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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Stan Musial

Living near St. Louis, MO, we are by default Cardinals fans. Yes, we may live in Illinois, but in my family or, indeed, house, you wouldn't be caught dead in a Cubs or White Sox jersey. My husband is a HUGE Cardinals fan. HUGE. Me, I've been known to root for the opposing team if it'll get me out of the baseball stadium earlir. Anyway, today I received this email tribute to Stan "The Man" Musial, who played for the Cardinals way back when. It was written by Joe Posnanski, and can be found on his blog along with lots of other sports-related essays and other tidbits of info.

Stan Musial is one of those guys who, when you talk about how people were in "the good old days", is who you're talking about. Class personified. He could give lessons to a lot of today's athletes...if they realized they had something missing. You'll see...it's long, but it's worth reading every word.

Stan Musial never got thrown out of a game. Never. Think about this for a moment. Musial played in 3,026 games in his career, or about as many as his contemporaries Joe DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky played combined. He played across different American eras — he played in the big leagues before bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, and he retired a few weeks before Kennedy was shot. He played when Jimmy Dorsey and Glenn Miller ruled the Top 40 charts, and he played when Elvis was thin, and he played when Chubby Checker twisted. He played before television, and after John Glenn orbited the earth. And he never once got thrown out of a baseball game.

There was this game, early in ‘54, that year the Edward Murrow went after Joe McCarthy and Roger Bannister ran a mile in four minutes, and Musial’s Cardinals trailed the Chicago Cubs 3-0 in the seventh inning. Cubs lefty pitcher Paul Minner was baffling the Cardinals — he had allowed just two singles, had faced one over the minimum. Then he found himself facing Musial with Wally Moon was on first base and two outs. Musial crushed a ball to deep right field, a double. Moon ran all the around the bases to score. Musial cruised into second. The whole complexion of the game had changed. And it was only then that everyone seemed to notice the first base umpire, Lee Ballanfant, was holding up his arms. He had called Musial’s double a foul ball.

Nobody quite knew how to react. The ball, at least in the Cardinals view, had clearly been fair. It was not even an especially close call. And while the crowd cheered wildly (the game was in Chicago) the guys on the Cardinals bench went crazy. They rushed on the field, shortstop Solly Hemus first, manager Eddie Stanky right behind him, and both were thrown out by home plate umpire Augie Donatelli. Funny thing, Augie would play a big role in Musial’s life. Donatelli would be one of the umpires there less than a month later when Musial hit five homers in a doubleheader. Much later, he was behind the plate for Musial’s 3,000th hit. Anyway, he was here now, taking away a Musial hit, throwing out Hemus and Stanky, threatening pinch hitter Peanuts Lowrey with ejection, clearing the saloon like an old cowboy, even though, he certainly knew, the ball had been fair.

Musial, who in the confusion had not been told anything, walked over to Donatelli. Then, according to the stories, he calmly asked, “What happened Augie? It didn’t count, huh?” Augie nodded sadly and said the umpire had called the ball foul.

“Well,” Musial said, “there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Stan Musial stepped back promptly doubled to precisely the same spot in right field. This time, Ballanfant called the ball fair. The Cardinals scored six runs in the inning and won the game.

The story has been told many ways, by many people, most famously by umpire Tom Gorman. He seemed to remember that this had happened against Brooklyn, in ‘52, and he had been behind the plate. He obviously was confusing this story with another, but that’s really not hard to understand. Stan Musial had a lot of beautiful moments. There are a lot of stories.

* * *

Stan Musial grew up in Donora, Pa., during the Depression. They were a family of eight in a five-room house. In Donora, the smoke and fumes from the zinc factory mushroomed so thick and poisonous that no vegetation could grow on the hill. That barren, brown hillside was a constant reminder that the air was killing them. Stan’s father, a Polish immigrant, worked in that factory and, not too many years after Stan started playing ball, died from the fumes.

Not that a tough childhood explains everything. Still, there was something about Stan Musial that did not let him forget Donora, did not allow him to change — “I’m so lucky,” he used to say every day, more than once every day, so many times that people would roll their eyes. But that seems to be how he felt, every day, lucky.

