Kid Elberfeld's Influence - Casey Stengel

The Man in the Dugout


Baseball's Top Managers & How They Got That Way
by Leonard Koppett
Temple Univ. Press, 2000 |
Chapter 8
The Player
Charles Dillon Stengel grew up in a happy, close-knit, affectionate, reasonably well-to-do family in Kansas City, Missouri, at the turn of the century. Why this quintessentially American middle-class upbringing produced a rambunctious professional ballplayer and subsequently one of the sages of the modern world is something for psychologists to figure out.
He was born on July 30, 1890, the third child of an insurance salesman of German ancestry married to a bright woman whose family was Irish. Their oldest child was a daughter, the second a boy about two years older than Charley. The brothers were close friends and companions from the start, with Charley's somewhat larger build minimizing the difference in age. Both became good ballplayers by their early teens. Grant was much in demand on pickup and semipro teams, with Charley included at first because Grant insisted but soon accepted for his own proficiency. They led a cheerful, busy, mischievous existence, which Robert Creamer, one of the best of Stengel's countless biographers, compares to the world described by Mark Twain. It certainly seems true that only someone like Twain could have invented the Stengel character if the man himself had not existed.
School was of no concern to the Stengel boys, although they attended it obediently enough. Charley was left-handed, and in accordance with the mores of the time, was forced to write right-handed. He learned to do it, but it certainly didn't increase his taste for laborious schoolwork. In high school he blossomed as a three-sport athlete winning local reknown, acquiring the nickname "Dutch" routinely applied to kids of German extraction. He didn't enter high school until he was fifteen, and when he left at nineteen he didn't have enough credits to graduate. He pitched Central High to the state high school championship in 1909, even though he was playing a good deal of semipro ball by that time, and in January of 1910 he signed a contract to play with the Kansas City Blues of the American Association at the top level of the minor leagues.
Within weeks, it was obvious he was not good enough as a pitcher, but he could hit and run and did have a strong arm, so they made him an outfielder and sent him down to Class C, at Kankakee, Illinois. That league folded in midseason and they moved him down to Class D at Shelbyville, Kentucky. After a few weeks, that team was sold and transferred to Maysville, Kentucky, and as the season ended he was brought back to Kansas City and got into a couple of games.
He had impressed nobody, but had taught himself to play the outfield and to slide. During the winter, he tried dental school, but all the instruments were designed for right-handers, he complained later. For 1911, the Blues sent him to Aurora, near Chicago, in Class C. There his dedicated practice and natural ability started to show. He hit .352 and led the league in stolen bases. A Brooklyn Dodger scout came out to see him, liked what he saw, and told the Dodgers to draft him. For 1912 they optioned him out to Montgomery, Alabama, the next level down from Triple-A.
There he became the protege of an old shortstop, Kid Elberfeld, then thirty-seven years old. Elberfeld had played thirteen seasons with five major league teams, most of the time with the Yankees, whom he managed for part of 1908. He took it upon himself to teach the twenty-one-year-old Stengel major league tricks, like the best way to execute the hit-and-run, and an attitude Stengel internalized for life: 'If you're going to be a big leaguer, act like a big leaguer."
What Stengel was actually acting like much of the time, however, was an overage juvenile delinquent. He loved practical jokes, including mean ones, as well as verbal jokes. He was aggressive and boisterous and got into fights, in ball games and after hours. He was serious about playing baseball to win, but never solemn about it (or anything else). He was the prototype of what older players then called "a fresh busher," and a later generation called "flaky."