Sunday, September 7, 2014

Casey Stengel's Greatest Day in Baseball - Revisited

Stengel early in his Brooklyn career

While there is no comparison between Casey Stengel's playing career and that of Ty Cobb, the two had at least one thing in common.  When queried about their greatest day in baseball, both chose games early in lengthy careers.  In fact, this was one area where Casey was way ahead of, not only, Cobb, but every other player in "My Greatest Day in Baseball" because Stengel chose his very first game, a game played on September 17, 1912.  That Stengel's most memorable moment was as a player, not a manager, isn't surprising since the account was written around 1942 when he had managed just over 1200 major league games with only one winning season to show for it.  On the playing side of the equation, however, Stengel's almost 1300 games don't lack for moments of distinction.  At a crucial point late in the 1916 season, he belted an unlikely home run off Grover Cleveland Alexander sparking a Brooklyn win that put them in first place to stay.  If that wasn't a big enough success on a big enough stage, near the end of his playing career, Stengel hit a 9th inning inside the park home run for the Giants to win the first game of the 1923 World Series against the Yankees.

Claude Hendrix - the pitcher Stengel faced in his first game

Memorable as those moments must have been, however, as far as Stengel was concerned, they couldn't top his late season 1912 debut in a basically meaningless game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and his new team, the Brooklyn Superbas.  Known to history as the Dodgers, the Brooklyn team were nicknamed Superbas after a vaudeville act called Hanlon's Superbas when Hall of Fame manager Ned Hanlon took over the team in 1899.  The name stuck well after Hanlon's departure, especially in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle game accounts of long time beat writer, Tom Rice.  Rice was there on September 17, 1912 to chronicle Stengel's debut at old Washington Park and, not surprisingly, his account differs to some degree from Stengel's reminiscences three decades later.

Washington Park with a much larger crowd than saw Stengel's debut - the apartment building in right center is where fans watched from the fire escape without paying admission

According to Stengel's account, he arrived in New York City by train from Montgomery, Alabama too late to go to Washington Park so based on a cab driver's recommendation, he booked a room at the Longacre Hotel in Manhattan.  With time on his hands, and more than a little intimidated by the big city, Stengel walked one block from the hotel, found his way back and then repeated the process until he reached 42nd Street, after which he called it a night.  Rice, however, reported that Stengel, not only arrived early enough to come to the park on September 16th, but actually got there just before game time.  He presented himself to the somewhat surprised Charles Ebbets Jr., son of the Dodgers owner, as "Stengel from Montgomery of the Southern League."  Offered a chance to dress and meet his new teammates, Casey allowed as he was "dead tired," would "look the big fellows over" from the stands and "break in tomorrow."  Regardless of whether the country boy scared of the big city or the self-assured young man declining to get right into uniform is historically accurate, both suggest a colorful personality.

Bill Dahlen - Stengel's first major league manager

Regardless of whether Stengel saw Washington Park for the first or second time on September 17th, his account of his first day in a major league uniform is a picture of a "busher" breaking into the big leagues.  Upon arrival at the ball park, the new Superba found himself pretty much ignored by his teammates with the exception of Zack Wheat.  In an attempt to become one of the guys, Stengel bet $20 in a dice game which he quickly lost on the first throw.  Fortunately for both his bank account and his future, manager Bill Dahlen pulled Stengel out of the dice game, asking gruffly if he was "a crap shooter or a ball player?"  Smart enough to know the right answer, Stengel put down the dice and put on a uniform.  When he went out on the field Casey headed straight to the bench as he had been forewarned as to what happened to rookies foolish enough to try to take a turn at batting practice.

 Zack Wheat and Hub Northern, the man Stengel replaced in the lineup when he made his debut, it was the last season of Northern's short major league career

To his surprise, Stengel was put in the starting lineup, batting second and playing center field.  Casey came to the plate in the bottom of the first with a man on first, got the bunt sign, but the pitch was too low.  Following, perhaps instinctively, Southern League practice, Stengel thought he was now on his own, swung away for a single that helped score the first Dodger run.  Manager Dahlen was not impressed, however, by either the hit or the explanation for not bunting, informing Stengel with major league sarcasm that he [Dahlen] didn't want a rookie to have "too much responsibility" so he [Dahlen] would "run the team" so that all Stengel had "to worry about is fielding and hitting."

Honus Wagner of whom Stengel mistakenly thought - "I can grab anything he can hit."

That wasn't the end of Casey's education about life in the big leagues as he ignored Wheat's warning to play deeper on the legendary Honus Wagner who promptly tripled over the rookie's head.  Casey's confidence that he knew better was probably due to the exceptional day he was having at the plate with four straight singles and two stolen bases.  And the performance was certainly noteworthy as most of his success was against Claude Hendrix, who Stengel claimed was the best pitcher in the National League that year.  Best is a relative term, but the Pirate pitcher was 24-9 with a 2.59 ERA so Stengel's certainly wasn't hitting against inferior opposition.  Casey even claimed that in his 5th at bat, he responded to a challenge from Pirates manager Fred Clarke by batting right handed and earning a walk.  No mention of this appeared in four contemporary newspapers and it sounds like revisionist history.  Casey was probably also feeling good because of the favorable reviews from a group of men watching the game for free from an apartment building fire escape, much, no doubt, to the chagrin of Brooklyn owner, Charles Ebbets.

Stengel as a more established member of the Brooklyn Superbas

In spite of the lessons about how the game was different at this level, Stengel had a memorable debut, going 4 for 4 with two stolen bases as Brooklyn won easily 7-3.  Tom Rice was impressed, following the Stengel quote of "I'll break in tomorrow," by commenting that the rookie broke in "with a loud resounding crash, such as been made by few minor leaguers."  What strikes me on re-reading this memoir 50 or so years after my initial reading, is the tension between the lessons Stengel had to learn about the big leagues (gambling, following orders, taking direction from veterans) and his belief in himself, buoyed by a performance that he could play at this level.  The Eagle headlined Stengel's first game as "a record breaker" and I believe four hits in a major league debut is still a record, one shared with Willie McCovey and perhaps others.   It understandably filled Stengel with confidence about his future, sufficient reason to declare it his greatest day in baseball no matter what came later. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - September 18, 1912


  1. I believe that Fred Clarke, the opposing manager during Stengel's first game, had five hits in his first big league game.

  2. Further research based on Cliff's comment indicates he is correct. Clarke's debut was on June 30, 1894 for Louisville against Philadelphia and the Inquirer for 7/1/94 reports five hits in the box score and the accompanying article. When I was writing the post I did several Internet searches for the record for hits in first games regardless of who held it, but nothing came up. I remember reading many years (probably when McCovey broke in) that his four hits tied Stengel's record. Those accounts were obviously incorrect, perhaps only referring to 20th century records.

    Thanks to Cliff for his comment.