Monday, January 28, 2013

Stan Musial, RIP: More Than the Man

By Jeff Kallman

Prior to an All-Star Game, a group of American League pitchers held a strategy meeting at which the main topic was how to pitch to Stan Musial. Yogi Berra happened to be walking past the open door while the pitchers talked. As if on cue, Berra broke in: "Forget it. You guys are trying to figure out in fifteen minutes what nobody's figured out in 15 years."

Musial died January 19 at 92, a decade older than Earl Weaver, who also died the same day. Somewhere, someone is reminding someone that Ernie Banks said, "Let's play two," not "Let's take two." He came up to the St. Louis Cardinals to stay in late 1941, when Ted Williams was occupied with hitting .406 and Joe DiMaggio had occupied the country with a 56-game hitting streak.

Could there have been any better player to come up in the season of two still-unconquered achievements by two such incandescent and diametrically opposed Hall of Famers?

Had Preacher Roe been among those American League all-stars discussing how to pitch to Musial, he could have reminded them of his own strategy for manhandling the one-time pitcher who manhandled Roe's Dodgers in Ebbets Field to the tune of a lifetime .359 batting average in the little ballpark: "I throw 'im four wide ones and then I pick 'im off first base."

Somehow, baseball never seemed all that much at the mercy of the slings and arrows of outrageous malfortune so long as certain men who once played the game remained among us. So long as the like of, say, Musial, Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Sandy Koufax remained among us, you felt there was no calamity, scandal, or disaster the game couldn't survive. Now Musial is gone to his reward. One less gentleman standing as the conscience of the game.

Like Williams, Musial never again played on a pennant winner after 1946, the year his Cardinals polished off Williams's Boston Red Sox in the World Series. Unlike DiMaggio, Musial didn't have a particular penchant for dating Hollywood glamour girls. Married to his high school sweetheart well before he made the majors, Musial played the game as hard as it could be played, but never behaved like a lancer or an aloof royal.

Maybe that was one reason why Dickie Kerr could convince him to make the shift that made his career. One of the Clean Sox among the scandal-ridden 1919 White Sox, eventually managing in the Cardinal system, Kerr suggested Musial try playing the outfield, after a fall trying for a tough play ruined Musial as a pitching prospect. Musial might have become baseball royalty (he certainly was royal in St. Louis), but he also knew how to listen.

"An exact opposite of [Ted] Williams," Roger Kahn (in Sport) wrote of Musial. "The perfect gentleman, the perfect sport. Never angry at draft boards, seldom spits in public, always hits with enthusiasm, smiles often. Successful without arrogance, he represents the milder side of those who admire him."

"Like [Willie] Mays," Curt Flood wrote (in The Way It Was), "[Musial] saw the world entirely in terms of his own good fortune. He was convinced it was the best of all possible worlds. He not only accepted baseball mythology but propounded it. [Bob] Gibson and I once clocked eight 'wunnerfuls' in a Musial speech that could not have been longer than a hundred words."

Yet, Musial's modesty and enthusiasm caused people to misunderstand or underappreciate him until after he retired. This was a player who turned out to be one of the ten greatest players of all-time, and he may have been better than that. Yet, in his own time, it seemed fans outside St. Louis or Brooklyn appreciated how great he was. The man could hit but never seemed quite to go over the top. It took retirement, time, and even sabermetrics before Musial's value was appreciated genuinely. "The number crunchers, the baseball geeks, professional or amateur," a Musial biographer, George Vecsey, noted, "put Musial much higher than the fans did."

Musial was in St. Louis when a group of Cardinals reportedly threatened to boycott Jackie Robinson's arrival in the Show. Absolutely no racist — he'd grown up an immigrants' son in well enough integrated Donora, Pennsylvania (one of his baseball pals was Buddy Griffey, the grandfather of Ken Griffey, Jr.), and knew better — Musial was also absolutely no commentator on the issue. He saw Robinson simply as a player on the other side, and why would he reach that far on behalf of an opponent, and if any teammates were fool enough to think about such a boycott, Musial probably saw them as plain wrong.

He simply played ball. Maybe not so simply. One legend holds that Robinson was spiked out of the ordinary bound of play as he ran up to first base on a batted ball. "I don't care what anyone says," Robinson is said to have muttered as he stood on the pad next to Musial, "he's going down." "I don't blame you," Musial is said to have replied. "You've got every right to do it."