Harry Caray, who of course first gained his fame calling Cardinals games on KMOX, would tell the story of a beaten down Musial going hitless in a Sunday doubleheader. The heat was unbearable that day — hell could not be much hotter than a St. Louis summer day — and after the game Musial walked gingerly to his car. He looked beaten down. He looked beat up. Musial never seemed to think of baseball as a job, but a daytime doubleheader in St. Louis might be the closest thing.

“Watch this,” Caray said to a friend as they watched the scene, and sure enough when Musial got to the car, there were a hundred kids waiting for him and an autograph. Stan leaned against his hot car and signed every one.

Musial. People like to say that people have changed. I don’t see that exactly. The world has changed. Technology has changed. Movie and ticket prices have changed. Gas prices have changed,. Many of the rules have changed — the reserve clause is gone, Title IX is in place, they let people swear on cable TV, airplanes and restaurants won’t let you smoke and you can no longer hold your infant in your lap in the front seat of your car. But people? I don’t know. I get a little queasy when I hear old time ballplayers talk about how none of them would have used performance enhancing drugs, and a little queasier when I hear old-time politicians talk about how they always reached across the aisle. You will still hear a lot of people romanticizing America in the 1950s. Those people tend to look a lot alike.

Still, it’s probably fair to say that there was something unique about the time that produced Stan Musial. Maybe in those days people treasured that thing they used to call class. Maybe they expected their singers to be dressed in tuxedoes, maybe they admired strong and silent types, maybe they liked football players who did not celebrate their own touchdowns or boxers who spoke quietly, maybe they wanted their children to believe in a world where baseball players drank milk and said “golly” and married their high school sweetheart. It seems to me that the quintessential hero today is Josh Hamilton, left-handed power, supremely gifted, fallen from grace, back from the depths, crushing home runs and driving in runners while covered in tattoos that represent a time he regrets. That’s a story for our time, a story about a lost soul redeemed, and it touches our 21st Century hearts.

Musial is from his time. He smoked under stairwells to be certain that no kid saw him doing it. Friends say he drank privately, and very little, Stan the Man could not allow anyone to see him at less than his best. He often said his biggest regret was that he did not go to college. And, yes, he married Lil, his high school sweetheart, on his 19th birthday, almost 70 years ago.

He wanted to be a role model. He seemed to need to feel like he was giving kids someone to respect. That, as much as anything, drove him. Teammates had a standing wager on how many times he would use the word “Wonderful” in any given day. They usually guessed low. He was terrified of making speeches (this, friends say, is why he started playing the harmonica in public) and yet he almost never turned down a speaking engagement. He played in great pain, but nobody ever caught him running half-speed. When he felt like his skills had diminished, he asked for and received a pay cut.

Joe Black used to tell a story — he was pitching against the Cardinals, and as usual the taunts were racial. “Don’t worry Stan,” someone in the Cardinals dugout shouted, “with that dark background on the mound you shouldn’t have any problem hitting the ball.” Musial kicked at the dirt, spat, and faced Black like he had not heard anything. But after the game, Black was in the clubhouse, and suddenly he looked up and there was Stan Musial. “I’m sorry that happened,” Musial whispered. “But don’t you worry about it. You’re a great pitcher. You will win a lot of games.”

Chuck Connors, the Rifleman, used to tell a story — he was a struggling hitter for the Chicago Cubs in 1951. He asked teammates what he should do. They all told him the same thing: The only guy who can save you is Musial. So Connors went to Musial and asked for his help. Musial spent 30 minutes at the cage with an opposing player. “I was a bum of a hitter just not cut out for the majors,” Connors said. “But I will never forget Stan’s kindness. When he was finished watching me cut away at the ball, Stan slapped me on the back and told me to keep swinging.”

Ed Mickelson only got 37 at-bats in the Big Leagues, but he has a story too. Musial invited him to dinner — he was always doing that stuff — and there Mickelson explained that he felt so nervous playing ball, that he could hardly perform. Musial leaned over and said quietly, “Me too, kid. Me too. When you stop feeling nervous, it’s time to quit.”

Well, there are countless stories like that, stories about Musial’s common decency and the way he could make anyone around him feel like he was worth a million bucks.

“Musial treated me like I was the Pope,” Mickelson said, and he was still in awe more than 50 years later.

