Stan Musial: An American Life
By George Vecsey
(Ballantine Books, 401 pages, $26)
SINCE HANGING UP his cleats, Stan Musial has hardly been ignored by baseball fans or writers. They still go nuts in St. Loo when Stan makes one of his increasingly rare visits to Busch Stadium. And there’s the statute of Musial in his batting stance in front of the ball-yard.
Loved is the only word to use for how Cardinal fans, and baseball aficionados of a certain age from other precincts, consider the world-class hitter who won seven batting titles and three MVP awards in a 22-year career that launched 3,630 hits and 475 home runs, and ended with a .331 lifetime batting average. These gaudy stats put him in a league with guys like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, former players who, for reasons George Vecsey attempts to plumb, get far more attention than Stan when the nostalgia starts to flow.
Stan compiled these successes between the white lines while consistently being gracious, humble, cheerful, generous, and approachable. He was perhaps the nicest guy ever to play the Grand Old Game. Musial competed in a mind-boggling 3,026 Major League baseball games and was never ejected from a one of them. If there were a Gentleman’s Hall of Fame, Musial would be a first-ballot inductee.
There’ve been some readable books about Musial, one of the early, worthy ones being Bob Broeg’s Stan Musial: The Man’s Own Story of 1964, the year after Musial retired as a player. Broeg was a friend of Musial’s and the book is the type of sportswriter hagiography that fills shelves in the sports departments of bookstores. But withal it’s a good look at the Musial baseball career.
In 2010 Wayne Stewart gave us a little more personal summing up in the readable Stan the Man. Comes now New York Times sports columnist Vecsey with Stan Musial: An American Life, a worthy contribution that, as the subtitle suggests, gives us a thorough look at the total Musial, a man whose life off the field and after the cheering stopped repays our attention.
Vecsey tells the Musial story from Stan’s childhood in poor and polluted Donora, Pennsylvania (a small town that also produced a couple of Griffeys who were fair ballplayers themselves), through his playing days and his post-baseball career as a successful St. Louis businessman.
Stan was the son of a zinc mill worker from Poland, one Lukasz Musial. His mother, Mary, was born in the U.S., but was just a generation away from Czechoslovakia. Stan was born Stanislaus Franciszek Musial (later changed to Stanley Frank for the convenience of Anglos) and went by the diminutive Stashu. Stan’s Polish heritage means a lot to him and he made several trips to the old country after his playing days. On these trips he was privileged to meet such notable Poles as Lech Walesa and Karol Josef Wojtyla, later, on his way to sainthood, to be known as John Paul II.
There wasn’t much money in Donora in Stashu’s day and the air wasn’t very good a lot of the time. But Stan came by a set of values there that stood him well for a lifetime, that were more common in America in the ’30s and ’40s than now, and which Frank Capra made movies about. “A Wonderful Life” could well describe Musial’s first 90 years.
Vecsey says he got the idea to write about Musial when baseball fans in 1999, voting for a list of the best 25 players of the century, unaccountably left Musial out. OK, top this or that lists are all gimmicks and of little account. But Mark McGwire and not Stan Musial? Charlie Hustle (Pete Rose to non-baseball civilians) but not The Man? What were they thinking?
Vecsey speculates that good-guy Musial may have slipped off of many fans’ radar screens because he just wasn’t sexy enough. He didn’t have Ted Williams’s prickliness or Joe DiMaggio’s hauteur. He didn’t marry Marilyn Monroe even once. He didn’t throw tantrums in the dugout, didn’t diss the fans or the press, and didn’t conduct angry salary disputes in public. He married and stayed married to his high school sweetheart for more than 70 years and went to church regularly all his life. Norman Rockwell, call your office.
Another possible explanation for why the great Musial’s flame doesn’t burn as brightly in the national memory as that of lesser players who spent their careers in New York, Boston, or L.A. is that Musial was insufficiently coastal. Musial spent his entire career in heartland St. Louis, which, while it’s close to the Ozarks, is hardly Dogpatch. It’s a baseball town where the Cardinals have a venerable history including 10 World Series victories, more than any team save the New York Yankees. But it’s not Media, USA. Vecsey suggests, with some justification, that if Musial had played in New York he would have been a god.
AWARE OF THE CONSISTENT reports of Musial the gracious and generous man, unspoiled by success and wealth, Vecsey attempts to “humanize” him by finding examples of less than exemplary behavior: the youngster denied an autograph, the angry and undeserved outburst at an innocent party, examples of selfish or showboating behavior. The results of this search are pretty feeble. We learn that Musial smoked for a while. He enjoyed a drink or two when he socialized. And he came out with the odd obscenity in the dugout from time to time. Geez, ballplayers use blue language? Who knew?
Far easier to find than these trifling misdemeanors were examples of Stan’s thoughtfulness or generosity. My favorite is about the minor leaguer brought up to the Cardinals at the end of September. At season’s end, and after the briefest look from the Cardinals, the kid finds himself unable to afford fare home. So the superstar takes the kid home for dinner and afterward drives him to the airport, where he buys him a plane ticket back to East Overshoe.
One dispute that did not heal followed when ex-big league catcher and media personality Joe Garagiola bought into one of Musial’s many businesses. Garagiola alleged in a lawsuit that some of the other Musial concerns, not Musial himself, used money that should have gone to Garagiola’s business. Garagiola has a rep as a funny guy, but Cardinal fans were not amused. Some reacted as though Garagiola had sued the Easter Bunny. Musial did not make up with Garagiola, but neither did he bad-mouth him in public.
Musial turned 90 last November and doesn’t get around anymore without help. Vecsey reports Stan has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. His bride of 70+ years, Lillian, suffers from arthritis and is in a wheelchair. This couple is in the final innings, which makes this second-generation Musial fan sad for the loss we must endure. But there’s much to be happy about in the lives of these two great Americans. Vecsey’s book helps us understand these lives. It deserves the attention of readers who are baseball fans, or just fans of the well-lived American Dream.
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