Casey Stengel: The “Ol’ Perfessor” as a Young Student

A LONG, LONG TIME ago, I was an 18-year-old art student on my summer break between freshmen and sophomore years. While all my well-to-do classmates backpacked across Europe or sailed around the Caribbean, I spent my vacation working in a sweltering garment factory in Passaic, New Jersey earning the cash for my second year of school. One afternoon on my lunch break, I was flipping through a copy of Sports Illustrated and came across an article about a guy in Upstate New York who was making absolutely beautiful baseball caps. These weren’t the stiff-crowned, mesh-backed adjustable ones you found in the store back then, but hand-crafted the old way from luxurious wool, hand-stitched details, and accurate wool logos of long-forgotten teams. Those little works of art were miraculous recreations of the pre-World War II kind of caps you only saw in black and white pictures. I was hooked and wanted to know more.

The guy behind those caps was Will Arlt, a former vintage clothes dealer, rock and roll record producer, and inveterate baseball fiend. After reading the piece, I needed to have one of those caps – bad. But the price was just more than I could pay: a whopping $38 if I recall correctly. I decided to try something crazy – I wrote Will (this was long before email) and asked if he would be willing to make a trade – I’d create free artwork for his catalogues and, in lieu of cash, I’ll get paid in ball caps. Much to my surprise Will agreed, and I not only had a steady flow of the greatest ball caps ever made, but I had landed my first ever client for my work.

Over the next 30 years, Will and I became close friends, bonding over our mutual love of early rhythm & blues, baseball history, and good whiskey. Over the decades, no matter where I lived, I would get at least two visits from Will each year as he made his way between his farm in Cooperstown, New York and his winter home in Bisbee, Arizona.

Will’s visits usually began with him giving me a call after pulling into town in the late afternoon. I would let him know what bar or tavern to meet me in, and we would begin a night full of steaks, whiskey, and most importantly: baseball history. Will and I would exchange whatever arcane bits of hardball history we each had stumbled on since our last meeting – and that’s how Casey Stengel came up.

It was about thirteen years ago, and Will and I were sitting in a tavern in Covington, Kentucky. The TV behind the bar flashed Game 2 of the World Series, but we hardly noticed. We were deep in a conversation about baseball legends, and whether it was a good idea to prove or disprove them.

Did Babe Ruth call his home run in the ’32 World Series?

What was in the jug of “red juice” in Willie Mays’ locker?

Did Josh Gibson really hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium?

I don’t remember exactly where each of us came down on the overriding question of whether it was good or bad to bust a myth, but the conversation sparked an idea. Being that we were in Kentucky, I asked Will if he knew Casey Stengel played his first season of professional baseball in Kentucky’s Blue Grass League. He said he did, and instinctively knew what I was getting at: the insane asylum story!

The story goes that while playing for the Maysville Colts in 1910, Stengel would practice his sliding between innings by throwing his glove in front of him and then sliding into it. According to Casey, an insane asylum was located just beyond the outfield wall of the Maysville ballpark, and the inmates would cheer every time he slid into his glove, believing he was as crazy as they were.

It’s a great legend, and Stengel told the tale throughout his long career. In my files I had a half-dozen newspaper articles just from the 1950s relating the colorful Kentucky story. I informed Will that Maysville was a mere 60 miles away – we could take a drive down there and see if we could prove or disprove it.

We both figured it was an even 50-50 whether the story was legit. Stengel had made a name for himself by crafting a zany persona and spinning wild tales. In his later years, the “Ol’ Perfessor” as he became known, spun yarn after yarn of his decades spent in professional baseball. But the thing was, some of those fanciful stories were actually true: as a young player he really did hide a sparrow beneath his ball cap and released it as he tipped his cap to the fans. And at the end of his career as manager of the New York Mets, Casey really did point to one of his players and tell reporters, “That fella over there, he’s 20 years old now. In 10 years he’s got a chance to be 30.”

Will emphatically agreed that we needed to investigate – but not on that trip, maybe next time he passed through.

And so it went. Several times each year, Will would stop in Kentucky on his cross-country jaunts, and over double bourbons we’d talk of planning that trip to Maysville and speculate on what we would find there.

