By Marty Appel
When I’ve told people in the last year that I am working on a new biography of Casey Stengel, the most frequently asked question about him seems to be, “was he a racist?”
I’m not surprised.
There is really only one quote attributed to him that sticks in people’s mind on the subject. In talking about Elston Howard, the first African-American Yankee, he joked, “I finally get one, and he can’t run.” (He may have used a pejorative for “one” in the telling).
The answer to the question though is far more complicated.
It is the most difficult subject to deal with in the book, because it seems to call for reading his mind, something impossible to achieve. One is left with an analysis of his actions and comments by others. That leaves us with the burden of being asked to judge.
In the United States, where no issue is more sensitive than race, and where words matter a lot, judging Casey Stengel is no simple task. Do we use judgments based on society in the time he lived, or by today’s standards?
Harry Truman, a contemporary of Casey’s, also from the Kansas City area, was said to use “the N word” on occasion, as did Casey, but history does not judge him poorly in this area. In fact, he fares well.
“People hear the last part of that Elston Howard quote and skip past the first part,” notes Toni Harsh, the great grandniece of Casey and Edna Stengel, and guardian of the family history. “Listen to the first part more carefully.”
Indeed, “I finally get one” could be seen as an expression of his frustration over the wait. And if it is, that separates him from Yankee front office, which moved so slowly after the Brooklyn Dodgers’ signing of Jackie Robinson in 1947.
Casey knew that he was expected to win pennants to keep his job. So he wanted the best players. And he saw his neighboring teams signing Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Joe Black and Jim Gilliam (Brooklyn) and Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, Hank Thompson (New York Giants), while other teams were signing Ernie Banks, Henry Aaron, Satchel Paige and Larry Doby. The Yankees sat still.
So yes, attention must be paid to the first part of the quote, even if the quote in full was generally seen as just a one-line attempt at humor.
Charles Dillon Stengel was the product of a segregated school system in Kansas City, Missouri, where only about 10 percent of the population was black at the turn of the 20th century. He played school sports against other white schools, and the neighborhood parks where informal street games were played were typically segregated.
He turned professional at the age of 20 in 1910, and the first evidence of his playing against black opponents came in October, 1912, when he was recruited by Nick Altrock to play for a team against the Kansas City Royal Giants. It was very flattering, as he was barely a Major Leaguer – 17 games at the end of the season with Brooklyn – and he relished the opportunity.
In 1919 he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. Phillies owner William Baker refused to pay a bonus that Casey had been promised by his previous employer, the Pittsburgh Pirates. So he quit. He went home to Kansas City and put together a barnstorming team of his own, made up of high school teammates and former minor leaguers. One of their games was against a “colored team,” and Casey later said “They were as good as any major leaguers, but colored players couldn’t be in the big leagues then.”
The colored team featured Bullet Joe Rogan, who was a star pitcher for the Kansas City Monarchs from 1920-1938, and who today is a Hall of Famer. Stengel knew J.L. Wilkerson, owner of the Monarchs, and was said to have recommended Rogan to him off his observations from 1919.
Casey looked back at the evolution of the game when he wrote his memoir in 1961. “Now when I broke into baseball,” he wrote, “we used to have Irish and German and Polish players. And then the greatest players came from the South. Then they came from Texas and then they came from Chicago.
“Today it’s the colored player. He’s a good runner, and he’s very quick with his wrists. He’s the best hitter.”
By then, his time with the Yankees having ended, his observations were largely based on opponents. Howard was his one star African-American player.
He appreciated what he saw. As manager of the American League All-Star team in 1952, he selected Satchel Paige as one of his six pitchers. He picked him again in 1953. He always liked Paige, (he liked most players with a little show biz in them), and was always complimentary of him. But it would be three more years before he got Howard. By then the Yankees had traded off Vic Power, who was considered too flashy by staid Yankee standards, and who “dated white women,” which did not endear him to the scouts who were watching him. In Howard, the Yankees got someone far more “acceptable” to their style.
Howard turned out to be a wonderful choice. The Yankees move to an integrated roster had been, frankly, held up by their success. Winning every World Series from 1949-1953 made them slow to shake things up. When they finished second in 1954, the door opened. The time was right, and Howard was a perfect player for them. Versatile, as Casey liked his players, he was also someone who immediately got along with everyone.
Following the Robinson experience in Brooklyn, this wasn’t a given. But in the Yankee clubhouse, where Casey’s coaches came from Little Rock and Nashville, and where he had players from the south and the Midwest, a tone needed to be set. Casey’s ready acceptance of Howard did indeed set such a tone for the franchise. He put no obstacles in Howard’s way. He saw him as a winner. He deserves credit for helping to ease the entry of Howard onto the team in a way free of tension.
Did he openly protest his Florida hotel’s segregation policies? He did not. Did he make sure that Howard had living accommodations in St. Petersburg that were acceptable? Yes. It was not a full measure – Howard couldn’t dine with his teammates, couldn’t go out with them in the evenings, couldn’t share rides to the ballpark.
But Arlene Howard, who was outspoken where she felt injustice was being served, found the Yankees welcoming and supportive. She had no quibbles with Casey, not then, and not today.
“Even though Casey would use the ‘N’ word and occasionally referred to Elston as ‘Eight Ball,’ Elston never really thought that Stengel was racist,” wrote Arlene in her 2001 memoir. “Casey was just being Casey. He was sixty-five years old. That was how people of his era talked, Elston thought, and so he accepted it.”
Things began to change. The Yankees annual stops in southern cities while making their way north for opening day – were halted when local officials cited Jim Crow laws prohibiting black and white players on the same field.
“If they leave him alone and stop fighting the Civil War all over, and they almost ruined him,” said Casey, with a dash of Stengelese. “He’s good.”
Casey only had three other black players during his Yankee days – outfielder Harry Simpson, 3B-OF Hector Lopez (a Panamanian), and catcher Jesse Gonder, who he also had later on the Mets. And on the Mets, he welcomed almost any ballplayer with a pulse during those rough first years, with color not a consideration at all. Of course, that was the early ‘60s, and by then, the issue for Major League Baseball had largely been settled.
Casey could use words that make us recoil today. He could tell a joke which would be considered offensive today.
And he could have, perhaps, fought harder to get a black player onto the Yankees roster before 1955.
But off the evidence that we have to work with, it is difficult to blatantly label him a racist. Times change, people grow, and unless we are willing to speculate on Casey’s private thoughts, he comes out with better than expected grades on this issue.