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January 21, 2013
Inside The Park
The Man of Missouri
"Here stands baseball's happy warrior; here stands baseball's perfect knight."
| Commissioner Ford Frick, on Stan Musial Day, Sept. 29, 1963.
Those words, spoke on Stan Musial's last day as a big-league ballplayer, have been affixed to the greatest Cardinal of them all for nearly a half century. The Man, as he was and always will be known, always seemed to stir those kinds of mythological-sounding descriptions, the kind which we just don't assign to baseball players any more. We know too much now.
For Musial, the allusion seemed fitting then, and as we reflect on the life of a man who became the enduring icon of an entire region, the words are a fitting epitaph. They say the public has a short memory, but that's true only in a general sense. In St. Louis, when it comes to baseball, the memories never fade and, as the story of Stan the Man is passed down to future generations of Cardinal fans, I have little doubt that he will become even more like the mythological hero that Frick described.
As much as any player who ever played, Musial was an integral character in baseball's richly-textured history, much of it of his own creation. Not bad for a simple man from a small town, who enriched us all by being a really nice guy and almost without peer in his chosen profession.
How nice was he?
Braves pitcher John Antonelli said, "Stan was such a nice guy that I was probably happy for him when he homered off me. He didn't have an enemy in the world."
Added teammate Del Ennis, "Musial could have run the town or been governor."
Musial died on Saturday at 92, eight months after losing Lillian, his wife of more than 70 years. In the coming days, he will be eulogized, honored, mourned, celebrated and finally laid to rest beside his beloved Lil, whom he'd adored since they were high school sweethearts back in Donora, Penn., a mill town about 20 miles from the former site of Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. That's where Musial's biography began, though I'm certainly not going to re-tell the whole thing today. But it's important to note where he came from, because Musial's small-town roots shaped the man he eventually became, and Donora was where he started to become forever intertwined with baseball history.
It starts with one of his high school teammates, a guy named Bud Griffey, whom Musial said was a better football player than baseball player. If the last name seems familiar, it's because he is that Griffey, father of Ken Sr. and grandfather of Ken Jr. And Ken Jr. was born on Nov. 21, 1969, or 49 years to the day after Musial. That eventually led Bill James to refer to Ken Jr. as "the second-best left-handed hitting, left-handed throwing outfielder ever born in Donora, Pennsylvania on November 21." It's just one of the innumerable ways in which Musial pops up in baseball history, stretching from his relationship with 1919 World Series character Dickie Kerr to the close friendship he developed with Albert Pujols, with too many associations and connections to count.
Musial was called up to the big leagues by the Cardinals in September of 1941, in what was his first season as a full-time position player. He burst onto the National League scene with a .462 average over his first seven games, a situation which I imagine in this day and age would create a Strasburg-level stir. Musial hadn't homered, though, and was still looking to go deep for the first time when the Cardinals visited his hometown Pirates for a doubleheader on Sept. 23, 1941. Among the announced crowd of 7,713 that day were a number of Musial's family members and friends from Donora.
Well, of course he hit his first homer that day—a shot off Pittsburgh's Rip Sewell in the second game of the twinbill. That in itself is a nice story, but with Musial there was always something extra. The fan who caught that first home run ball happened to be one of Musial's Donora pals, who presented it to him after the game. Things like that were always happening to Musial, perhaps a product of the good karma he spread as a guy known for never turning down an autograph request, and for doing everything he could to make people happy.
There is an extra special place in our hearts for superstar players who play their entire careers with one franchise. I can't quite put my finger on what it is, but I certainly experienced it myself growing up as a Kansas City Royals fan who played third base because of George Brett. Having that kind of a touchstone, a favorite that you can call all your own, it enhances the experience of choosing and identifying with a team in ways that are hard to pin down. But all you have to do is look at how Cal Ripken, Jr. is revered in Baltimore, Robin Yount in Milwaukee, Brett in Kansas City and, certainly, Musial in St. Louis. It's why Derek Jeter will always be held in the highest regard for his time with the Yankees, a franchise that has employed many of the game's best and most famous players. Perhaps a 21st-century marketing analyst would attribute the phenomenon to branding; perhaps that's why even while the Tampa Bay Rays keep their talent churning, they cling to Evan Longoria like grim death.