In 2019, Will’s trips stopped. The great cap maker of Cooperstown had passed away. One day recently, I was wearing one of the caps Will had made me when I thought of that trip we never took. I cleared my schedule, hopped in my car, and finally made that 60 mile drive to Maysville.

BEFORE HE WAS Casey, Charles Dillon Stengel was known as “Dutch.” Since the days of the Declaration of Independence, Americans of Germanic stock were called “Dutchmen” or “Dutch.” The catch-all nickname came from the German word “Deutsch” meaning “German people,” but disinterested Anglo ears simply heard “Dutch” instead. This is how the “Pennsylvania Dutch,” who hailed from Southwestern Germany, got their name and why Honus Wagner, a son of German immigrants, became famous as “The Flying Dutchman.”

And that is also how Charlie, whose father’s family came from Germany, became known as “Dutch.” Stengel’s father was an insurance salesman, and he enjoyed a comfortable middle-class upbringing in Kansas City, Missouri.

At Kansas City’s Central High, Stengel was an outstanding athlete, leading the school’s basketball squad to a city championship, was fullback and captain of the football team, and made headlines as the ace pitcher of Central High’s baseball nine. In the summer of 1908, at age of 17, Stengel joined the semi-pro Kansas City Bentons. The Bentons barnstormed as far west as Utah and Wyoming, playing town, army, and factory teams almost every day to turn a modest profit.

In his junior year, the 18-year-old’s pitching garnered a bit of regional notoriety when he pitched his Central High baseball team to victory in the Missouri State Championship. However, in the deciding game, Stengel injured his pitching arm. When summer came, Stengel rejoined the Bentons, now re-named the Kansas City Red Sox, and embarked on another season barnstorming out west. To rest his arm, Stengel took to playing infield and outfield positions to stay in the lineup.

In the Fall, Stengel returned to Central High for his senior year, but dropped out in February when the Kansas City Blues offered him a contract. The Blues played in the Class AA (equivalent to today’s AAA) American Association, one of the country’s three top minor leagues. Years later, Stengel recalled that when he saw the contract called for $135 a month, he was so overtaken with nerves that he turned pale. Being underage, he needed his father to sign for him. Mr. Stengel protested a bit about his son dropping out of school, but $135 a month was much more than most workingmen made at the time. He signed, and Charley Stengel became a professional baseball player.

Soon after joining the Blues, Stengel found the competition to be way over his head. Seeing that the 19-year-old’s pitching wasn’t close to Class AA league standards, Blues manager Danny Shay put Stengel in the outfield to see what he could do. Though still not up to American Association quality, he showed significant promise, so Kansas City sent the kid to Illinois to play for the Class D (equivalent to today’s A) Kankakee Kays. Stengel got into 59 games and was batting .251 when the league disbanded in July. Besides being out of a job, the team stiffed him out of $67.50 in back pay.

With the summer half over, Stengel was assigned to the Class D Blue Grass League in Kentucky. By the end of July, he was roaming the outfield for the Shelbyville Blues. As a mid-season replacement, Stengel never found his groove playing with Shelbyville. The team was in last place and didn’t attract many fans. As the low minors were a precarious business back then, the Shelbyville team couldn’t turn a profit. For a while, it looked as if for the second time that summer he would be out of a job.

Fortunately, the team was purchased by a group of businessmen from nearby Maysville for $500 plus another $100 in assorted debts. On August 26, the team debuted as the Maysville Colts.

It was with Maysville that Stengel began to learn the trade of a professional ballplayer. Though mired in last place, the citizens of Maysville showered their new team with enthusiasm usually saved for a pennant winner. Even in 1910, the river town had a long history of successful baseball teams. The game had been spread to its shores by sailors playing the Ohio River and brought home by soldiers returning from the Civil War. In 1895, the town fielded a team that was amateur in name only – they defeated the Cincinnati Reds twice in a three-game series. Dan McGann, their star first baseman, later went on to help the New York Giants win the 1905 World Series and still shares the Major League record for most stolen bases in one game.

Happy to have league ball in their town, crowds as large as 1,000 filled League Park to cheer on the Colts. Stengel even earned his very first fan, a young Maysville boy named Robert Willocks. In exchange for carrying his spikes and glove to the ballpark, Stengel would get young Robert into the game for free.

