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Ron Kaye: Living the dream at Stengel Field

October 25, 2013

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.

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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.

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