Musial was more than an icon for a franchise, even a city. In the days when the Cardinals' reach stretched from Georgia to Oklahoma, from Mississippi to the Dakotas, Musial was a hero to almost half the nation. That includes my own family, which on my mother's side (the Gerlts) established its American roots around the German communities and fertile farm fields of central Missouri. (I grew up in Iowa, which is how I came to be stricken with my incurable adoration of the Royals.)
This is a story that may be part of Gerlt family mythology, and is completely unverifiable, but it's been passed down through the generations. My grandfather, whom I knew only as a stout, rotund man with arthritic hands and a demeanor not to be trifled with, was actually a fine athlete in his day. He entered the army when World War II broke out and while undergoing basic training at Camp Joseph T. Robinson in Little Rock, Arkansas, had a chance to play against visiting big leaguers in what I imagine as glorified sandlot games. One day, playing against a team that included Musial, Leo Durocher, and Frankie Frisch, Oscar Gerlt rang out one of three hits off a big-league pitcher, whose identity unfortunately no one can remember. For his effort, he was given a ball signed by the aforementioned trio of Cardinal legends.
Years later, when my uncles were kids, they decided to play catch with the ball. Of course they lost it. My uncle Bill, who is now the assistant manager of the San Antonio Missions, eventually found the ball in the dank basement of my grandparents' house, water logged and with the signatures smudged beyond recognition. My grandfather, after retiring from farming, later began moving around the southwest in an effort to find a climate agreeable to his arthritis. After he began suffering strokes, his memory failed and he trailed off quickly. When I last saw him, he had no clue who the hell I was. But according to Bill, even as his health failed, Oscar told that Musial story about a hundred times.
There's another Gerlt-Musial story. A cousin owned a farm near the mid-Missouri town of Versailles, which is most decidedly pronounced verr-SAILS. It's about as far from vur-SY as you can get. Musial and some pals used to hunt on the cousin's land. This is a common thing in the Midwest. Most farmers don't care, and it's simply a courtesy to ask for permission to walk on somebody's property. However, as a thanks for letting him and his pals hunt on Gerlt land, Musial gave our cousin his rifle.
Here's the point of all this family history: These stories were not remarkable in any way. People all over Missouri—especially in St. Louis, obviously—have similar tales. Like Hemingway in Key West, Musial left behind a treasure trove of anecdotes that people will never stop telling. It's almost impossible to fathom a person touching so many souls in one lifetime without being some kind of media-obsessed megalomaniac. He did it simply by going out every day with grace, friendliness, and an endless reservoir of patience. Stories of Musial visiting Columbia, Mo., with Harry Caray and Jack Buck were still being circulated when I was at the University of Missouri. I even have vague memories of trying to approach a young lady whom I had heard may have been Musial's granddaughter.
The connection that Musial had to the places he lived was special to him, and the loss of that in baseball was something he bemoaned later in life. He blamed free agency for what he saw as a decline in loyalty in the game. And right up to the point that Pujols left for the Angels, Musial reportedly thought he'd be a Cardinal for life, just like him. The money? Musial was guy who turned down a 600 percent raise to break his Cardinals contract and jump to the Mexican league in the 1940s. He also asked for, and received, a 20-percent paycut after having a down year in the late ’50s.
But perhaps it was that kind of legacy that Pujols couldn't live up to. He revered The Man, to the point that he got mad when people tried to call him "El Hombre." In any event, Pujols was close to Musial and his family right up to the end. Pujols was beloved in St. Louis, but no one could live up to the legacy Musial had created. So maybe Pujols decided not to try. (Or maybe he just couldn't turn down the money.) Musial was relentless in his relationship to the St. Louis community.
My brother, a turncoat who has been a Cardinals fan since moving to St. Louis 15 years ago, told me, "I just don't think many people realize how much of a showman he was in social situations. Besides playing harmonica all the time, he was always telling jokes and doing magic tricks, and in later years he had a local reputation for always taking time to talk to the new players no matter who they were. People always say he would always look you in the eye when talking to you, just very sincere."
