Charles Dillon Stengel was born July 30, 1890, the son of Louis E. Stengel, an insurance salesman of German ancestry, and Jennie Jordan Stengel, of Irish family background. He had an older brother, Grant, and an older sister, Louise. The family was closely knit and happy, and their neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri, was upper middle class. Charley Stengel was a three-sport athlete in high school and pitched for his state-championship-winning team in 1909. The following year, at age 20, he signed with the Kansas City Blues, a top minor league team.
In 1911, after a short time in dental school, he went to Aurora, Chicago, with the Blues and led the league in stolen bases, catching the eye of a scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1912 the Dodgers drafted him and sent him to Montgomery, Alabama, under the tutelage of 37-year-old shortstop Kid Elberfeld, who told Stengel: "If you're going to be a big leaguer, act like a big leaguer."