Stengel His Life and Times

When we taught a global branding class in a university’s International Masters program, we were often asked by the students – who hailed from cities as disparate as Beijing, Sao Paulo, Paris, Tokyo, Harare, Ankara and more – what we thought was the most difficult thing for modern marketers to do.

We always answered the same way: the most difficult thing is doing your job once you understand that everything is changing all the time in every way, every day, non-stop.

The companies you compete against are changing. The products they are offering is changing. The way they are supporting and promoting and distributing and manufacturing those products is changing. The distribution networks you are using is changing. The economies of the countries you are in is changing. The retailers you are using is changing. The customers you are marketing to is changing. The media those customers are using is changing. What that media is capable of doing, is changing. The financing you are using is changing. The financing that your partners is using is changing. Your partners themselves are changing. Your competition’s partners are changing.

Doing your job amidst that. That’s the most difficult thing to do.

And because it is, we are always on the lookout for stories of people who could do it – regardless of industry. Who saw things others didn’t, understood things others couldn’t, and who reacted to them better and more nimbly than others did. Achieving success that the rest of their industry found inconceivable – because the rest of the industry thought they were out of their minds.

You know, someone like Casey Stengel.

For those who are not baseball fans, Casey Stengel is a Hall of Fame player and manager who won ten American League pennants, seven World Series, and  five of those in a row when he managed the New York Yankees from 1949 to 1960. He was a player too, and managed some other teams, but it was the 1950s that put him in the Hall, and frankly why we’re talking about him here.

Creamer, who you may remember from his part in Ken Burns excellent documentary series on baseball, or from his long career at Sports Illustrated, does an excellent job chronicling Stengel’s complicated life, providing insight and illumination that fans and neophytes will find valuable. But for our purposes, it is a particular observation he makes that is the springboard for our interest in Stengel. Creamer writes:

…the obvious fact, often overlooked, [is] that the team with the best players usually wins. Know who the best players are and where they are and grab them when you need them …

And sure, on its face, it is obvious, especially where the Yankees were concerned –  a team that always had the best players because they always went out and bought them.

But Stengel took this observation to an entirely different level. He didn’t just apply it to the roster. He applied it to in-game management. As Creamer writes:

…Stengel gathered a corps of versatile athletes who could field deftly at different positions, men who were equally at home at second and third, for instance, or at short and second or at third and short, or sometimes at all three positions. Then if he sent a pinch hitter in for one man he could put another adroit fielder in his place. Sometimes this involved complexities such as pinch hitting for the second baseman, moving the incumbent third baseman to second and putting a man from the bench at third, but the defense would remain capable after the offense had been improved by the insertion of pinch hitters.  It worked with other positions, too. Casey might send a man in to bat for an outfielder and then put the pinch hitter at first base and move the first baseman to the outfield. Or shift a catcher to left field and the left fielder to third base and put a new catcher in who had previously pinch-hit for the third baseman. And so on.

This isn’t just traditional “platooning”, where managers make up lineup cards based on whether the opposing pitcher is a righty or a lefty. This is about putting yourself in the position to react to the changes in the game as they were happening.

And what’s fascinating to us about this is how it mirrors what was going on in the wider world at exactly that moment. A wider world of companies thinking of workers as tools that could be inserted or withdrawn as the factories needed them. And of factories themselves as things that could be revved up or slowed down as the markets demanded. How it mirrors how white collar corporations were thinking about their employees – as “skill sets” that could be transferred from location to location as new business opportunities presented themselves to the parent company. Remember, this is the 1950s, when people who worked for IBM joked that the initials stood for “I’ve Been Moved”.

Stengel is doing the same thing. Only more so. Because he doesn’t have a national worker pool to pull from – he’s got to find the smattering of players who can handle being in left field one minute, third base the next. Tolerate being pulled out of the lineup in the third inning today, and inserted in the fourth tomorrow. Who have the mental fortitude to perform while Stengel takes advantages of small in-game opportunities to blow a game wide open – exactly the kind of “seize the moment” opportunism that business leaders were patting each other on the back for doing.

Stengel could do this because he understood something his contemporaries did not. Not only that the game had changed, but how it had changed. How the game was now about how the game was constantly changing in a thousand different ways. How he could win if he could react to those changes as they were happening in real time, whenever they were happening.

You know, like marketers need to do today.



Stengel: His Life and Times by Robert W. Creamer was published by Simon & Schuster on 02/01/1984 – order it from Amazon here, or from Barnes & Noble here, or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

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