I remember Tom Terrific before and after he became the fuzzy-cheeked ace topping a rotation including Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry, Nolan “Wild Thing” Ryan, and closer, “Tug “Ya Gotta believe!” McGraw. The Mets blossomed before our unbelieving eyes. Those were great days at Shea Stadium. Clarence “Choo Choo” Coleman would retrieve his ‘passed balls’ and throw wildly to Elio Chacon who would drop the toss, retrieve and throw erratically into the outfield. Ol’ Case would sit there fuming. I forgot to mention the best part. The Choo-Choo comment was his answer when Casey was asked what was Coleman’s best quality.
The time I spent with the Ole’ Perfesser — Charles Dillon Stengel — was wonderful. He was a kindly gentleman to a young reporter. I noticed how Stengel toyed or played with beat reporters and the big time magazine writers. You could tell that many of them felt they were slumming in 1962 when the Mets were the new kids in town. Many of them felt the Mets didn’t belong in the same sports section as the gawd almighty Yankees. Casey humored them but often cast knowing winks at me as he entertained in classic “Stengalese” style. I remembered the question posed while ten minutes later, the reporters were confused, laughing to cover their confusion.
The old man beat those guys like a drum. They were so arrogant they didn’t realize he had used them. They wrote columns — mean-spirited pieces cloaked in school boy humor. These were the big boys at the Daily News, The Mirror, The Herald-Tribune, The Post, The New York Times (Red Smith was an exception — he was cool with Casey), The Sporting News, Street and Smith, and so on. Casey would pull some of these guys aside and in quiet, confidential tones give them ‘exclusives’ — which were usually bogus.
I was inevitably at the end of the line after “the big boys” had their shot. Casey would wipe his brow with a checkered bandanna and confide in me: “Edna says I should grow up and not treat these fellas so shabbily. Young fella, Edna doesn’t understand how stupid these guys are. I keep tryin’ to tell ’em how it is. Been this way since I was a player in the old days when we played real baseball. Before your time, young fella. Did I tell you the one about the bird that flew out of my hat? That thing has 99 lives and so much of it is — well, you know, some stuff just gets made up and you lose track of what was and what wasn’t. You get me, young fella?”
I always just nodded. My old reliable Butoba tape recorder was spinning its heart out, capturing all of this Stengalese gold. When we were done, Casey would smile at me. It was a Gramps smile. Then he’d pat me on the head and show me the bandanna. It had a little picture of young Casey and Edna encircled by a heart. He did that many times. I was always touched when he did that.
Little did I know but Casey Stengel thought I might have some untapped “scouting blood” in my genes. I used to swap stats derived from my old APBA board game with Casey. He was impressed with my affection for “contact” or slap hitters who could use the whole field. I didn’t have the youthful swoon for home run hitters who often struck out and left many runners stranded. This was also one of Casey’s pet peeves. He fumed at young players, including one teen phenom from the Bronx (Mets fans will know who the player was) who had a sweet left-handed swing but missed the ball more often than he connected. Casey and I would discuss the merits of “table setter” hitters like Ferris Fain, Billy Goodman, and Richie Ashburn.
“Why can’t we get hitters like that, young fella”, Casey would ask. It was a rhetorical question but I chose to believe Casey was asking me. The Mets eventually acquired Ashburn in the twilight of his career. Casey Stengel rarely scolded these wannabee sluggers in public. He always felt it would hurt their psyche. Casey often would use Mickey Mantle as an example of a young player who worked through his early struggles to become a legendary slugger who could get that dependable single or double.
“Mantle was clutch”, Casey would recall with an affectionate smile.
There came a point in Mets’ history when their farm system began to produce quality pitchers. It would be a blatant lie to say those of us on the regular watch were instantly aware. We were so used to being let down by “can’t fail” rookies that cynicism pervaded our vision as we watched a bunch of young pitchers in the spring.
There was an apple-cheeked young right hander named Seaver who was always impressive. He threw hard with impressive control. Casey Stengel was pleased with the young right-hander who would soon evolve into one of the games’ best pitchers. Unfortunately, time and health caught up with Casey who would not be on the scene as Tom Seaver ultimately headed up a rotation that included Jerry Koosman, Garry Gentry, Nolan “Wild Thing” Ryan and an eccentric closer, Tug “Ya Gotta Believe” MacGraw. The “Let’s Go Mets” chant soon had legitimacy coined by Seaver and company. The success of the “new” Mets never clouded my appreciation of the those early, error prone days at the ancient Polo Grounds and then, at newly minted Shea Stadium. Gil Hodges, the former Brooklyn Dodgers hero, would occupy Casey Stengel’s old perch as the Mets gave us that improbable 1969 season wrapped in a World Series championship for the ages.
Tom Seaver evolved into Tom Terrific, the breakfast of Champions idol. Even in that champagne soaked ’69 autumn I’d never forget those earlier days with Casey Stengel. I would always remember the long afternoons and twilights when a kid reporter sat alone with one of baseball’s genuine treasures.
Sometimes, I got to sit in the dugout with Casey as he watched his “Amazins” go through their pre game drills. They were gawd awful. Fumbled grounders, botched pick off attempts, clueless relay throws. Casey would mumble, grumble, suck on some sunflower seeds (the salty ones) and frequently hum old tunes like “Genevieve,” “Apple Blossom Time,” “There’s A Goldmine In The Sky,” and more. He was somewhere else, anywhere else. He often would stop humming, wink at me and resume humming. Sometimes I hummed along with him which gave the Ole’ Perfesser much pleasure.
Ah, Charles Dillon Stengel and a fond farewell to Tom Terrific. You were both terrific and will live forever in my memories.