July 30, 2017

Casey Stengel and Worcester’s Baseball Hall of Fame connections

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Wikimedia Commons / The Sporting News / Library of Congress

Clockwise from top: Boulevard Park; Casey Stengel with Yogi Berra; J. Lee Richmond; and Jesse Burkett.

The most enduring name connecting Worcester to the National Baseball Hall of Fame is turn-of-the-century star Jesse Burkett, a two-time .400 hitter with a .338 career batting average whose namesake Little League on the city’s West Side became a part of hardball history itself by advancing to the 2002 Little League World Series.

Burkett, who married the former Ellen G. McGrath after his first season in Worcester and settled in the city until his death in 1953 — less than two weeks before the devastating Worcester Tornado killed 94 and injured more than 1,000 — is not alone on the Worcester-to-Cooperstown ledger.

Wikimedia Commons / The Sporting News / Charles M. Conlon

Jesse Burkett was a coach for the New York Giants in the early 1920s.

Indeed, there are three other enshrined stars whose careers brought them to Worcester — more on two of them and other luminaries later — but the most endearing and unforgettable character to share the lineage is the indefatigable and incomparable Casey Stengel, manager of the Mickey Mantle-era New York Yankees.

If you didn’t remember — or ever know — that the irrepressible Stengel’s famed managerial career got its start in Worcester, and included a complicated transaction that would live in baseball lore, you can surely be forgiven.

As the Hall of Fame inducts its newest class today, it seems a fitting time to take a dusty and mostly monochromatic trip down memory lane through the early days of Burkett, Stengel and baseball in Worcester.

Charles Dillon Stengel — born in 1890 in Kansas City, Missouri, from where his nickname was derived (K.C., Casey) — had finished up a distinguished, if injury-riddled, 14-year career early in 1925, his final two seasons with the Boston Braves.

Wikimedia Commons / Desert Sun

Casey Stengel, right, shown here with protege Yogi Berra, may have gained managerial fame in New York, but he got his post-playing career started in Worcester.

For the three seasons prior, he’d served as a platoon outfielder and unofficial apprentice for legendary manager John McGraw and his stout New York Giants National League club. In 1923, Stengel hit the first World Series home run at Yankee Stadium (the House that Ruth Built had just opened that season), an inside-the-park job in the ninth inning off Bullet Joe Bush to win Game 1, 5-4.

Stengel’s home run in Game 3 (he blew kisses to the crowd while rounding the bases) was the only score of the contest and gave McGraw’s defending-champion Giants a 2-1 series lead before Babe Ruth, Bob Meusel, Waite Hoyt and company reeled off three straight wins for the Yankees’ first of 27 World Series titles.

In the spring of 1925 in Boston, though, Stengel’s glory days were well behind him — “he would turn 35 in July. His body looked and played old,” writes Marty Appel in his 2017 biography, “Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character” — and he was released on May 22. He would not be out of work for long.

Braves owner “Judge” Emil Fuchs had been negotiating to buy the Worcester Panthers of the Eastern League. Once Stengel was released from the Boston club, Fuchs hired him as president and player-manager.

Stengel took over a seventh-place team and guided it to a 70-55 record the rest of the season and a third-place finish. “He was the leading gate attraction in the league,” according to Appel’s book, and batted a strong .302 with 10 home runs. It was here in the Eastern League where Stengel met George Weiss, then owner of the New Haven club, who would go onto be the transformative general manager of the Yankees and hire Stengel in 1949.

But first, Stengel had to get out from under Fuchs, who was discouraged by the College of the Holy Cross baseball team outdrawing his Panthers, and planned to move his club to Providence. At the same time, Stengel had received an offer to manage the Toledo Mud Hens, who played in a higher-classification minor league and were offering more money.

This is where Stengel’s infamous and innovative transaction — not to mention his singular personality — came into play.

When Fuchs refused to release Stengel from his contract, according to Appel’s account, Stengel wrote two letters and a wire message. The first letter was from Stengel the player-manager to Stengel the team president, seeking his release from the club.

“I hereby tender my resignation as manager of the Worcester club. I cannot leave without thanking you for your courtesy, consideration and advice, which was of great help in running the club.”

