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Happy birthday, Casey Stengel

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The Mets’ first manager was born 128 years ago

Chicago White Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Marv Throneberry was at the plate in 1962 for the newly-minted New York Mets franchise. He hit a line drive to right field and ended up at third with an apparent triple, but was called out for missing first base.

Mets’ manager Casey Stengel rushed out to argue the call but was told by the umpires that he also missed second. Gaffes like those led Stengel, famous for his quips, to utter one of his most famous lines: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

Such was the nature of the often cantankerous but beloved first manager of the Mets. Born Charles Dillon Stengel on July 30, 1890, in Kansas City, Missouri, Stengel began his baseball career in 1910. Unsure of his talent, he attended dental school during the offseasons. But after his three-year stint in the minors, Stengel’s major league career started in 1912 as an outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers. His career - where he distinguished himself for both his on-field talent and his antics - spanned thirteen years and five teams.

After retiring as a player, and working as a coach and manager in the minor leagues, Stengel’s first major league coaching job was as the first base coach of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1932. Two years later, on February 24, 1934, he became manager of the team, a position he would hold until being fired after the 1936 season.

After a five year stint managing the Boston Braves and four years working in the minor leagues, Stengel would land his most celebrated managerial job. His 11-year tenure as manager of the New York Yankees included ten America League pennants and seven World Series championships, including five in a row. But after a tough loss in the 1960 World Series to the upstart Pittsburgh Pirates, he was not given a new contract. Some thought that was because of the loss in the World Series, while others felt because of his advanced age of 70. Upon his termination, Stengel simply said, “I’ll never make the mistake of being seventy again.”

After the Yankees chose not to bring him back, Stengel left baseball for banking, where he worked as a vice president for Valley National Bank, which was owned by his wife’s family. At the All-Star game in 1961, George Weiss—Stengel’s former general manager with the Yankees, who was also out of baseball—invited him to manage one of the two new teams as part of baseball’s expansion. He refused, but Weiss was persistent, and after several talks with ownership, Stengel became the manager of The New York Metropolitan Baseball Club on October 2, 1961.

The expansion draft took place the day after the World Series ended in 1961. The Mets surprised experts with their first pick, a third-string catcher named Hobie Landrith. Stengel’s retort to the surprise pick was typical Stengel: “You have to have a catcher or you’ll have a lot of passed balls.”

The Mets filled their roster with well-known New York players such as Gil Hodges, Don Zimmer, and Roger Craig. The Mets lost 12 of their first 13 games, but the fans didn’t seem to mind. Attendance at the Mets’ first home, the Polo Grounds, was brisk as the city embraced its band of ‘lovable losers’. Stengel not only managed the team, but was at times its head promoter telling everyone within earshot “to come out and see my amazin’ Mets”. He repeated this so often, the nickname stuck. They weren’t so amazin’ on the field though, as they went on to lose 120 games in 1962 setting a 20th century record for futility.

After two more last place finishes, at the start of the 1964 season, the Mets moved to their new home, Shea Stadium. The state-of-the art facility of course elicited a remark from Stengel who said, “the park is lovelier than my team.” The Mets finished in last place again but the fans were becoming tired of the losing. Stengel was roundly criticized for, among other items, falling asleep in the dugout during games. He returned for the 1965 season but at the All-Star break fell and badly damaged his leg. He underwent hip replacement surgery and after learning of the long rehabilitation required and at the behest of his wife, retired as the manager of the Mets. On September 2, 1965, the Mets retired Stengel’s number 37.

Stengel remained on the team’s payroll as a vice-president in charge of west coast scouting. Meanwhile, the baseball writers felt it unfair that the now 75-year-old Stengel had to wait the usual five years to be elected into the Hall of Fame and waived that rule. On March 8, 1966, at a surprise spring training ceremony, Stengel was told of his election and on July 25, 1966, was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Stengel died on September 29, 1975 from cancer of the lymph nodes.

Though he won only about 30% of his games as the Mets manager, Stengel’s years paved the way for the Mets to win a World Series a scant seven years into their existence. And his managerial style? Well in Stengel’s words, “the key to being a good manager is keeping the people who hate me away from those who are still undecided.”