In the long history of the New York Yankees, only one person has ever had his number retired who never played a game in pinstripes. His name was Charles Dillon Stengel, or simply "Casey" Stengel. Yes, Miller Huggins and Joe McCarthy have been honored in Monument Park, but neither wore a number. Additionally, while Billy Martin's number 1 was retired mostly for what he accomplished as a manager, he played for the Yankees as well. Thus, the "Ol' Perfesser" holds a unique place in Yankees history, at least until the Yankees retire '90s dynasty manager Joe Torre's number 6.
Although Stengel rose to prominence with the Yankees, he was well-known in New York baseball circles for over 35 years prior to his hiring in 1949, having once played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. Surprisingly, he was once a pitching ace for his Kansas City Central High School baseball team in 1910 until one of his first minor league managers, Danny Shay, moved him to the outfield. Stengel nearly followed a friend to dental school until his minor league team gave him a raise. He quickly rose through the ranks, and the Brooklyn team, then called the Superbas, signed him in 1912. There, the kid from K.C. gained his eponymous nickname, Casey, because his teammates just called him "Kansas City" or "K.C." He was a joker, but he played the game very well, hitting .272/.346/.393 with a 119 OPS+ in six seasons with Brooklyn, helping the team win the '16 NL pennant (he also led the NL in OBP in '14 with a .404 mark).
Stengel played eight more years in the league with four different teams after being traded from Brooklyn following the '17 campaign, and one of those stops was a 2.5 year stint with John McGraw's NL stalwart New York Giants. It did not take McGraw long to identify Stengel as a player with a sharp baseball mind, and Stengel had a true mentor. He also had his last highlights as a player, winning a pair of World Series championships over the cross-town Yankees in '21 and '22, and although the Giants lost to them in '23, he made his name known in the Yankee clubhouse. First, he won Game 1 with a ninth inning inside-the-park home run at Yankee Stadium, then hit another homer in a 1-0 victory in Game 3, blowing kisses to the crowd and thumbing his nose at the Yankee dugout as he rounded the bases. Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert was incensed, but little did he know that Stengel would help his beloved Yankee team to uncharted success many years later.
The lessons Stengel learned from McGraw logically led him on a path to become a major league manager. His official playing career ended when his Boston Braves sent him to the minors to become player-manager and president of their Worcester affiliate. Stengel brought the team from the cellar to third place, and soon got a better job as manager of the minor league Toledo Mud Hens of the American Association. Under Stengel for six years, Toledo won a pennant in '27 before plummeting in the standings. He soon found himself as a coach with former teammate Max Carey on his old team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and he was appointed to his first major league managerial job when Carey was fired after the '33 season. The team did not have much talent, and three sub-.500 seasons later, Stengel was fired himself. He was chosen to manage the Boston Braves in '38, his selection likely encouraged by Stengel's valuable oil investments in the team. The team had a winning season that year, but afterwards, the team never had a winning percentage above .440 in five years under Stengel. He only managed half of the '43 season because he was hit by a taxi, breaking his leg and later developing a staph infection.
Stengel resigned from the job after the '43 season and spent the next five seasons managing various minor league teams, from the Chicago Cubs' Milwaukee Brewers in '44 to the Yankees' Kansas City Blues in '45 and finally to the independent Oakland Oaks from '46-'48. With the Oaks, he made the playoff finals each year and won the Pacific Coast League championship in '48 with a group of veterans and a hard-nosed second baseman named Billy Martin, who Stengel took under his wing like McGraw did for him many years ago. George Weiss, who liked Stengel and hired him to manage the Blues in '45 as the Yankees' farm director, was promoted to the position of Yankee general manager, and he fired manager Bucky Harris despite a World Series championship in '47 and a third-place finish in '48. Weiss had recommended Stengel to his bosses every year since longtime manager Joe McCarthy resigned, and he now had the power to hire him. Similar to how fans would ridicule Yankee GM Bob Watson 47 years later for hiring the previously unsuccessful Torre, no one understood why Weiss would want to hire a loser who never did well as a major league manager. Weiss knew Stengel was more than just the clown the press made him out to be though--in Oakland, he achieved success through the use of platoons and never staying comfortable with a regular lineup.