* * *

Those were the emotions Musial inspired in his time. He was so beloved in New York, that the Mets held a “Stan Musial Day.” In Chicago, he once finished first in a “favorite player” poll among Cubs fans, edging out Ernie Banks. Bill Clinton and Brooks Robinson, growing up about an hour apart in Arkansas, were inspired by him.

Of course, it was mostly the playing. Stan Musial banged out 3,630 hits even though he missed a year for the war. He hit .331 for his career, cracked 1,377 extra base hits (only Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds have hit more), stretched out more than 900 doubles and triples (only Tris Speaker has more) and played in 24 All-Star Games. He had that quirky and unforgettable swing, that peek-a-boo stance, and he probably inspired more famous quotes by pitchers than any other hitter.

Preacher Roe (on how to pitch Musial): “I throw him four wide ones and try to pick him off first base.”

Carl Erskine (on how to pitch Musial): “I’ve had pretty good success with Stan by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third.”

Warren Spahn: “Once he timed your fastball, your infielders were in jeopardy.”

Don Newcombe: “I could have rolled the ball up there to Musial, and he would have pulled out a golf club and hit it out.”

And so on. Maybe pitchers felt helpless because there seemed no way to pitch him, no weaknesses in swing — fastballs up, curveballs away, forkballs in the dirt, he hit them all. In 1948, he had his most famous season, his season for the ages, .376 average, 46 doubles, 18 triples, 39 home runs, 135 runs, 131 RBIs. And yet, the thing about Musial, is that for more than 20 years he was pretty much always like that. Four other times he hit better than .350. Four other times he hit more than 46 doubles. He hit double digit triples eight times in all, he hit 30-plus homers five times, he walked more than twice as often as he struck out.

I suspect Musial can never be reflected in numbers because his resume is so diverse and elaborate — it’s like Bob Costas said, he never did just one awesome thing, he never hit in 56 straight games, and he did not hit 500 home runs (never hit 40 in a season), and he did not get 4,000 hits, and he did not hit .400 in any year. He was, instead, present, always, seventeen times in the Top 5 in batting average, sixteen times in the Top 5 in on-base percentage, thirteen times in the Top 5 in slugging percentage, nine times the league leader in runs created. To me, the best description of Musial through his stats is to say that 16 times in his career Musial hit 30 or more doubles. It might not make for a great movie. But it tells you that all his baseball life, Stan Musial hit baseballs into gaps and he ran hard out of the box.

* * *

Here’s the thing: A lot of baseball fans have forgotten Stan Musial. Anyway, it seems like that. His name is rarely mentioned when people talk about the greatest living players. He’s never had a best selling book written about him. A few years ago, when baseball was picking its All Century team, Stan Musial did not even received enough votes to be listed among the Top 10 outfielders. The Top 10.

True, he did not play in New York like the baseball icons, like Ruth and DiMaggio and Mantle and Koufax and Mays. True, he did not break the home run record like Aaron, he did not get banished from the game like Rose, he did not break barriers like Jackie, he did not swear colorfully like Ted, he did not hit three homers in a World Series game like Reggie, he did not glare like Gibson, he did not throw like Clemente and he did not say funny and wise things like Yogi.

No, Musial just played hard and lived decently. He hit five home runs in a doubleheader, and had five hits on five swings in a game. He hit line drives right back at pitchers and then would go to the dugout after the game to make sure those pitchers were all right. He wasn’t perfect, of course, but he didn’t see the harm in letting people believe in something.

And maybe that sort of understated greatness isn’t meant to be shouted from the rooftops. Maybe Musial is just meant to be quietly appreciated. Every so often, even now, you can read an obituary somewhere in American’s heartland, and you will read about someone who “loved Stan Musial.” Everyone so often you will meet someone about 55 years old named Stan, and you will know why.

1 comment:

  1. I first saw Stan play in the 1955 All Star game. I was 9 yars old.
    Before the game my father told me to watch Stan Musial. He said Stan was the best player in the game. Stan hit the game winning homerun in the 10th inning. And now when I watch the All Star game that walk-off homerun is never mentioned. It makes me sick.
    Stan the Man Musial is still my all time favorite.
    Doug Alexander
    Carrollton, Tx

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