Say what you will about the place of the PED generation in the game's history, but it's a lot more satisfying to put your faith in someone like that, someone gracious, extraordinary, and as consistent as the rising sun.
The first real book I ever read (after the "See Jane run" canon) was a biography about the greats in Cardinals history. A few things always stuck with me from Musial's chapter, just random details. There was the black grit from the mill dust in Donora. There was the touching friendship he had with Kerr as a minor leaguer. I always remember that, like the DiMaggio brothers, Musial was the son of an immigrant who did not really want his boy to pursue baseball as a vocation. And I remember the story of his tumble in the outfield, after which his pitching arm was suddenly dead.
As a boy, Musial wasn't even close to my favorite character in that book. The Gashouse Gang Cardinals were so much more interesting—Pepper Martin, Ducky Medwick, Frankie Frisch, Leo the Lip and, most of all, the inimitable Dizzy Dean. Even the story of Musial's roommate and close friend for more than 70 years around the Cardinals, Red Schoendienst, had more resonance. As a youth, Schoendienst almost put out his eye when he got a nail in it, and later he played through a bout of tuberculosis. Musial was just good. He started off good, stayed good, and everybody loved him. There was no drama.
The only real conflict in his story came early on, when he suffered the shoulder injury. He had improved steadily as a pitcher and went 18-5 under Kerr, while playing outfield on days he didn't throw. That wasn't because the Cardinals were trying to develop him as a dual-purpose player. The simple fact was that the rosters in the Florida State League were so small that the Islanders needed Musial to play a position. In doing so, he was so good at the dish that both Kerr and St. Louis honcho Branch Rickey knew that his future was in the field. That fate was sealed when Musial's spikes caught the grass when trying to make a somersault catch, and his shoulder slammed into the ground.
Musial did eventually pitch in the big leagues. On the last day of the 1952 season, St. Louis manager Eddie Stanky cooperated with a publicity stunt that helped pack the stands at Sportsman's Park that otherwise would have been sparsely attended, announcing that Musial would pitch to Cubs leadoff hitter Frank Baumholtz, who that season finished second to Musial in the NL batting race.
Baumholtz found out about the gimmick just before the game, and after Stanky summoned Musial in from center field and sent starting pitcher Harvey Haddix to the outfield, Baumholtz—for the only time in his life—switched to the right side of the plate. On Musial's first offering, Baumholtz lined what he later claimed was "the hardest ball I ever hit in my life." The ball ricocheted off the third baseman's shin and bounded into the left-field corner. The play was scored an error and remained so, even though Musial himself called up to the press box in an effort to get the call changed. Musial, despite being quite a showman when he wanted to be, was later said to be embarrassed by the stunt, and that pitch was the only one he threw in the major leagues.
As for that showman characteristic, you can't write about Musial without recalling his corkscrew batting stance, perhaps the most famous in baseball history. Ted Lyons once said, "Musial's batting stance looks like a small boy looking around a corner to see if the cops are coming." Early on, attempts were made to get Musial to alter his stance, but he doggedly refused to do so.
According to Rickey, it was all show anyway. Before Musial's last game, Rickey said, "The preliminary move Stanley uses at the plate is a fraud. When the ball leaves the pitcher's hand, that is the time you take a picture of a batsman to determine the correctness of his form. Now the ball has been pitched and Stanley takes his true position. He is no longer in a crouch and his bat is full back and so steady a coin wouldn't fall off the end of it. Then the proper stride and the level swing. There is no hitch. He is ideal in form."
I've always thought of Musial being linked to Ted Williams, even though so much about them was so different. Both were icons of their eras, their teams, their cities, regions and leagues. Their careers were roughly the same length and spanned a similar timeframe. But whereas Williams had a complex relationship with his fans, Musial was always loved and did everything he could to encourage that affection. Williams ended his career with a home run. Musial stroked an RBI single in his final at-bat. One was a larger-than-life figure who did larger-than-life things. The other one was an ordinary guy who did extraordinary things.
