Pastime Portraiture: Casey Stengel (1916)

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Casey Stengel with Brooklyn, Ebbets Field, 1916

So the 2018 World Series is set, the Dodgers against the Red Sox. While Los Angeles has never faced Boston in the Fall Classic, the franchises did meet once before – in Brooklyn’s first World Series (the 13th overall), when they were formally known as the Robins, but were also called the Superbas or the Dodgers (it changed almost daily), 102 years ago, in 1916. And one of the more prominent players on the Brooklyn roster was a 25-year-old right fielder from Kansas City by the name of Charles (K.C., or Casey) Stengel.

While far better known as a cunning curmudgeon with widely varying success in over 30  years as a major league manager, he was actually a very good ballplayer, with a quick bat, some speed, and more power than most in the Deadball era. Although his quirky personality was evident early on (an oft-repeated quote is from a scout who pegged him as a “dandy ballplayer, but it’s all from the neck down”), he did well from the start, going 4-4 in his first game as a September callup in 1912, and finished with a .316 average, good enough for him to hold out for a good contract for 1913 from Brooklyn owner Charles Ebbets (using the threat of leaving for a career as a dentist as leverage). Being the first Brooklyn player ever to bat at brand new Ebbets Field (in an exhibition on April 5 against the Yankees), he would be their starting centerfielder for most of 1913, eventually migrating to right field in the years that followed, and had his best year in Brooklyn in 1914, hitting .316 (again) and leading the NL in OBP. Young Stengel, along with other rising stars like Jake Daubert (1913 NL MVP) and Zack Wheat, helped the Robins rise in the standings every year, setting the stage for the 1916 campaign.

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Stengel batting at Ebbets Field in 1916 (from RMY Auctions)

Despite Stengel’s slow start at the plate in 1916 (.207 as late as June 10), the Robins were hot right out of the gate (an 11-4 start, and a doubleheader sweep on July 4th put them up by 4 games). Casey did have key hits along the way, and began to really heat up in late June.


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Among Casey’s clutch performances down the stretch were a game-winning RBI triple in a July 28 contest against the Cardinals (colorfully described in the New York Times above) and also, in the last week of the season (October 1), a tie-breaking HR to help beat the Phillies in the second game of a doubleheader to regain first place (slipping into second place after losing Game 1). The Robins would then win 3 of 4 at home against the Giants to secure the pennant, with Stengel raising his batting average over 70 points in 2 1/2 months to finish at .279, his highest average all season.

1916 World’s Series, Game 1 highlights (excuse the watermark, but amazing footage!)

 

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1916 World’s Series Score Book of Game 1, with Stengel inked in (he went 2-4)

 

Stengel would ride his hot bat into the World’s Series against the defending champion Red Sox, going 2-4 in the opening game in Boston (again held at larger capacity Braves Field instead of Fenway) and batting .364 overall (luckily avoiding Babe Ruth’s Game 2 gem, a 2-1 14 inning CG victory to put the Sox up 2 games to none). Stengel would get the Robins’ last hit of the Series, a 9th inning leadoff single in Game 5, but Ruth and the Red Sox were too much to overcome, and Boston won the Series in 5 games for back-to-back championships.

Stengel would eventually get a couple of rings himself as a player, with the 1921 NY Giants (although he did not participate in the World Series despite 8 games played) and again in 1922, and deservedly so, batting a career high .368 (albeit in part-time duty), and would play in one more Fall Classic, losing to the cross-river Yankees in 1923. But Casey emerged as one of the best clutch hitters in postseason play, with a career .393 average in 12 games. He’d get 7 more Championships as a manager, across that river, but that’s a story (or two) for another day.

So as the Dodgers and Red Sox meet again in October after more than a century, who will be their Casey Stengel? Or their Babe Ruth? A star pitcher that may become a star slugger? An eccentric but feisty sparkplug that eventually becomes one of the most successful managers in history? Before I go any further, I’ll just leave it to Casey – “Never make predictions, especially about the future.”

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