Though he came to Maysville hitting a poor .220, Stengel quickly began showing power at the plate. On September 2, he hit the team’s first home run and received a five-pound box of candy and a state-of-the-art $5 Duplex safety razor shaving kit. A second round-tripper the next week added a natty $3 hat to his prize winnings. Late in the summer, the Old Mill Tobacco Company included the rookie outfielder in the set of trading cards they inserted in their cigarette packs. The serious-faced boy who stares back at you from the orange-bordered card is a far cry from the grizzled and wrinkled old man who appears 54 years later on his last baseball card as manager of the New York Mets.

It was also in Maysville that Stengel developed his penchant for colorful shenanigans, which he later became famous for in the majors. Cue the insane asylum legend.

The “Ol’ Perfessor” told the story many times over the years, and each one varies a bit from the next. The way I understood it was that Stengel was a lousy baserunner back in 1910. To work on this aspect of his game, he came up with a unique training ritual. Between innings, as he ran to and from his outfield position, Stengel would toss his glove out in front of him, and then proceed to slide into it. Supposedly there was an insane asylum beyond the outfield wall, and the inmates would cheer Stengel on, mistaking his unorthodox training regimen with him being as insane as they were. Sometimes the story was augmented with Stengel’s manager pointing at the asylum and telling the rookie that he would wind up there one day.

Like I said before, it’s a great legend, but Stengel wasn’t beyond putting a little sugar on some of his stories. Before I went to Maysville, I opened my file on Stengel. Over the years I had clipped any reference of the Maysville asylum story in anticipation of Will and my investigative excursion.

THE OLDEST CLIPPING in my file came from a Dink Carroll column in the October 15, 1948, Montreal Gazette. At that time Stengel had just been named manager of the New York Yankees, and most younger fans had never heard of him before. Describing Stengel’s early days, Carroll writes:

Stengel started his baseball career with the Maysville club in the Blue Grass League in 1910 as an outfielder. There was a mental institution just beyond the fence and Casey immediately became the inmates’ favorite player, blowing kisses to them as he practiced sliding every time he went to and from his position. The manager of the club, tapping his forehead and pointing to the asylum, assured Casey: “Only a matter of time.”

A few years later, after Stengel had proved himself by piloting the Yanks to World Championships in 1949, 1950, and 1951, the story appeared in a few more places. A June 2, 1952, Portland Evening Express column by Bud Cornish relates:

Casey, as a young player, would catch a third out fly, throw the ball to the plate, scale his glove towards the infield at Maysville, Kentucky, come running in and slide for the glove. “That kid’s going up!” said another player. “To the big leagues?” asked an infielder. “Nope! Up there!” the first player said, pointing to the Insane Asylum overlooking Maysville. “But,” says Casey, “I was simply practicing four things at once, catching, running, throwing and sliding. I fooled ‘em. Two years later I was up there . . . in the big leagues, I mean, not the nut-house!”

A slightly different version is found in Tom Meany’s 1952 book, The Magnificent Yankees:

He finished the year with Maysville, Kentucky, in the Blue Grass League, astounding his mates with his antics the day he reported. Casey would haul down a fly ball in practice, throw it to the infield, sail his glove ahead of him on the grass, and then slide into the mitt.

 

“He won’t be with us very long.” A veteran observed.

 

“You mean he’s going up to the big leagues?” someone asked.

 

“No.” was the reply. “There’s an institution here to take care of guys like that.” And he pointed to the buildings of the state insane asylum overlooking the center field fence.

 

“I was simply practicing four things at once,” Casey says in explanation, “I was catching, running, throwing and sliding. I fooled ‘em, too, because two years later I was up there–in the big leagues, I mean, not the nut house.”

On the eve of the 1952 World Series, Earl Ruby of the Louisville Courier wrote:

Ole Case entertains writers and photographers before each game with his rambling monologues, sometimes clowning as he used to do in his younger years as a player . . . He says he fell into the habit of burlesquing when playing at Maysville . . . There was an insane asylum across from the outfield fence, he recalls. The patients were a good audience, he says. “Everything I did was funny to them. I got to thinking I was funny myself. “They probably were wondering what I was doing on the other side of the fence.”

By 1957, the story evolves a bit more. James J. Kilgallen wrote in the May 14 edition of the Jersey Journal:

Playing with Maysville in the Blue Grass League as a rookie outfielder, Casey used to break into a run and slide into second on his way to the outfield and do the same thing on the way in after an inning ended. This unorthodox business of practicing between innings amused the fans.

