It was the moment Casey Wise dreamed of as a kid – World Series, Yankee Stadium, his father in the stands to cheer him on.
In fact, Casey could hear his father, Hugh, as he stepped into the batter’s box at Yankees Stadium to pinch-hit for the Milwaukee Braves in the third game of the 1958 World Series. “Come on, Kid!” Hugh shouted.
On the mound for the New York Yankees was Ryne Duren, a hard-throwing and hardly sober pitcher who wore eyeglasses so thick a teammate once suggested he use tripods to hold them up. “A one-man war-of-nerves,” renowned sports columnist Jim Murray called Duren.
Casey wasn’t scared. He faced Duren many times in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) during the 1956 season when Casey played shortstop for the Los Angeles Angels and Ryne pitched for the Vancouver Mounties. A single off Duren in the ’56 PCL all-star game prompted a scout to tell Casey, “If you can hit guys like that, you’re going to make it in the big leagues.”
It was the top of the ninth inning. The Braves trailed 4-0. Duren walked the lead-off batter, his third walk since he entered the game the previous inning. Casey’s job was to get on base by drawing another walk or letting an errant pitch hit him. He wasn’t to swing at a pitch until Duren threw two strikes.
“You can observe a lot by just watching,” Yankee catcher Yogi Berra once said.
Yogi watched as Casey walked to the plate. “Hi, Casey, you doin’ okay?”
Casey said nothing, concentrating on what he had to do.
“What kind of shoes are those that you’ve got on? They’ve got funny lookin’ tongues on ‘em.”
“What the hell is wrong with my shoes?” Casey thought to himself. “Here it is, the most serious moment in my athletic career and this guy is joking about what kind of shoes I’ve got on.”
The first two pitches were called balls. And, then, Duren fired two strikes to even the count at 2-and-2. If the next pitch was close, Casey had to swing.
The outcome was the same as it was for another Casey in the famous poem, Casey at the Bat. “I had one swing and, of course, I struck out.”
It was Casey’s only chance to bat in a World Series and it was not the stuff of boyhood dreams.
Many years later Casey received a questionnaire from the Braves’ publicity department, asking about his biggest thrill in baseball. He considered his two appearances in the ’58 World Series as a pinch-runner and pinch-hitter. And, then, he recalled how he felt after striking out. “You go up there defensively and you just have an awful time.”
The Braves used Casey mostly as a late-inning defensive substitute. In 37 games, he batted a puny .197. “It was very difficult to get into the lineup because Red Schoendienst at second and Johnny Logan at shortstop were both very established players.”
This was in stark contrast to ’56 when Casey played in every one of the Angels’ 168 games, batting .287 with seven home runs and 60 RBIs. He led the PCL in at bats (705) and was among the league leaders in hits (202), doubles (36) and runs scored (122).
Casey was a second baseman when he reported to spring training with the Angels in ’56. “You need to get a bigger glove if you’re going to play shortstop,” Angel manager Bob Scheffing told him.
Scheffing was so ecstatic over Casey’s play to start the season that he gushed: “If Ernie Banks or Pee Wee Reese would be sent here right now, Wise would still be my shortstop. “
When Scheffing and Angel president John Holland moved up to lead the Chicago Cubs in 1957, they took Casey with them.
The March 1957 edition of Baseball Digest featured a smiling Casey on the cover while, inside, a story titled, Wondrous Wise, quoted Holland: “We thought his fielding had been great at short, but it was simply out of this world at second.”
Casey was even making believers of the Chicago media, highly critical of the 11 Angels on the Cubs roster. As spring training was ending, the Sporting News wrote: “Wise probably never will inspire any new recitations of the immortal poem Casey at the Bat, but he will be a good man to have around and perhaps an even better one to play second base or shortstop for the Cubs.”
Scheffing praised Casey’s defensive abilities, citing a fielding record he set in the lower minors and a consecutive streak of 204 chances without an error. “He isn’t a great hitter, although he may be that later, but he gets his hits.”
Casey was batting less than his weight of 170 pounds early in the ’57 season when he committed four errors in a single game, tying a major league record. Casey was sent back to the minors and eventually traded to the Braves.
The more Casey thought about the questionnaire asking about his biggest thrill in baseball, he concluded it had nothing to do with the Braves or Cubs. “I was reluctant to put something about the minor leagues in there but I said, ‘Being part of and playing for the Los Angeles Angels in 1956.’ That is about as good an answer that I could come up with. It was the epitome really of what you think of with success. You’re an important part of the team. The team was cohesive and pulling for each other. And Bilko [Steve Bilko] was hitting home runs. It doesn’t sound like a lot now but 55 home runs in those days was pretty impressive.
“In Milwaukee, I just didn’t feel as much a part of the team. In L.A., even though I wasn’t a home run hitter, I felt like I was as important to the team as anyone else and probably more than some.”
Casey went on to become an orthodontist in Naples, Florida – the city’s first. When patients asked him about striking out against Duren in the World Series, he always mentioned the single he got off Ryne in the PCL all-star game. Casey wanted his patients to have all the facts.
The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:
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