Stengel was an immediate success. The Yankees won the American League pennant in '49 by a game over the rival Boston Red Sox, then defeated Stengel's old Brooklyn Dodger team in a thrilling seven-game World Series. Stengel liked winning so much that his teams would do it again and again. From '49 through '53, his teams averaged 97.4 wins per year and won the World Series each time, a five-year run of World Series success that has never been duplicated. They swept the "Wiz Kid" Philadelphia Phillies in '50, subdued the '51 Giants team that came back to win the NL pennant on Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World," then beat the Dodgers two more times in '52 and '53. His '54 team won more games (103) than any other squad in Stengel's tenure, but they finished in second place, eight games behind the 111-win Cleveland Indians.
Undeterred, Stengel returned to victory and the Yankees won four consecutive AL pennants from '55 through '58. The planets aligned and Brooklyn finally beat the Yankees in '55, but the Yankees avenged the loss with a win in '56 over the Dodgers. Likewise, the Yankees lost to the Milwaukee Braves in '57, then beat the Braves the very next year, becoming just the second team ever to trail a series 3-1 and come back to win it. A disappointing third-place finish in '59 led to questions about the now-69-year-old Stengel's managerial competency, but with the addition of '60 AL MVP Roger Maris, the Yankees won the AL pennant again. They lost a very tough seven-game series with the Pittsburgh Pirates wherein they outscored the Buccos 55-27 but watched the series end in defeat on a Bill Mazeroski home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7. Stengel was fired after the loss, and he said, "I'll never make the mistake of being 70 again." The teams largely assembled by Stengel continued to win the AL pennant each year from '61-'63 under Stengel's replacement, former Yankee backup catcher Ralph Houk, with two more World Series championships coming from the success. After one more AL pennant in '64 under Berra, the new manager as Houk moved to the front office, the Yankees went dormant for many years, the farm system now dry without Stengel contributing to its development. Stengel managed the awful expansion New York Mets for 3.5 years, but through his popularity, helped the team gain a strong following despite their lousy play. In appreciation of his contributions the Mets retired his number 37 at the end of the '65 season, an honor the Yankees had yet to grant him. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a manager in '66 by the Veterans' Committee.
The Yankees finally decided to honor Stengel in 1970. Eight days after his 80th birthday, they honored him at Old-Timers' Day by retiring his number 37. At the time, only Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle had been so honored. His old players presented him with his own uniform, and he told fans, "I've got one now. I'll die in it." He passed away five years later in '75, only a year before his old Yankees would finally return to October glory again under Stengel's protege, Billy Martin.
Stengel managed great teams that combined veteran talent like Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, and Tommy Henrich with young stars like Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Yogi Berra. Using his platoon system, he found spots in the lineup for a further variety of players, from former NL superstars Johnny Mize and Enos Slaughter to key role players Hank Bauer, Gene Woodling, and Billy Martin. There were many pitching stars with great nicknames and success like "Superchief" Allie Reynolds and "Bullet" Bob Turley. Other great pitchers like Vic Raschi, Ed Lopat, and Don Larsen led the way for Stengel's great offenses to succeed. Stengel also had an Instructional League that helped the Yankees produce some fine young players that really helped the team as well. In total, Casey Stengel's Yankee teams went 1,149-696, a .623 winning percentage that is only exceeded in team history by McCarthy's .627. No Yankee manager won more AL pennants than his 10, and only McCarthy tied his mark of seven World Series rings.
Casey Stengel deserved every honor he received from the Yankees and Major League Baseball, and his number 37 was retired 42 years ago today.