Sunday, January 20, 2013

Stan Musial, 1920-2013

As much as I would like to talk about the return of hockey, and the Devils opening the 2013 NHL season with a win against a team I have disliked for 35 years, my first sport remains baseball, and we lost two Hall-of-Famers yesterday.

I'll recap the life and career of Earl Weaver in a subsequent post.

Stanley Frank Musial was born on November 21, 1920, in Donora, Pennsylvania, a town on a bend of the Monongahela River, 25 miles south of Pittsburgh.  He was a son of a miner, a Polish immigrant.  Which means...

* He was the greatest baseball player to come from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

* He was the greatest baseball player of Polish descent -- better than Al Simmons and Carl Yastrzesmki.

* He was the greatest athlete ever to play for a St. Louis-based team.

In his first 4 full seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals – minus 1941, when he had a late-season callup and the Cards just missed, and 1945 when he was in the Navy for World War II – they won the World Series in 1942, the National League Pennant in 1943, the World Series in 1944, and the World Series in 1946.

They never won another Pennant with him -- coming close in '47, '48, '49, '57, and in his final season, '63 -- but that didn’t stop him. He was the NL Most Valuable Player in 1943, 1946 and 1948, and finished 2nd in the voting in ’49, ’50, ’51 and ’57 – winning Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year award that year.

He batted lefthanded, and had a weird stance, called a "corkscrew stance." Hall of Fame shortstop Luke Appling said, "He looks like a kid, peeking around the corner, to see if the cops are coming." But that stance led to 3,630 hits, 1,599 walks, and 53 times getting hit by a pitch -- meaning that Stan Musial reached base 5,282 times.

His lifetime batting average was .331, his OPS+ a whopping 159.  Of all players, ever (nearly 18,000), he ranks 15th.  Taking out players who've used steroids, 13th.  Counting players from 1900 onward, 10th.  Counting players from his era forward, 4th -- behind Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and (for the moment) Albert Pujols.  Counting lefthanded hitters (keeping in mind the Mick was a switch-hitter), only Ted is ahead of him.

He led the NL in batting 6 times (topping out at .376 in 1948), hits 6 times, runs 5 times, doubles 8 times, triples 5 times, and RBIs twice with 10 100-RBI seasons.

He hit 725 doubles, 2nd all-time to Tris Speaker; 177 triples, and 475 home runs, not counting what we would now call a walkoff homer in the 1955 All-Star Game in Milwaukee. Speaking of which, because of the 2 ASGs played per season from 1958 to 1962, he played in 24, a record that would be tied by Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, but not broken.

He was once the NL’s all-time hits leader with 3,630 – 1,815 at home, 1,815 on the road. You cannot make this stuff up. He was once the all-time leader in both extra-base hits and total bases, until surpassed by Aaron.

Someone once asked him why he was always so happy.  He said, "If you had a .331 lifetime batting average, you'd be happy, too!"

Curt Flood, who was his teammate toward the end of his career, asked him for advice on hitting.  Stan told him, "You wait for a strike, and then you knock the shit out of it." To which Flood later said, "Baseball was as simple as that for Stan Musial."

Legend has it that his nickname came from Brooklyn Dodger fans.  He hit so well at Ebbets Field that Dodger fans would look at the schedule, see that they would have to play the Cards, and say, "Uh-oh! Dat man is back in town! Here comes dat man again!" And from then onward, he was Stan the Man.

Al Kaline, Rocky Colavito and Johnny Callison all selected the Number 6 in Stan's honor.  Tony Oliva is another possibility, but since he grew up in Cuba, he is less likely to have chosen 6 for Stan.

Stan spanned the generations.  As Bob Costas explained in Ken Burns' Baseball (and as I'm elaborating here), comparing baseball and the world at the time of Stan's first game, on September 17, 1941, and at the time of his last game, on September 29, 1963:

* 1941: The Cardinals were baseball's southernmost and westernmost team.  1963: MLB had extended to the former Confederacy (Houston) and the West Coast (Los Angeles and San Francisco).

* 1941: MLB was all-white.  1963: There were now lots of black players, and several Hispanics.  Jackie Robinson had been elected to the Hall of Fame.