So just how good was Musial's career? One of the best, of course. He played in 24 All-Star games in 22 years. (There were two All-Star games from 1959 to 1962. There was no All-Star game in 1945, the season Musial missed because of military service.) He's 10th in career WARP among position players. He's second all-time in National League hits and won seven batting titles. The black ink almost blots out his career record. Yet he's often referred to as being a little underrated, and I think that's true. As great as he was, there was always Williams, or DiMaggio, or Mantle or Mays that was probably a little better.
Even in the 50 years after his retirement, Musial was overshadowed to an extent. The greatest living ballplayer was and still is Mays. It's a title that has a kind of informal regality to it, and while Musial would have been a fitting figure to wear that figurative crown, it never happened. That doesn't diminish him in the least; Musial wasn't far behind Mays, nor is Hank Aaron. But here's a thought: When Mays and Hank Aaron are gone, the title of Greatest Living Ballplayer will be passed to Barry Bonds, even if no one wants to acknowledge it, and he'll hold it for a long time. I loved Bonds as player, and often referred to him as my favorite non-Royal, all the way to the end of his career. But I'll say this: It would have been much simpler and more gratifying to root for Musial.
Musial's last hit came on Stan Musial day, on Sept. 29, 1963, and famously gave him 3,630 for his career—1,815 at home, 1,815 on the road. It also fixed the NL record for career hits at a number that would stand for about 18 years. The last hit leaked into right field past the lunging glove of Cincinnati's rookie second baseman, Pete Rose. Rose, of course, was the player who broke Musial's NL hit record in 1981. But even in that, Musial demonstrated how he was, as Tim McCarver once said, "born under a lucky star." Rose tied Musial on June 10, 1981—the last day before the player strike that season. That gave Musial two bonus months atop the all-time leader board.
Finally, Rose broke the mark in the first game after the labor dispute was settled, singling off the Cardinals' Mark Littell on Aug. 10, 1981. A few years later, Rose played in his own final game, in August of 1986. One of his teammates that day was Barry Larkin, which gives us a link of 64 years spanning from Musial's debut to Larkin's departure, a chain that accounts for more than 10,000 hits. These links are important because one by one, the immortals are falling. We lost two Hall of Famers on Saturday, which is as best I can tell a first. It is the way of the world, of course, but as Forrest Gump might say, I sure wish it wasn't.
I was only in the same place as Stan Musial once, as far as I know. It was Opening Day in 2007, the year after the Cardinals had beaten the Tigers in the World Series. The tradition in St. Louis is to ring in the new season by trotting out as many Cardinal greats as possible, and Musial was always introduced last, quite appropriately. However, by then his health had declined to the point that he couldn't walk out onto the field on his own and had to be driven out on a cart. It made it a bittersweet moment, for me at least, but when Musial gathered himself and stood up from the cart, the tremendous roar from the crowd immediately made me think of Williams' appearance at the Fenway Park All-Star game. Musial was still The Man.
I looked down from the press box at that moment and saw countless kids and teenagers among the crowd who must not have known who Musial was, other than the guy who had that statue outside the park and a street named after him. But I'm sure many of them were curious about the old man on the field whom everybody seemed to love so much. Maybe it's the idealist in me, but I like to think that some of those kids asked their parents about Musial later on, and maybe the stories made enough of an impression that in time, they'll pass them along to their own children.
That's how myths are made, and that's the way it's done in St. Louis. But even though the Cardinals were already a Midwestern institution by the time Musial arrived, you can't help but feel that it wouldn't be the quite the same great baseball city it is today if The Man hadn't graced the diamonds there for so many great years. Musial's death is the kind of perfect passing that we all strive for— peaceful, with family, and with the utmost faith that he'll be reunited with his beloved Lil. His place in his city, his hometown, and in the game to which he gave so much long been secure and will forever remain so. For such a person, death is not a time to mourn; it's a time to celebrate a life well lived. And few lives were lived as well as that of Stan Musial.