It isn't that people in Boston don't like Casey Stengel. It's just that something in his colorful, aggressive, outspoken nature inspires a violent reaction in Boston.
You may remember that when Casey was managing the Boston Braves some years back he was struck by a taxicab and suffered a broken leg. A Boston sportswriter who apparently felt that Manager Stengel was the prime reason why the Braves were a second-division club promptly suggested that the cab driver be given a medal.
Boston has become considerably more civilized since those bluff and hearty days. After all, they have a symphony there, and several museums, and bridges connect the city with Cambridge, where Harvard is. But let the Stengel personality be exposed in full flower before the people of Boston and off comes the thin veneer of gentility and a bloodthirsty howl of primitive vengeance is heard in the land.
Such was the case last Saturday when the somewhat improper Bostonians who jam into Fenway Park whenever the Boston Red Sox play the New York Yankees had an uproariously cheerful time. The Red Sox finally, for the first time this season, managed to beat the unloved New Yorkers. They came from behind to win in a wild, scrambling, bang-away game. They displayed some fine pitching (young Dave Sisler, George's son, threw three good, courageous innings of relief to gain his first major league victory; his famous father had broken into the majors 41 years earlier pitching three good, courageous innings of relief), and there was a long, classic home run by Mickey Vernon that put the Red Sox ahead to stay.
WAS IT A HOMER?
All this was grand enough, but even grander in retrospect was the thwarting of a Yankee rally in the eighth inning. The Red Sox had gone ahead, 5-3. The Yankees had Jerry Coleman on second, with two out and Mickey Mantle up. Mantle hit a long, high fly to deep center field. Jimmy Piersall, the Boston center fielder, went back to the base of the 17-foot-high center field wall but the ball, dropping, hit well above his head and bounced in a high arc 40 feet back into center field, much as a rubber ball will bounce when it hits the corner of a step. Left Fielder Gene Stephens caught the ball and threw it into the infield, holding Mantle on third with a triple. Coleman had scored, making the score 5-4.
Out onto the field raged Casey Stengel, trotting bowlegged across the diamond, hat clutched in hand, yelling at Umpire Ed Rommel, who had called the play, that the ball had gone into the seats before bouncing out and that therefore it was not a triple but a home run. If this were so, the score would be tied at 5-5.
But Umpire Rommel said, No, Casey, it was not in the seats, it bounced off the top of the wall, which means that it was in play and that Mantle was entitled to no more than the three bases he reached before the ball came back into the infield.
Stengel was furious. His body shook, his arms waved, his mouth jawed. Surprisingly tiny in the company of the tall ballplayers and umpires knotted behind second base, he bounced around like a bantam rooster, shouting and waving his arms. Umpire Rommel jawed back at him. Casey waggled his finger furiously in the umpire's face. The umpire waggled back.
Boston was beside itself with joy. Casey had no chance to win (who ever wins an argument with an umpire?) and they would have been content to watch the goings-on all afternoon, knowing that Casey could not win. They howled and catcalled and booed, thoroughly pleased by it all.
Finally the red-faced umpire roared something at Stengel and with a gesture that could be seen on cathode-ray tubes all over New England ordered Stengel off the field, out of the game, into the showers. A full-throated howl of appreciation rolled down from the grandstand. Stengel was accompanied by a cacophony of raucous booing as he clumped back across the diamond. It did not end until he disappeared into the runway to the clubhouse.
Once again, it was not that Boston did not like Casey Stengel. It was just that it was delighted at the rare sight of Stengel vanquished. When the Red Sox held on to win 6-4, things were just that much more perfect.
Of course, Stengel himself didn't care much one way or the other how Boston felt about him as he prowled around his clubhouse after the game, growling about the play, insisting that any damn fool could see the ball disappear behind the wall into the seats before it bounced back. Some observers agreed with him, among them two or three of the New York newspapermen who travel with the Yankees. The New York Times man, for instance, wrote, "The ball apparently landed three or four rows up....It bounced once while a number of...spectators.... scrambled for it. Then the ball bounced back into the playing field."
This is misleading. The ball hit either the slightly beveled edge of the wall, as Center Fielder Piersall and Umpire Rommel insisted, or it cleared the wall by inches and struck a seat in the first row in the stands. Wherever it hit, it bounced back immediately onto the playing field, with no time out for bouncing among scrambling spectators. In fact, since that section of the bleachers is fenced off and kept empty, to insure a dark background for the hitters at home plate, the spectators had a long way to come before they could start scrambling at all.
Perhaps an underlying reason for the vociferous going-over that the Boston fans gave Stengel was their resentment at their own team's miserable showing the day before, when the Yankees won 5-2 with almost ridiculous ease. Typical was the fifth inning when, with two Yankees out and none on base, the Red Sox committed errors on the next three batted balls to let in two vitally important and utterly unearned runs.
It was pretty awful baseball and the crowd reacted with typical Fenway Park vengeance, landing on their own heroes with a full measure of hoots, boos and catcalls. Rookie Don Buddin was given a huge, mocking round of applause for fielding a simple ground ball shortly after he had made a damaging error on an equally simple grounder, and he was accorded similar sarcastic praise two innings later when he caught an easy pop fly. Jackie Jensen, who had difficulties in the field and at the plate, was hooted each time he batted. One gentle character, recalling the recent television show that told the story of Jensen's rehabilitation from near juvenile delinquency, yelled from the safety of the grandstand, "Jensen, you're just a spoiled child." After Billy Goodman grounded out weakly for the third time, another voice, bearing a perfect Boston accent, called out indignantly, "Youah a weak sistuh, Goodman!" a wonderfully New Englandish insult right out of The Rover Boys at Yale.
All in all, it was a bad day for Boston, and all the more reason why the next day it was such fun to rail at a Yankee for a change.
"I like Ike, too, but...."