* 1941: 1920s stars Lefty Grove, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Lyons were still active; legends such as Hugh Duffy, Cy Young, Connie Mack, Nap Lajoie, Roger Bresnahan, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins, Walter Johnson, Tris Speaker, Zack Wheat, Fred Merkle and Fred Snodgrass were still alive.  1963: Musial's last hit went under the glove of a Cincinnati Reds' rookie 2nd baseman named Pete Rose, who would surpass his all-time NL record for hits, and Cobb's all-time MLB record for hits; while 1980s-90s players now in the Hall of Fame such as Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken had been born.

* 1941: World War II was underway, the Allies were losing, and the U.S. was 3 months away from entering it after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  1963: The Cold War was well underway, people were beginning to learn about a place called Vietnam, President John F. Kennedy had just gone to Berlin to explain freedom's superiority to Communism and its Wall, and was 2 months away from being assassinated.

* 1941: The NFL was an afterthought, the NHL was a regional sport, and the NBA did not yet exist.  1963: The NFL was growing, the NHL was preparing to expand, and the NBA may never have been better, with stars like Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson.

* 1941: Radio was the dominant medium, television was still experimental, and computers were just an idea.  The idea of sending a man into space was the stuff of comic books and movies.  1963: Television had become pervasive, although hardly anyone had a color set, and hardly any programs were being broadcast in color; and computers were being shrunk from the size of an entire floor of a city office building to just a wall of one room.  And the Space Age and the race to the Moon had begun.

* 1941: The heavyweight champion of the world was Joe Louis.  1963: It was Sonny Liston, but a young man was coming for him.  His name, at the time, was Cassius Clay, but we would come to know him as Muhammad Ali.

* 1941: The widow of Theodore Roosevelt, who became President on September 14, 1901, 40 years earlier, was still alive.  1963: Barack Obama, who was sworn in for his 2nd term as President today and will, presumably, still be President on January 20, 2017, 54 years after Stan's last game, had been born.

* 1941: Big Band or "swing" music was the most popular form of music, led by Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller and the Dorsey Brothers, Tommy and Jimmy.  Bing Crosby was huge, Frank Sinatra was still unknown to most of us.  There was no rock and roll, or even rhythm and blues.  1963: Rock and roll was now dominant, Elvis Presley was still really popular, doo-wop was the path of most inner-city singers, Motown was making R&B make the transition to soul, Bob Dylan had exploded into the national consciousness, and the Beatles were the biggest thing in Europe, and were about to become the biggest thing in America -- but, as yet, not one American in a million knew who they were.

* 1941: There were still lots of living people who remembered the American Civil War and the Wild West.  1963: The people who were making the world what it is today were either children, or not born yet.

So Stan the Man's career spanned that much.

Three Presidents paid public tribute to him.  At the 1962 All-Star Game in Washington, when he was 41 and already a grandfather, the 45-year-old JFK told him, “They said I was too young to be President, and you were too old to play baseball. I guess we showed them.” Bill Clinton grew up in Arkansas as a Cardinal fan, and Stan was the first nonpolitician he invited to the Oval Office in 1993.  And in 2010, on the occasion of Stan's 90th birthday, Barack Obama -- who may live in Chicago but had to run for Statewide office in Illinois and that meant he had to understand the needs of Southern Illinoisians, most of whom are Cardinal fans -- awarded him the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, 1969.  He was named to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team in 1999.  His Number 6 was the first number retired by the Cardinals, or any St. Louis team for that matter.  A a statue dedicated outside Busch Stadium (now standing outside the new ballpark with that name), inscribed with words delivered by then-Commissioner Ford Frick at Stan's 1963 retirement ceremony: "Here stands baseball's perfect warrior. Here stands baseball's perfect knight."

Stan died yesterday, at his home in Ladue, Missouri, in the suburbs of St. Louis.  He was 92.  It had been less than a year since the death of his wife, Lillian.  They had been married for 72 years; if that's not a record for a ballplayer, it's got to be close.  They had 4 children: Son Richard, and daughters Gerry, Janet and Jeanie.

Once, at a Hall of Fame induction weekend, Stan, the greatest National League hitter of his generation, was talking with his American League counterpart, Ted Williams. Afterwards, Ted’s son, John Henry Williams, asked his father, known for wanting people to call him the greatest hitter who ever lived, “Dad, do you think Musial was as good a hitter as you were?” Ted said, “Yes, I do.”

If Ted, who understood hitting better than any person who has ever lived, was willing to accept this as his opinion, then, indeed, Stan was The Man.

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