 

The fans included inmates of a mental institution who watched games from the barred windows of the nearby asylum. They used to yell: “You’ll be in here yet, Casey.”

A year later, sportswriter Frank Graham, Jr. wrote in his book, Casey Stengel: His Half-Century in Baseball:

It was in pre-game practice that he was most often an object of the fans’ curiosity. When a fly ball was hit to him he would settle under it, make the catch, and then go through an extraordinary series of actions. He would throw the ball back to the infield, and toss his glove in the opposite direction. Then he would set his bandy legs in motion and race across the outfield grass in pursuit of the glove. When he came within a few strides of it he would launch into a vigorous slide as if the battered leather glove were home plate and he carried the winning run.

 

On the Maysville bench one of the veteran players once thoughtfully shook his head and said to a teammate: “It’s only a matter of time before that Stengel will be leaving us.”

 

“You mean he’s going up to the majors?” asked the other player.

 

“No,” said the veteran, pointing to the nearby asylum, “over there.”

The same basic story using the above components is repeated through the sixties and becomes firmly embedded as fact in the Casey Stengel legend.

IN GOING to Maysville, I knew it might be difficult to verify some of the details. Fortunately, the town has an excellent research center located above the Kentucky Gateway Museum Center. The large, modern facility houses countless history book, microfilm files and maps. Plus, the center has two very helpful historians on staff, Candace and Myra. When I told them what I was researching, they immediately offered their help. Candace collected all their baseball files for me while Myra brought out several large city maps from the period I was researching.

Although a few modern newspaper articles put Maysville’s League Park at the corner of Houston and 2nd Streets, both the 1908 and 1914 city maps show the park a few blocks east on Prospect and 2nd Streets. A close look at the neighborhood shows mostly wood residences and a couple brick businesses – but no asylum.

I backtracked and tried to verify whether or not there was an insane asylum located in Maysville in 1910. A look through a 1910 city directory showed that there was not an asylum in town. However, Myra offered a viable alternative: perched on the hill above the town was the City Alms House.

Now, an alms house is far from an insane asylum. Unlike an asylum that housed the mentally ill, an alms house was a charitable institution that gave shelter to a wide variety of people who needed it. This included the poor and elderly who could no longer care for themselves, adults with debilitating diseases such as tuberculosis, as well as those once called insane or feeble-minded.

Ok, so an alms house wasn’t exactly a full-blown insane asylum, but knowing Stengel’s penchant for embellishment, it could be a match. I located the site of the asylum on the map – it was far from being beyond the outfield wall. However, a few of the newspaper stories mentioned it being above or on a hill outside the park. The City Alms House was located at the top of one of the high hills south of downtown Maysville. I asked Candace if you could see the place where the Alms House stood from the area around Houston and 2nd Streets. She nodded in the affirmative.

Meanwhile, Candace called local sports historian Ron Bailey. The name was familiar to me because I had read several things Ron had written about baseball in Maysville. Ron told me that he had thoroughly researched the asylum story and had come up with nothing. Besides looking into it himself, over the years he has been the go-to guy for many historians, writers, and major league teams trying to verify the same tale. That the local baseball history expert discounted the Alms House as being the asylum in question tipped the scales in the direction of the story being a myth.

Still, as I slowly drove out of town, I stopped by the corner of Prospect and 2nd Streets. There’s a factory and warehouse complex where the ballpark once stood, but by maneuvering around the corner of the buildings I could see the hill where the Alms House once stood. It wasn’t close by any standard, but it was visible. Maybe…

AFTER I GOT HOME, I ditched the old newspaper clippings and started looking through more recent Casey Stengel biographies. Bingo.

Marty Appel’s Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character puts the origin of the story back in Kankakee, Illinois where Stengel began his pro baseball career. Likewise does Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Old Professor by David Cataneo. The proof of Kankakee being the location of the story is pretty darn concrete: the Kankakee State Hospital, an insane asylum, was indeed situated directly behind the outfield wall of the Kays ballpark. From time to time Kankakee’s minor league teams were actually named the “Inmates” because of the asylum.

