Tale-gating Stengel was enjoyable way for writer to follow a storied career

BOB MAISEL

December 02, 1990|By BOB MAISEL

The other day, a reader of this column offered a suggestion. He said: "I'd like to see you do an occasional piece on some of the great personalities you've known in your time around sports. It should be interesting."

The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea, so let's give it a try. In more than 40 years of writing about fun and games for this paper, Casey Stengel easily ranks as the greatest character I had the good fortune to know.

There was a reason we hit it off so well. Casey and a little round man named Fritz Maisel, who happened to be my father, broke into professional baseball together -- I think the year was 1910 -- in the Class D Northern Association, Casey with Kankakee, the round man with Elgin, both in Illinois. They were the only ones in the league that year eventually to make the majors, and they remained good friends until they died.

Because of that association, Casey was great to me. All I had to do was show up, and he'd see to it that I got something to write. Of course, with his terrific sense of public relations, he was good with most of the media.

With his craggy features, big ears and crooked legs, he was a living caricature. Put that with the loud, raspy voice, and the total recall of endless interesting stories, and the man was in a league by himself as far as characters were concerned.

He had a language of his own that became known as Stengelese. I mean, he was the best double-talk artist you've ever heard, but somehow, it usually fit together to make sense . . . if you paid strict attention. Once, when he appeared before a Senate committee that was investigating something in sports, he gave one of his all-time great around-the-horn monologues. When he finished, one of the senators said, "Mr. Stengel, I just spent one of the most interesting half-hours ever in these chambers, but I must confess I didn't understand a thing you said." He could do that to you.

He always was a treat to be around, but I thought he was at his best during spring training, when the New York Yankees trained in St. Petersburg, Fla., before they moved to Fort Lauderdale.

They had a hospitality room for use after workouts and exhibition games. You'd get the work done, then congregate there before dinner -- Casey, most of his coaches, interested media, etc. Over libation, or two, the old man would hold forth with his constant flow of stories. Often, he'd come back after dinner and close the room, as long as he had an audience. He had one rule. If you stayed with him to the end, you had to show up at the coffee shop for breakfast at 7 a.m. He never missed it.

In one of those late sessions, he and the late John Drebinger, the longtime baseball writer for The New York Times, got into a friendly argument. Drebby had a hearing problem, so at a key point, after he had presented his case, he turned off his hearing aid before Casey could make a rebuttal.

Not one to take that lying down, the old man planned his revenge. The next night, in the middle of a story, and at a pre-arranged signal, he started mouthing his words, with no sound coming out. The rest of us pretended to hear every word, even laughed and replied, again with no sound whatsoever. The next thing we saw of Drebby, he was over in a corner banging on his hearing aid. Casey loved it.

One time before an exhibition game, he gave a wink and said, "It's time to give the old girls a thrill." With that, he bounced out of the dugout, walked along the stands, tipping his cap and talking to the widows who usually attended every game. He'd say, "Hello, Mrs. Soandso, how are you today? My what a pretty hat." It was about a 10-minute daily ritual with him. Did they love him for it? If he had run for mayor, the opposition wouldn't have had a chance.

One spring, when he was managing the New York Mets, I listened in on a TV interview, when the reporter asked him to run through his team. He did the whole lineup, but when he got to right field, it was obvious he couldn't come up with the name. It was "the big feller, my fifth hitter," etc., but no name. Finally, he gave up and said, "Don't worry about us, young feller, we'll be ready when the bell rings . . . and that's the name of my right fielder, Gus Bell."

The last time I saw him was at the bar in the hospitality room of the Oakland Coliseum after a World Series game. Then older than 80, he was still telling stories with a drink in each hand . . . he explained that one was for his wife, although I doubt if Edna ever saw it.

The Oakland Athletics' mascot then was a huge, white mule about 9 feet tall named Charlie O., and their eccentric owner, Charles O. Finley, insisted that he be brought into the room. The handler led him up behind Stengel, had him lean down and sort of give Casey a goose with his nose, lifting him off the floor a bit.

Without missing a beat, or a drop from the drinks, Casey looked over his shoulder and said: "Very remarkable horse, that horse. Haven't seen him in five years and he still knows me."

They threw away the mold after they made Casey.

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