CASEY STENGEL: Baseball’s Greatest Character, by Marty Appel. Doubleday, 410 pp., $27.95.
LEO DUROCHER: Baseball’s Prodigal Son, by Paul Dickson. Bloomsbury, 357 pp., $28.
Longtime New Yorkers and curious younger baseball fans alike will be happy to celebrate Opening Day Sunday with two excellent biographies of emblematic New York baseball men, Casey Stengel and Leo Durocher.
Stengel and Durocher, who dominated the game during its midcentury apogee, make an apt pairing. Their reign over the golden age of America’s pastime largely overlapped — they faced off as opposing players as early as 1925 and as managers in the 1951 World Series, in which Stengel’s Yankees beat Durocher’s Giants in six games — and both were flamboyant presences who made good copy. Temperamentally, of course, they were complete opposites: Stengel was famous for his avuncular good nature and was nearly universally loved, whereas the sour and combative Durocher was sometimes considered the most hated man in baseball.
Marty Appel is a former Yankees public relations man who has also written books about icons Thurman Munson and Yogi Berra; his “Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character” is thorough and engaging but content to skate along the surface without deep analysis. It has long seemed to me that the bumptious and famously garrulous Stengel was preternaturally well matched to managing the clinically dominating Yankee teams that won seven titles and 10 pennants from 1949 to 1960; his aw-shucks persona was a form of sly misdirection that absorbed the attention of an affectionate press corps and allowed his players to thrive in the shade.
Stengel popularized the extensive use of platooning: Appel notes that he used 95 different batting orders on the way to the championship in 1952. A minority opinion holds, with longtime owner Bill Veeck, that the pre-Yankees Stengel was “entirely satisfied with a mediocre ballclub as long as Stengel and his alleged wit are appreciated,” which made him the perfect candidate to manage the Mets in their disastrous but colorful debut season.
Durocher, meanwhile, is a challenging subject for any biographer, not least because of his acidic personality and his free and easy way with the truth — in “Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son,” Paul Dickson describes Durocher’s autobiography, “Nice Guys Finish Last,” as “loaded with exaggeration and falsehood.” A brilliant tactician, he was capable of cringe-inducing cruelty and brutal emotional violence. A petty tyrant with a wobbly moral compass, he also inspired ferocious lifelong loyalty from a handful of players that included Willie Mays and Monte Irvin, African-American stars of the legendary 1951 Giants squad.
A formidable ladies’ man, Durocher dressed rakishly, consorted with gamblers and gangsters, feuded with everyone from commissioners to fans, palled around with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, and made countless appearances on talk shows. But whatever his many flaws, Durocher was staunchly in favor of racial integration, welcoming Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers in 1947. (The two would enjoy a complex, often fractious relationship over the years.) Dickson, author of “The Dickson Baseball Dictionary” and other books, is good on this key period; he implies, but doesn’t quite say, that if you are in the right about this one big thing, you can be in the wrong on a lot of other little things.
On the whole, Dickson’s book is the better of the two, more thoughtfully written and carefully sourced, but taken together they have a marvelous cumulative pleasure. An account of these two men is very nearly a history of the whole game. Stengel came up with the Brooklyn Dodgers, then known as the Superbas, in 1910, facing such sepia-toned greats as Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson; Durocher, meanwhile, closed out his career managing in the Houston Astrodome, the epitome of modern high-tech indoor baseball.
The apex of both men’s careers came during the magical period from 1946, after World War II ended, to 1957, when the Dodgers and Giants both relocated to the West Coast. This celebrated and heavily chronicled chapter of the game’s history had three New York teams battling with ferocity. Dickson writes, correctly, that the Dodgers and Giants of the era were “the bitterest rivals in sports history. When the teams met, as they did twenty-two times a season, fights frequently erupted in bars, on the street, and in the grandstands.”
To read these books is to be sent back to a time redolent of fedoras and cigarettes and seven daily newspapers, of grimy working-class men in suspenders and newsboy caps cheering on Da Bums or the Gi’nts against the hated Yanks, of flashbulbs outside the Copa or Toots Shor’s. The bittersweet pleasure of nostalgia alone makes them worth their ticket price.