Stengel was the youngest of three children and was an avid athlete in his youth, playing on the basketball, football and baseball teams at Central High School in Kansas City, Mo.

Stengel quit high school at 19 and went on to play professional baseball. He joined the Kansas City Blues of the American Association. He played in the outfield, but in 1910 he was sent to Kankakee, Ill., of the Northern Association. Later, he was sent to Shelbyville, Ky. then to the Maysville, Ky., team of the Blue Grass League. Stengel was not batting very well at the time, but he exhibited much heart and passion for the game. He joined the Dodgers in 1912 and finished his season with a .316 batting average.