Ron Kaye: Living the dream at Stengel Field

Every child ought to have a dream, a big dream. It ought to be a human right.

Mine was to be a major league baseball player. It was the summer of 1948 and my family bought our first house and I listened to Jimmy Dudley and Jack Graney on the radio and cheered the Cleveland Indians into triumph in the World Series, the second and last time my beloved tribe won a championship.

We played stickball up against the stairs in front of my house. When the weather was bad, we played games like All-Star Baseball, and when there was nobody to play with, I invented baseball games with dice: pencil stubs for bats and marbles for balls.

I lived baseball and became a math whiz-kid, keeping my own sets of statistics on Lou Boudreau and Dale Mitchell and Larry Doby and Al Rosen and Bobby Avila and the Big Four pitching rotation of Feller, Lemon, Wynn and Garcia.

And I came to hate the Yankees — Mantle, Berra, Rizzuto, as well as Whitey Ford, Ed Lopat and Allie Reynolds, and all the other great players they could buy.

It was money that made the Yankees who they were, going back to 1920 when they paid Boston $125,000 for George Herman "Babe" Ruth, the Red Sox star who led his team to three World Series in six years, setting the record for shutout innings in the World Series and, in 1919, shattering the home-run record with 29 while doing double-duty on the mound.

From then on, the Yankees, the damn Yankees, were the best team money could buy.

And then, in my youth, there was Casey Stengel, the legend himself, the "old perfessor," who guided the team to a record five-straight World Series championships that ended in 1954 when the Cleveland Indians, my Indians, won a record 111 games and then lost to the New York Giants in four straight. He won four more pennants and two more World Series in the following four years.

Stengel was a clown genius who said, and sometimes did, outrageous things. He was a managerial wizard who could keep a team of overpaid drunks and womanizers performing at the highest level.

In an age of conformity and McCarthyism, he was the rarest public figure — someone who spoke his mind with a homespun Kansas humor and sense of irony, a manager who didn't require his fun-loving players to live by the rules. They coined a word for his brilliantly garbled speech. They called it Stengelese.

"The trouble is not that players have sex the night before a game. It's that they stay out all night looking for it.... They say some of my stars drink whiskey, but I have found that ones who drink milkshakes don't win many ball games.... Never make predictions, especially about the future.... All right everyone, line up alphabetically according to your height."

There are hundreds of such quotes, but the one relevant to this moment occurred in 1952 when Stengel, who had come to live in Glendale during the off-season, was being honored by the city.

"I feel greatly honored to have a ballpark named after me, especially since I've been thrown out of so many," he said at the time.

Casey Stengel Field, formerly Verdugo Park Municipal Baseball Field, was just three years old at the time, a beautiful stadium with locker rooms and facilities rarely found in a city ballpark.

To generations of young ball players and baseball fans, it was a jewel of the Jewel City. Crescent Valley High, the community college, the youth leagues played there in what seemed like the big leagues with a playing field that is still as terrific as ever.

But the stadium is a teardown. Water has damaged the structural integrity of the stadium so badly that it was declared unsafe to use in 2011. In June, the bleachers were closed off — except for the two lowest rows, allowing seating for only 300 when crowds of 1,000 are still common.

Last month, the city cut a short-term deal with Glendale Unified to take over running Stengel Field and last week the City Council approved an expenditure of $450,000 to demolish the stadium and put up temporary bleachers.

The story doesn't end there; it's only the beginning of the next chapter for Casey Stengel Field.

The school district and many business and community leaders are organizing a fundraising drive in hopes of coming up with the $8 million it will take to build a great new stadium and preserve the history and importance of the facility.

"Our hope is that the Yankees relationship with Casey Stengel might help," said Bryan Longpre, who grew up playing ball at the stadium for Crescenta Valley High and in youth leagues. "There's a lot of money in baseball and many people in the baseball community would be very willing to help … it's not just the Yankees, it's the Dodgers and it's the business community and all the people who have been around Glendale a long time."

Longpre, 26, made it as far as the minor leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays before a sore arm forced him to give up the game last year. He now works for the Stone-Beck Group at Morgan Stanley in Glendale as a financial adviser and was the lone speaker to the council last month on the effort to restore the stadium.

"There's so much history there. I'm hearing stories from people who grew up in the community, people who knew Casey Stengel, people who played there, who watched games there," Longpre said. "They really care about that stadium and what it's meant to the community. There is a lot of support out there. We just have to ask for it."

As someone who has loved the game as much as Longpre, who has devoted so much of his life to it and gotten so much from it, there is something really important at stake.

"I lived the dream," he said. "I hope there's kids out there today who get that same chance. They deserve it."

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RON KAYE can be reached at kayeron@aol.com. Share your thoughts and stories with him.


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