Very truly yours,

Casey Stengel

The second letter was a reply from Charles D. Stengel, team president, accepting Casey’s resignation.

“Your letter came as a surprise, but we realize that ability should be rewarded. Therefore, I join the fans of Worcester in expressing our appreciation for your outstanding services rendered …”

The wire was sent to Fuchs, affirming the team president’s dismissal of his manager. So, in one fell swoop, Stengel had released the Panthers’ star player, dismissed its manager and resigned as the team’s president — thus colorfully and indelibly ending his brief-but-eventful summer in Worcester.

Stengel spent six seasons in Toledo, where he managed the likes of Carl Mays, Irish Meusel and Dixie Walker, before returning to his first major-league team, Brooklyn, as a coach for two years, then as manager for three.

After a year out of baseball, in 1937, he took over the moribund Boston National League franchise for six years before brief minor-league stints in Milwaukee, Kansas City (then a Yankees affiliate) and Oakland, where in 1948 he won an unconventional Pacific Coast League championship with the Oaks and first met a fiery young second baseman by the name of Billy Martin.

Wikimedia Commons / Baseball Digest

Casey Stengel in 1953, the year the Yankees won their fifth-straight World Series.

From there, Stengel reunited with his Eastern League friend Weiss, who hired him as Yankees manager for the 1949 season.

Joe DiMaggio was 34, in a bad mood and would only play 76 games due to a painful foot injury that season (hitting a vintage .346 with 14 home runs), but Stengel skillfully maneuvered around the Yankee Clipper’s volatile ego, leaned on a young catcher named Yogi Berra and guided the Bronx Bombers to their first of five straight World Series titles.

In those years, beyond Mantle, DiMaggio and Berra — legends all — he managed such good-to-great players as Phil Rizzuto, Hank Bauer, Johnny Mize, Tommy Henrich, Gene Woodling, Whitey Ford, Vic Raschi, Allie Reynolds and Johnny Sain. Rizzuto, Mize and Ford are Hall-of-Famers.

Stengel’s pinstriped tenure lasted through a loss in the 1960 World Series and included two more series titles in 1956 and 1958. It was in New York where “Stengelese” — the older brother of “Yogi-isms” — became part of the baseball lexicon, including such gems as “There comes a time in every man’s life, and I’ve had plenty of them,” and “Sometimes I get a little hard-of-speaking.”

After four inglorious seasons as manager of the expansion New York Mets — during which he authored the legendary quote, “Can’t anyone here play this game?” that sparked a namesake best-seller by Jimmy Breslin — Stengel was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1966. The only other player inducted at Cooperstown that year? Ted Williams.

(The Splendid Splinter, you may recall, hit his first home run for the Red Sox in an April 1939 exhibition game against Holy Cross at Fitton Field.)

Back to Burkett

Jesse Cail Burkett, quite opposite the aging Stengel, was but 20 years old when he first happened upon the City of the Seven Hills.

Born in 1868 in Wheeling, West Virginia, he won 30 games as a pitcher for the Worcester Grays of the minor Atlantic Association in 1889, before making his big-league debut in 1890, the year Stengel was born, with the New York Giants. Burkett made a name for himself primarily with the Cleveland Spiders — where the irascible outfielder earned the nickname “Crab” — and St. Louis Perfectos/Cardinals. He batted over .300 for 10 straight seasons.

Wikimedia Commons / The Sporting News

Jesse Burkett became a star with the Cleveland Spiders, hitting over .400 in back-to-back seasons.

According to a biography from the Society for American Baseball Research, Burkett’s nickname was well-earned:

On August 4, 1897, the Spiders were forced to forfeit the opening game of a doubleheader to the Louisville Colonels after Burkett refused to leave the field following his ejection from the game. In the second game of the doubleheader, Burkett was again ejected for arguing with the umpire, who then called two policemen to have Burkett forcibly removed from the grounds.

At 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds, Burkett was considered slight even in those days (and despite his reputation). But his control of the bat was nearly unparalleled, and he was known as the premier bunter in professional baseball. He batted a league-best .405 in 1895, then .410 in 1896, for the Spiders before winning his third batting title with the 1901 Cardinals (.376).

