of mine to Branson, Missouri in 1949 -- back then, they had a lot more trees than they had theaters -- and, after a tryout there, signed a minor-league contract. I got to rookie school six years later.
My first impressions of Casey were like a lot of other people's. He looked like maybe he'd just combed the straw out of his hair. His ears were so damn big that if they'd had jumbo jets back then, he'd have slowed 'em to a crawl. So much doubletalk flowed out of his craw you weren't sure his parents had raised him in English. That, plus the fact he later happened to manage some of the most talented teams ever assembled, still has people in baseball thinking Casey was some clown who fell asleep on a turnip truck and woke up one day in the Hall of Fame. How was I supposed to realize I was looking at the most intelligent man I'd ever know?
Casey ran that camp like an old schoolmaster, hammering away at the sport's little details that, as I learned, make the difference between winning and losing games, between a good club and a great one. Like the best teachers, he gave you the big picture in little doses, and he was flashing 'em to you all the time, like a good catcher with his signs. If you were smart and gave it enough thought, you learned them all and eventually saw how they fit together. That's the same as saying you learned baseball. I became a good manager in my time, and I hope a pretty good baseball man, and I can tell you right now that what Casey taught that spring, I used my entire career. I still do.
It was amazing how he talked to you. You're heading out to hit: "Butcher-boy, butcher-boy," he'd say. You're thinking, "What?" Well, he wants you to fake a bunt and chop it on the ground, see? Get it through the infield and get on base. Surprise 'em a little. Nobody'd ever used that term before. Or you're standing on second base in practice, minding your own business, maybe thinking just how wonderful it is that you got there in the first place, and suddenly he's behind you: "You're important to me, young fella; you're half a run." One day he comes up to me, jabs me with a finger and says, "I'm gonna tell you one thing; never worry about gettin' fired, 'cause if you don't own the ballclub or die on the job, it's gonna happen." He was talking about managing. I don't know why he picked me to say that to -- I was just a wiseass kid -- but when I took up that line of work myself years later, I never forgot those words. First of all, they were a kind of history lesson: Connie Mack had managed the Philadelphia Athletics for fifty years, a record that's going to stand forever. Why? The man owned the team. His job evaluations were pretty good. But more than that, Casey was right: You only control so much in this game, so why worry about it? Remembering that frees up your mind so you can do your job the right way.
Casey invented the whole idea of rookie school, just as he was the guy who invented the fall instructional leagues we have today. The Yankees would take their top prospects down to Florida for two weeks before the major-league camp opened, then invite some of them to stay on at the big camp. Rookie school. I'll never forget my first time there.
On the first day, Casey stood in front of us, leaning on a fungo bat, and explained what he tried to do as manager. He said it like this: "Mr. Lopez has a team over there in Cleveland that's pretty good" -- he was talking about Al Lopez, the Indians' manager, and they had a damn good team -- "and he's got them good pitchers over there, and I know they're gonna win 92 games. And I think about it, and I've got Mr. Raschi, Mr. Reynolds, and Mr. Page" -- he meant Vic Raschi, Allie Reynolds, and Joe Page, three of his outstanding pitchers -- "and I think that we can win 92 games. And now I've gotta figure out how I can win three more. And so I'm gonna hit this ball against that wall, and I'm going to teach you how to get it off the wall," and then how to do this and that other little thing that could win you those extra games. That's what he taught; he always said the other guy's team had the ability to win 92 games, and we've got the ability, so we've got to try and win three more. That was the approach he took.
And Casey broke it down into the hundred little things that would make the difference. He was going to have his team get from third to home faster than the other team by getting a better jump off third base. He was going to teach you how to take the proper lead off the bases -- not "the right way" or "the wrong way," but the Stengel way, the way he wanted it done -- so you'd have that little edge. He kept drilling you on those things and drilling you till you could practically do them in your sleep. Once I began coaching and managing, I kept passing them along to my own players, to everybody from the youngest rookie-league bush-whackers to the George Bretts, Ozzie Smiths, and Vince Colemans of the world. To this day, if I went by the park to watch my grandkids play and the coach asked me to help with their baserunning, I would show them Casey's way, how Casey wanted it done.
What he was showing you was that baseball, when it's played right, is made up of a lot of smaller plays, and each one gives you an edge if you work at it. It's also a game of large samples: Over 154 or 162 games, the little things accumulate and pile up and turn into big ones. That's the game's most essential fact. It's a game of percentages, and any way you can tilt the wheel your way a little, you do. Casey tilted it one degree here, another one there, till the ball just seemed to roll the Yankees' way and you looked up in August and saw New York right where they always seemed to be, at the top of the standings looking down. Writers and fans hardly ever notice these little things, and you hardly ever hear anybody mention 'em, but they decide championships. No good club ever won a thing without 'em.