So, it wasn’t exactly the outcome I had hoped for; the story was based in reality, just not in Maysville. Though there is one last question I have: why did Stengel insist in so many places at different times throughout his life that the story took place in Maysville? I can never be sure, but I think it may have stemmed from that $67.50 Kankakee stiffed him for back in 1910. His bitterness might have been such that he decided to give credit for his oft-told tale to Maysville, a town that welcomed him, instead of the crooked chiselers of Kankakee.

Indeed, Stengel would remember his Maysville days with a touching fondness whenever he met someone from the river town. For instance, in July 1964, Stengel was in Cincinnati where his Mets were playing a series with the Reds. Maysville newsman W.B. Mathews happened upon the “Ol’ Perfessor” in the lobby of the Netherland Plaza and asked if he recalled Maysville. “I liked Maysville and its people.” he recalled. “Everybody treated me well and I‘d like to get back there for a visit some of these days.”

On the other hand, Stengel did indeed hold a grudge against Kankakee for that money and wasn’t afraid of mentioning it to any sportswriter who’d put it in their column. So much so that in 1956 the Kankakee Federal Savings and Loan Association presented Stengel a check for his $67.50 plus $415.55 for 46 years’ worth of interest (and presumedly to stop bad-mouthing their town). His long-held grudge abated; Stengel magnanimously turned the check over to the Kankakee Little League.

Now let’s go back and wrap up the story of Dutch Stengel.

WHEN THE 1910 season ended, stats showed that Stengel batted a pedestrian .236 with three home runs split between Kankakee, Shelbyville, and Maysville. However, closer research by historian Ron Bailey shows that Stengel hit .269 with the Colts as well as two of his three home runs. Clearly a little stability and experience made the difference. The Kansas City Blues thought so as well, and the big club called him up for the rest of their season. Stengel got into 4 games and hit .273 with a double, and Kansas City decided to hold onto his contract for the next season.

However pleased Stengel was with his first season of pro ball, his father remained skeptical. Not willing to have his son loaf around all winter waiting for baseball season, he encouraged him to do something practical. One of Stengel’s teammates from his Red Sox days was enrolled in Kansas City’s Western Dental College. Though he did not graduate high school, he found that he not only had enough credits to enroll but the dough earned from playing baseball to do so.

And so, that might have been the last we ever heard of Charley “Dutch” Stengel had it not been for his being left-handed. Most dental tools were manufactured for righties and, according to Stengel, he had a terrible time trying to use the school’s equipment. After two winters studying at Western, Stengel gave up and decided to become a professional ballplayer.

Stengel would go on to have a successful playing career before his real talent showed as manager of the Yankees. He won ten pennants and seven World Championships and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1966. He passed away in 1975 at the age of 85.

So that concludes – but wait! – where did he get the name “Casey” from? Well, as a rookie with Brooklyn in 1912, his teammates took to calling him “Kansas City” after his hometown, later shortened to “K.C.,” and still later to the more baseball-centric “Casey.”

* * *

Thanks to Candace and Myra at the Kentucky Gateway Museum Center and historian Ron Bailey for helping me complete a personal mission in memory of my old pal.

I miss you, Will.

* * *

This story is Number 66 in a series of collectible booklets.

 

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 5 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 066 and will be active through December of 2024. Booklets 1-65 can be purchased as a group, too.

 

 

1 thought on “Casey Stengel: The “Ol’ Perfessor” as a Young Student

  1. Being a self styled Baseball Folklorist, I always enjoy reading your pieces. This one about Casey caught my attention, not so much because of the Ole’ Professor but because of your referencing William Arlt. Back in the early 90s, give or take, I used to regularly attend the annual Baseball and American Culture Symposium in Cooperstown. I had come across Will’s work in my research for a one man show that I wrote and performed in October of 1990 called An Evening of Baseball Storytelling: How Life Imitates the Game. I stopped by Cherry Valley one year when visiting Cooperstown and had my measurements taken (or maybe sent them in ahead of time – can’t recall) and subsequently bought a number of hats from Will; mostly old Negro League and Cuban teams. The workmanship and attention to detail was outstanding. I didn’t know he had passed until reading your piece. Brought back fond memories. To this day when I wear one of his hats people remark “Wow, that’s beautiful – what team is that and where do you get it?” Thanks for giving me a nice memory.

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