Burkett is one of five players to hit .400 or better in more than one season. The others are Ed Delahanty, Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby, who all did it thrice, and George Sisler.

It was only after his final season with the Boston Americans in 1905 that he truly made his mark on Worcester, buying the New England League’s Concord team and moving it into a new ballfield he had built, Boulevard Park on Shrewsbury Street.

The team was called the Busters, and upon Burkett’s arrival as owner-player-manager in 1906, it went on to win four straight New England League pennants. Burkett led the league with a .344 batting average his first season.

He would manage the Busters through 1915, playing until 1912 and batting over .300 another five times before selling the franchise and becoming head baseball coach at Holy Cross for four seasons, in which he compiled an 88-12-1 record.

In 1921 and 1922, Burkett was a coach on McGraw’s (and Stengel’s) World Series-winning Giants teams before returning to manage the Worcester Eastern League club in 1923 and 1924, the precursor to the team Stengel took over in 1925, which played its home games at Boulevard Park, the “House that Burkett Built.”

Wikimedia Commons / Library of Congress (public domain), by T.C. Wohlbrück

Boulevard Park

Boulevard Park, near present-day Casco Street and across from East Park, burned down in 1926. Burkett was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1946.

Burkett is buried with his wife at St. John’s Cemetery on Cambridge Street.

The others

John Clarkson’s time in Worcester would be easy to forget, even if you were around in 1882.

Considered among the very best pitchers in 19th-century baseball, Clarkson was, like Burkett, a 20-year-old rookie when he first took the mound at Worcester Agricultural Fairgrounds (near Elm Park and Becker College) for the Worcester Ruby Legs of the top-tier National League.

Clarkson would pitch only three games for the Ruby Legs, or Worcesters as they were otherwise known, before a shoulder injury sent him back home to Cambridge. His injury kept him out until late in 1884, then in 1885 he won 53 games for the Chicago White Stockings, his first of six seasons winning more than 30 games.

He started 70 games that season, completed 68, and pitched 623 innings. He threw a no-hitter July 27 against the Providence Grays. Clarkson (328-178, 2.81 earned run average in 12 seasons) was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1963.

Billy Hamilton — not to be confused with his namesake and kindred spirit currently playing for the Cincinnati Reds — was another of the 19th century’s best players who made a quick pit stop (well, two) in Worcester.

Born in New Jersey, “Sliding Billy” grew up in Clinton before embarking on a career that began to take off with a brilliant half-season (.351 average, 72 stolen bases in 61 games) for Worcester’s New England League club in 1888. Following a 14-year playing career, he returned to Worcester in 1916, taking over the Busters from Burkett for one season before leaving the game for good.

The preeminent speedster and baserunner of his time, Hamilton holds the major league record with 192 runs scored in 129 games in 1894. He was inducted into Cooperstown posthumously in 1961 after dying at his Lucien Street home in 1940. He is buried in Lancaster. More than a century after his playing days ended, Hamilton still stands third on the major-league list for career stolen bases with 914, behind only Rickey Henderson (1,406) and Lou Brock (938).

Wikimedia Commons / American Tobacco Company

Frank Bancroft won the first “world’s series.”

Two non-hall-of-famers deserve mention here as well.

Among the many notable managers to ply his trade in Worcester was Frank Bancroft, who was born in Lancaster. Bancroft managed the Ruby Legs in 1880 before winding his way around the fledgling National League.

He was the manager of Providence in 1884, when the American Association and National League played a postseason “world’s series” for the first time. (The first official World Series, as recognized by Major League Baseball, was in 1903.) Bancroft’s Grays beat the New York Metropolitans, two games to one.

One of Bancroft’s players on the 1880 Worcester club holds three remarkable baseball distinctions. J. Lee Richmond became the first full-time left-handed pitcher in professional baseball, and his time pitching for both the Ruby Legs and Brown University prompted the first rules banning professional athletes from participating in amateur sports.

Mark A. Henderson / Worcester Sun

The monument immortalizing J. Lee Richmond’s historic feat.

Most notably, though, on June 12 of that year, Richmond pitched the sport’s first recorded perfect game, a 1-0 win over Cleveland at Agricultural Fairgrounds, also known as Driver’s Park, which is memorialized by a monument on the Becker College campus.

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