Take baserunning. Today, people think of it in terms of stolen bases alone, but that's bull, and Casey understood that. He was passionate on the subject to the point of being a nut, and he taught it better than anybody I ever saw. Thinking ahead was part of it. He told you to check out the defense before you came to bat; instead of looking at the girls in the stands when you were on deck -- something ballplayers have always been tempted to do -- look at the outfielders. The leftfielder, for example. Does he throw left-handed? If he does, you've got an edge. If you hit it right down the line, you know he has to turn his back to the diamond to pick it up. To throw to second, he has to turn back around and come across his body with the ball. That gives you a little extra time, and it means if you hustle a little bit, you can turn a single into a double. Same thing if the rightfielder is right-handed. Play in and play out, the Yankees made hay out of situations like that. They could run the bases like nobody else -- not steal bases, run 'em -- and it added up to runs, and runs added up to leads, and leads added up to those three extra wins Casey wanted.
On defense, too, the little things counted. Say the Indians have a guy on first. Then let's say the next batter gets a base hit to right. Now: The rightfielder wants to come up throwing so he can hold that lead runner at second. That way, he'll keep a force play in effect. You or I would think in terms of which base to throw it to: Do I go to second or third? Well, Casey would say, "Never throw to the wrong base, keep the double play in order." But he took it a step further. On relay throws, he talked about which side of the fielder to throw it on. In his mind, it was easier for a fielder to move fifteen feet to his glove side (his left) than to move one foot to his right on a relay. That way, he could glove that ball out of the air, turn, and fire in one motion. But if it's to his throwing (right) side, he's got to reach across, catch it, and turn awkwardly across his body before he throws. A good runner takes advantage of that every time, and that might mean a run, an extended inning, a game. For the Yankees, Casey made it automatic: Never throw to a shortstop or second baseman's right. I'd never seen a manager take the time to explain it like that, and I never would again.
On the offensive side, Casey didn't just holler at you to score runs; he taught you how. During batting practice, after you'd hit, he made you stay on the bases when the next guy came up. He'd drill you on your jumps off the bag. As you know, when you're on third, if the batter puts it in the air, you can't leave till the ball is caught; on a grounder, you can take off right away. Casey pounded the difference into your head. On contact, you practiced your jump. Fly ball, back; ground ball, go! You did it again and again till you got so damn good at it you could watch the flight of the ball from the pitcher's hand and know before the hitter swung if it'd be on the ground or not. In games, if Casey had the "go" threat on, you scored. Years later, Gene Mauch, one of my American League managing rivals, asked me, "How come your teams get from third to home faster than anybody I ever saw?" I told him, "We work at it." I never told him how we worked at it. It ain't my fault he never went to camp with Casey.
I ended up in a lot of camps with good managers -- the Harry Crafts, the Charlie Dressens, the Paul Richards -- and no one else ever broke the game down the way Casey did. When I think back, it was like learning physics: The field is ruled by properties you can't see, but those properties make everything happen that you can see. Only the best teachers know the laws and have the sense to make them clear to the young and the brainless. In Casey, I had an Einstein.
History tells us Casey won 1,905 ballgames, and that his Yankees won ten World Series championships in a twelve-year span. Nobody will ever do that again, not in this age of free agency and the draft. But the thing is, he's still never gotten his due. When George Weiss, the Yankee GM, first brought him in to replace Bucky Harris in 1949, everybody in New York and around baseball thought it was a joke. Here was this backwoods clown who'd managed for years in the big leagues -- with the Boston Braves and Brooklyn Dodgers, truly terrible teams -- and had a record so far below .500 nobody ever thought he'd see the light of day. A guy so bumbling he'd been exiled to Oakland for five years, where he managed in the Pacific Coast League in the prime of his career. Add the fact that he jabbered like some lunatic bumpkin who fell off a hay wagon, and the writers were laughing their asses off before he ever got to Yankee Stadium. They figured they'd get a real manager soon.
Well, don't believe everything you hear. Most people didn't know baseball then, just like they don't now, but Casey knew exactly what he was doing. For one thing, you should've seen the players he'd had with the Braves and Giants. I mean, you can't make chicken salad out of chicken shit; I don't care if you're the Galloping Gourmet. It reminds me of what happened to Jim Riggleman and the Cubs in '97, when they set a record by losing their first 14 games and never crawled out of that hole. I felt sorry for Riggleman. He kept putting Mel Rojas into games. They'd just gotten the guy from the Expos, big free-agent deal. I called him up and said, "Rig, I wouldn't put him in the game with a five-run lead! Oh, my -- he's gonna get your ass fired!" He started laughing. I said, "I only called you 'cause I like you, but you keep putting him in there, you're gonna be looking for a job!" But if you've traded for a guy who's been a great relief pitcher, and if he goes bad, you say, "Well, we ain't going to win if he doesn't do the job we expected him to do." So you keep strapping him out there, and you keep losing, and the next thing you know, you're fired! The worst thing that can happen to a manager is if your closer goes in a slump. That gets you dumb in a hurry.
