At 11:45 a.m. Le Salon Bleu of New York's Savoy Hilton Hotel was a tangle of activity—reporters, photographers, TV and newsreel cameras, klieg lights, webs of wire. Here the New York Yankees would answer the biggest question of the day: was Casey Stengel finished as Yankee manager?
At seven minutes after 12, Stengel arrived. He was immediately caught up in a tight ring of reporters. Everyone seemed tense. The newsmen made hollow jokes and small talk and tried to soften their stares with smiles. Stengel grinned self-consciously and kept turning round and round inside the circle. The flash of strobe lights puckered his eyes and whitened his wrinkled skin.
"Let's start the meeting please," someone yelled. The TV and news-reel men made frenzied signs and called, "Over here, Case, sit over here," but the group settled at a microphone far from the lights of the photographers.
When Yankee Owner Dan Topping took his place at the microphone Stengel edged into the front row of reporters. Standing still and expressionless, he looked strangely out of place. Far from being the gruff and weathered dean of the dugouts, he resembled a little boy dressed up for his first communion—dark blue suit, clean white shirt, shoes shined, stubborn hair neatly parted and slicked down on either side.
Topping stood stiffly against the microphone, unfolded a sheet of white paper and began to read in flat, throaty tones. Casey Stengel, he said, "has been—and deservedly—the highest-paid manager in baseball history." Stengel gazed straight ahead, plainly nervous, his face stiff as a shin guard. He jiggled his knees and rocked lightly on the balls of his feet. Now and again he peeked at the notes of the reporter next to him.
"Casey has been and is a great manager," Topping said with an obvious lack of enthusiasm. Then he added that Casey was being well rewarded—$160,000 "to do with as he pleases." Afterward a reporter asked, "Do you mean he's through? Has he resigned?" There was no reply.
Stengel stepped to the microphone, tightened his tie, straightened his jacket, stuck his hands in his pockets and started talking. At first his delivery was jerky and uncertain, but in a matter of seconds he was speaking with all the old assurance. "Mr. Webb and Mr. Topping," he said, "have started a program for the Yankees. They needed a solution as to when to discharge a man on account of age." Casey put the matter simply: "My services are not desired any longer by this club. I told them if this was their idea not to worry about me." As newsmen scribbled furiously, he rambled on with increasing momentum, crossing his arms, then waving them, tilting his head, raising and lowering his voice.
If I were king
Casey swung into a eulogy of his 1960 Yankees, then declared: "If I had come back, I would have wanted certain things done. I got to run the players on the field and say who comes and goes. I've always handed in my own lineups, with none of the office people telling me what to do."
"Casey, were you fired?" someone shouted. "No, I wasn't fired!" Stengel shouted back. "I was paid up in full." The reporters laughed, but Stengel barely smiled. "Write anything you want," he said. "Quit, fired, whatever you please. I don't care."
During the hubbub a slight, elderly man squeezed around one end of the crowd of reporters and slipped up to Stengel. "Mr. Casey," he said, sticking out his hand, "I've lived, in New York City 79 years, and...." Casey shook the man's hand and grinned, but one reporter said, "Go away, go away! We don't want you here," and another growled, "Beat it, and call him on the telephone." The old man was hustled away.
Stengel finally yielded to pressures from the television men and waded toward their cluttered corner. "What are you gonna ask me here," he asked, "the same questions?" Casey sat on a rose-colored Victorian couch, squinted into the lights and told his first interviewer, "You better let Topping say something too." Then he hunched over the microphone and started talking.
Someone broke in to tell Stengel: "An Associated Press bulletin says you're fired, Case. What do you think about that?"
"What do I care what the A.P. says," he growled. "Their opinion ain't going to send me into any fainting spell. Anyway," he added with a little grin, "what about the U.P.?"
Would Casey name his alltime favorite team? "Well, I'd like to, but I'd be too fast for you—you wouldn't understand me." A couple of hotel maintenance men slid into the circle of cameras and listened with wide-eyed attention. Finally the klieg lights went off, and Casey headed for the bar. "I'm gonna get a drink," he announced. "Where's a drink?"
As he sipped a bourbon and soda, the New York baseball writers crowded sadly and sentimentally around him. Stengel seemed the least concerned of the group. He talked about his pennant winners and about his troubles keeping his "retirement" a secret. "I been hiding out for three days," he said. "I didn't answer the phone at all."
Talk to Dan
Before he had finished his drink, he was called back to the couch for a joint interview with Topping. Only two microphones remained. The floor around them was littered with crumpled press announcements and cocktail napkins. Casey talked over, under and around the questions, and Topping said: "I'm just sorry Casey isn't 50 years old, but all business comes to a point when it's best for the future to make a change."
At 1:45 Stengel was back at the bar. A radio man with a tape recorder approached him. "Another one?" Casey said. "I didn't give you an interview? Sure I will. Come on." After that the remaining newspapermen gathered around, and Casey started telling stories.
First there was Boston and how the wind off the Charles River held up the home run balls and made him look like a bad manager. Then there was Jackie Jensen and what a hell of a football player he had been, and Billy Martin, always a Stengel favorite. "Whatever you say about Martin," said Casey seriously, "remember he could of been much worse outside of baseball." Casey, once again the nonstop raconteur with the adoring audience, looked almost happy.
At 2:25 the hangers-on went into the dining room for lunch. Topping was there and Casey sat down with him, but there was little conversation between them. Casey seemed quieter and even asked a few questions himself. The talk centered around old pals and old times—the Coast League days, John McGraw, George Weiss. When a Yankee official stopped at the table Casey told him: "I'm taking a jet home, and I'm charging it to the club. A man gets his transportation home even if they don't want him any more." He was smiling but not joking.
One for the road
After lunch Stengel got up to leave but a red-faced photographer waved him down for one more drink. "Well, O.K.," Casey said. "Just for five minutes. Then I'll get outta town." He ordered another bourbon, leaned over the table and started in again. His voice was low and a little hoarse now, but the eyes were steady and intent, the hands were alive, the whole repertoire intact.
The talk centered on Casey's latter-day career. He had had several chances to change in recent years, he said, but he had stayed with his Yankees and he had no regrets. He talked about his first Yankees, the 1949 bunch, and about Yogi Berra.
A waitress pushed through a curtain and rushed up to Stengel, arms extended. "This is the only chance I'll ever get," she said. "I got to kiss you." She pecked him on the cheekbone and whispered, "God bless you." Casey said, "Thank you very much," and she hurried back through the curtain.
Finally, Stengel stood up. "I gotta go home to my parents," he said, and headed for the door. The red-faced photographer shook his head. "I'm gonna miss that old bastard," he said.
On the corner of Fifth and 58th Stengel talked with one last reporter. A brisk breeze plucked at his tie and rustled his white hair. A cabbie parked near the corner said, "Hey, that's Casey Stengel, ain't it? I hear they just canned him. Tough, but hell, he don't need the money. He's a millionaire."
The light turned red on Fifth Avenue, and Casey Stengel, millionaire and former manager of the New York Yankees, started across. Halfway there he broke into his stooping, scuttling trot. He hopped onto the curb, paused a moment, then disappeared into the crowd.
CONTRIVED MOMENT of amity brings Stengel and Topping before TV cameras.