Happy Birthday, Stash

November 21, 2009 at 11:58 am (Baseball)

Stan Musial turns 89 today.. I came accross a terrific article about “The Man,” written by Joe Posnanski of the KC Star:

 

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, in ’52, that year the Today Show came to television
and the Diary of Anne Frank was published, and Musial’s Cardinals trailed
the Brooklyn Dodgers by two runs in the ninth. The bases were loaded. There
were two outs. Musial faced pitcher Ben Wade. The two battled briefly, and
then Musial connected – a long home run to right field. Grand slam.
Everyone in the stadium stood and cheered wildly – what could be bigger, a
grand slam in the ninth to beat the hated Dodgers – and Musial started to
run around the bases in his own inimitable way, not too fast, not too
slow, all class.

And it wasn’t until he rounded first and was closing in on second that
everyone seemed to notice at once that the third base umpire was holding up
his arms. A ball had rolled on the field just before the pitch. The umpire
had called timeout. Home plate umpire Tom Gorman realized he had no choice.
He disallowed the home run. The stadium went black. The fans went mad. St.
Louis manager Solly Hemus raced out the dugout, got into Gorman’s face and
called him every name he could think of – finally Gorman had no choice and
threw him out of the game. Peanuts Lowery came in like a tag-team wrestler
and picked up where Solly left off – Gorman tossed him too. Before it was
done, Gorman threw out six Cardinals. He felt like a cowboy in one of
those old Westerns clearing out the saloon, throwing out people through
plate glass windows.

And then Musial, who in the confusion had not been told anything, walked
over to Gorman. He calmly asked, “What happened Tom? It didn’t count, huh?”
Gorman nodded sadly and said the third base umpire had called timeout.
“Well, Tom,” Musial said, “there’s nothing you can do about it.” Stan
Musial stepped back in the box while fists shook and boos and threats
echoed around him. He promptly tripled off the top of the center field
wall to score three runs and give the Cardinals the victory anyway. “Stan,”
Tom Gorman said after the game ended, “is in a class by himself.”
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 that St. Louis
summer day – and after the game Musial walked gingerly to his car. He
looked beaten down. He looked beaten 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.

Folks 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 littlequeasier 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 tuxedos, 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. Friends say he drank privately, though very
little, yet 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,
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 his 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 throughout his baseball life,
Stan Musial hit baseballs into gaps and 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 receive 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 America’s heartland, and you will read about someone who
“loved Stan Musial.” Every so often you will meet someone about 55 years
old named Stan, and you will know why.

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2 Comments

  1. Michael J. Murphy said,

    Thanks,Ralph, for including that tribute to The Man.

    Incidentally, I’m musial6.

  2. Ralph Zig Tyko said,

    You’re welcome, Michusial6.. You had me going there, for a long time. :-)

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