With Casey, his first couple years with New York, the talent he had was mediocre, yet he still found a way to win. Injuries killed them his first two seasons. DiMaggio missed a lot of games and had to be replaced -- one year by a rookie from Joplin, Mantle, who was still plenty raw. In fact, the Yankees weren't favored to win the pennant in any of the first five years they went to the World Series under Stengel. Casey didn't always have the best damn team in that league.
All that time, from the early days on, Casey was learning. And he always knew the basic thing: Baseball is supposed to be a hell of a good time. That's smarter than you think. One day in Pittsburgh, the fans are booing him when he comes to the plate. So he takes some action. In a big sweeping motion, he bows at the waist and doffs his cap. Big deal, right? Well, you know what happens? A bird flies out. All of a sudden they're cheering and rolling in the aisles. They thought Casey was out of his mind. People say that story's a myth, but I knew the man, and I'm telling you, that's the truth. He was a showman, boy, a carnival barker; he knew if you kept 'em laughing, they'd forget how rotten your team was and keep coming to the ballpark. When you were around Casey Stengel, you had a good time or died trying.
Casey's father was a Kansas City dentist, and Casey himself went to dental school. That takes some skullwork. He was going to follow in dad's footsteps, in fact, but it's probably a good thing he didn't. I say that not only because Casey was a hell of a hitter and a ballplayer, but because he knew that, in baseball anyway, you could think too much for your own good. One time when he was managing the Mets in '62 -- the worst team that ever played -- his pitcher gave up a couple hits in a row, so they needed to get somebody up in the bullpen. Casey snatched up the phone and called down there, and everybody heard him holler, "Get Miller up!" Pitching coach said, "Okay." Well, as it happened, Casey had two pitchers on his staff named Miller. Both of 'em were Bob Miller, as a matter of fact: One was a right-hander, one a left-hander. A couple moments later, the phone was ringing. It was the coach. "Hey, Casey, which Miller you want?" You know what Stengel told him? Two words: "Surprise me!" Can you believe that? Surprise him. This sonofagun's in the Hall of Fame!
You'd think that kind of thing would cause chaos, but in baseball it can work. This game drops worries on you that can haunt you twenty-four hours a day -- What if I move my foot back a little? What did he throw me on 2-2 last week? -- and if you let them, they'll drive you up the wall. Like I told the Jack Clarks and Darrell Porters years later, squeeze the bat too hard, you get sawdust. Having a laugh ain't a sidelight in baseball; it's essential. That's why so many good baseball people can tell a hell of a joke. They might change the details on you from one time to the next, but every time you hear that story, man, if it makes you laugh, it's true.
Stengel made that part of his life. He thrived on staying up, talking with the writers till four in the morning night after night. I never saw anybody, even the legendary Mantle, who could drink like Casey; he was strong, that man. He'd keep 'em laughing and spewing their food and clapping him on the back all night. Like he said, "Give 'em your own story, 'cause if you don't, they're just gonna go ahead and make up their own, and what good'll that do ya?" Then he'd reel off some more whoppers. Then there was his other motto for dealing with the press: "When they ask you a question," he said, "answer it and just keep on talkin'. That way they can't ask you another one." He had a hell of a good time, but if you paid attention, you knew you were looking at a man who was running the show his way.
That was just part of handling the press. When I became a manager, I was like Casey: I really enjoyed the print media, the writers that followed us for the whole season. It was the TV people who pissed me off. They'd show up at the end of the year -- guys we ain't seen all season -- jamming microphones in my face while I'm trying to eat a ham sandwich, asking the dumbest damn questions: "How's the chemistry on the ballclub right now?" "Is this a do-or-die series. Chemistry and do-or-die, my ass. Like Casey told me, the newspaper guy can edit out a well-timed "sonofabitch" whenever he wants, but you can't erase it from film. So maybe you let one slip: "I don't know how that fuckin' McGee does it, Ronnie, do you?" "Sonofabitch really got them out of a jam, didn't he?" Or what if they're filming me and I scratch myself in some disagreeable spot? Think they're going to show that on the eleven o'clock news? Most of the time, dealing with the press is a kick, but sometimes you have to train people to treat you right. Casey did.