And both Bob Gibson and Curt Flood have written that, when they joined the team (Gibson through the Cardinal farm system; Flood by way of a trade from the Cincinnati Reds), Musial was one of the only white players to make them feel welcome.

He had a dry wit about himself. Reminded as he retired that he had two hits in both the first and the last games of his major league career, Musial deadpanned that there was the evidence he hadn't improved much during his career. Once in awhile, he inspired wit himself, even in the breach. Flaky 1970s Baltimore reliever Don Stanhouse's antics earned him the nickname Stan the Man Unusual.

But Musial could also defy the furies of cheap entertainment when he absolutely had to do so. When the Cardinals had ideas about trying to hold Musial out of the lineup until he could get his 3,000th lifetime hit before the home folks, Musial stood in as a pinch swinger when the Cardinals needed one — and got the big knock on the road, in Milwaukee, anyway. Manager Fred Hutchinson called time, walked out to second base personally to life Musial for a pinch-runner, handed him the ball he'd just hit for the books, and let the photographers have their moment with his big man. The Cardinals went on to win the game.

"The next night," wrote Red Smith in the New York Herald-Tribune, "Musial got his 21 guns from the fans in St. Louis, and on his first time at bat acknowledged the salute by flogging one over the pavilion in right."

He merely sits with 123.4 wins above a replacement-level player (12th on the all-time list, 9th all-time among position players), a lifetime .417 on-base percentage, fourth on the all-time hits list (3,630), 9th on the all-time runs scored list (1,949), 3rd on the all-time extra base hit list (1,377), 10th on the all-time offensive winning percentage list (.781), and 2nd in total bases (6,134).

And if you're inclined sabermetrically even further, permit me to point out that Stan Musial meets 76 of the Bill James Hall of Fame Standards (he's fifth all-time on that list; the average Hall of Famer meets 50) ... and scores 454 for batting on the James Hall of Fame Monitor. That's first all-time. All-time. He's nine ahead of Ty Cobb, 33 ahead of Babe Ruth, 34 ahead of Hank Aaron, and 78 ahead of Willie Mays.

James in 2001 ranked Musial the 10th-best player who ever played the game. You can argue whether he can or should be rated higher, but you should care to note that Ted Williams pulls up with a 354 on that Hall of Fame batting monitor … and has 13 more strikeouts lifetime than Musial, despite having 3,266 fewer at-bats. It may or may not be time to reassess who just might have been the greatest hitter who ever lived. And that's without mentioning his six all-star home runs (including the12th-inning bomb he hit in 1955, after assuring a tired Yogi Berra behind the plate, "Relax, I'll have you home in a minute"), his 24 all-star appearances, or the fact that he hit exactly the same at home or on the road — 1,815 hits each.

Not too shabby for a guy who looked at the plate just the way White Sox pitcher Ted Lyons once described him: like he was peeking around the corner of a building waiting for the coppers to disperse before trying to pull a bank job, in maybe the second most unorthodox known batting stance of the time behind Mel Ott.

A guy whose home runs weren't intercontinental ballistic missiles, whose basepath speed wasn't Road Runner slick or ring-a-ding-ding showy, whose plays in left field or at first base were workingman's plays that hardly went shazam!, but got the job done, who never got into a Copacabana or any other kind of brawl, who liked to serenade patrons in his restaurant on their birthdays with a chorus of "Happy Birthday" on his harmonica.

Musial became wealthy by way of a few investments, most notably when he bought into a popular St. Louis steakhouse, Biggie's, where native St. Louisian Yogi Berra's future wife once worked as a waitress. He also spent a season (1967) as the Cardinals' general manager, where he earned a rare reputation for fairness in dealing with player contracts.

"I don't want to be called [El Hombre]," Albert Pujols told a newspaper three years ago. "There is one man that gets that respect, and that's Stan Musial. I know El Hombre is The Man in Spanish. But he is The Man."

Brooklyn Dodger fans hung that nickname on him first out of dismay, knowing the mayhem he was about to wreak in Ebbets Field, but also out of respect. "Stan was such a nice guy," New York Giants pitcher Johnny Antonelli once said, "that I was probably happy for him when he homered off me." Unlike too many before and after him, Musial didn't behave as though his astonishing if still often underrated ability conferred privilege upon him.

He loved two things above all. He loved baseball and those who also love it deeply (he was never known to spurn an autograph request); and he loved his wife, Lillian, who died last year. Both of Stan Musial's lifelong romances really did end only when death did they part.

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