Being dense was Casey's brand of genius. He had trouble with names: he'd call you doctor, or the fella from Cleveland, or No. 39 if that was on the back of your shirt, or whatever else stuck in his mind. That was all he could remember. Before one Opening Day with the Mets, he's in the clubhouse introducing his starting lineup, and he says, "I've got the guy from Philadelphia" -- he was talking about the late Richie Ashburn, who'd played for the Phillies for years and is now in the Hall of Fame -- "and I got the guy from Minnesota," and so on down the line till he gets to the bottom of the order. He arrives at the spot for his rightfielder, but he can't think of who it is. So he just keeps rambling on -- he'd just talk till something came to him; it was how he lubricated his brain -- and everybody's bent over trying not to laugh, because they know damn well Casey just can't think of the guy's name.
There was a buzzer in the clubhouse that sounded when it was time to take the field. Finally it goes off, and it was like a bell to him. And it comes to him; that's the guy: Gus Bell. "And my starting right-fielder is Mr. Bell." Everybody's jaw dropped. Casey was so clueless the answers just dropped out of the sky.
No question Casey was a great manager, a great mind, the greatest spokesman baseball ever had; definitely the favorite manager of the writers everywhere. But I used to think he'd almost lose a few games on purpose just to keep the race close, so they'd draw more people. Once I saw him fall asleep on the bench. I was with the Senators. Whitey Ford was pitching, and he was sailing along with a 2-1 lead, and I swear Casey nodded off! We could see it from our dugout. Well, we got five straight hits and he still didn't have anybody warming up. Finally, Frank Crosetti woke his ass up, and he got somebody up in the bullpen. I think they beat us 18 out of 22 that year; that was one of the games we won.
Well, as I said, I still don't know why Casey singled me out as his bobo. After all, that field was full of great ballplayers: Mantle, Yogi Berra, Hank Bauer, Joe Collins, Johnny Mize. It was like a wing of the Hall of Fame. He just seemed to like me. Or maybe it was just that he'd had a third baseman, Buck Herzog, with the Giants a few years back, and was glad he could remember the damn name. Maybe he just realized I was listening to him; a good teacher does like to have a good student. I doubt if he realized I would be a manager someday, but since he always knew more than he let on -- not to mention more than you did -- who knows? All I know is that even after he shipped my ass to the Senators -- "Have a good year over there and I'll get you back," he said, though neither of us held up our end of the bargain -- Casey always saw fit, whenever the Yankees came to my hometown, to seek me out at the batting cage, stand me in front of him, and shoot the shit. Later on, when I was a Mets coach in the mid-sixties and he still was a consultant with the team, he'd even wander over when I was running minor-league camp, pull up a chair while I was hitting ground balls, and go on and on about this kid or that one. He'd keep me from doing my work! But I'll be damned if I was ever dumb enough to run him off the field. I never stopped picking his brain.
Well, I'll never forget the day in 1975, when Casey was eighty-five and retired, and he drove all the way down to Anaheim Stadium from his home in Glendale. That's about a ninety-minute drive. I was an Angels coach at the time, under Dick Williams, and Casey and I sat in the dugout for a couple of hours and slung the bull about Nolan Ryan, Bill Singer, Frank Tanana, and our other pitchers. Frankly, he didn't like some of 'em too good. We said goodbye.
A month later, he was dead. Baseball hasn't been the same since, and you know what? I haven't either.
Casey had the basics hard-wired into his brain: The game's fun; human beings play it; baseball is a craft; the better you do, the more fun you have, and vice versa, These are the ABC's of my game, and Casey Stengel lived 'em to the hilt every day. That's what made him the best ambassador baseball ever had. Too bad the game, with the billions running through it today, has forgotten every last one of them.
Screwed-up as the big-league scene has been over the last several years, that man might make a difference even today. It's hard to say. I can tell you that if you'd seen the Runnin' Redbirds -- my Cardinal teams of the eighties -- and didn't know any more about it, you'd be surprised as hell to learn the Perfesser was my mentor. After all, he ran the mighty Yankees, the swaggering sluggers every kid worshipped: Yogi, Mantle, Roger Maris. They had thunder in those bats. My teams stole bases and couldn't hit the ball out in batting practice. His guys shattered home run records; mine tried to tie Roger's mark of 61 each year -- as a team. But what people don't realize is that those New York teams, as many balls as they mashed off the Yankee Stadium facade, weren't primarily a home-run ballclub. They based their dynasty on being the best defensive team and best baserunning team in the league. Like all great clubs, Casey's Yanks understood something our game has just about forgotten: that baseball, more than anything else, is a game of intelligence, craft, and doing the little things right.
Copyright © 1999 by Whitey Herzog and Jonathan Pitts