Although Stan Musial played his last baseball game nearly a decade before I was born, I have long been fond of him. Because when I think of Stan the Man, I think of my Dad who back in 1955 had a chance meeting with Musial and several other members of the St. Louis Cardinals at the Polo Grounds after a Sunday doubleheader between the Redbirds and the New York Giants had been called on account of rain. My father got the opportunity to ask Musial about his unique batting stance on Bill Stern’s radio show.
So needless to say I was very much looking forward to reading George Vecsey’s biography of Musial titled, Stan Musial: An American Life. I began reading the book during a day trip to Portland, Maine on Memorial Day. But I would soon become overwhelmed with disappointment by the time the bus had left Boston city limits.
To start with, I was dismayed with Vecsey’s premise that Musial had been relegated to obscurity while his contemporaries, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams are still remembered:
Almost as if by will, DiMaggio and Williams became distant towering legends, the stormy Himalayas, whereas Stan the Man endured as the weathered old Appalachians, like the coal-laden hills behind his boyhood home in Donora, Pennsylvania.
DiMaggio would be remembered for the rose on Marilyn Monroe’s grave.
Williams would be remembered for crash-landing his burning jet on an airfield in South Korea.
But Musial, a diligent businessman with a successful marriage, would be the nice old guy who mimicked his own batting stance in public. Was this a flaw on Musial’s part – or ours?
To the extent Stan the Man is overshadowed by Joltin’ Joe and Teddy Ballgame isn’t because the Yankee Clipper was married to Marilyn Monroe or because The Kid was a fighter pilot. DiMaggio is best remembered for his 56-game hitting streak while Williams is best remembered for being the last player to hit .400 in a season. The fact that both these feats occurred in 1941 and remain untouched seventy years later is what cemented their legacy. These achievements have attained a mythical status.
When Musial finished his career in 1963, his 3,630 hits were the most in National League history and second only to Ty Cobb on the all-time list. Before Pete Rose passed Cobb, Charlie Hustle would eclipse Musial for the NL record in 1981. Musial didn’t do anything so spectacular during his 22 seasons with the Cardinals. Certainly nothing that would warrant an essay by John Updike or inspire a song by Paul Simon. He was simply Stanley the Steady.
The other flaw with Vecsey’s biography is that he feels the need to inject his politics into the proceedings as if his subject weren’t interesting enough on his own merits. Vecsey likens Musial to President Eisenhower, although it becomes clear this comparison is nothing more than an exercise in taking a cheap shot at another Republican President:
He also met every President from Truman through Obama, except, for no particular reason, Dwight D. Eisenhower, for whom he apparently voted twice. Over time, Musial has come to be seen as the epitome of the Eisenhower years, from 1953 to 1960, a time now ridiculed for its – what? Complacency? Stability? Normalcy? In this age when yappers spout nuttiness over the airwaves and nihilists fly airplanes into buildings, normalcy is looking good.
Musial is not the first or last public figure to suffer from the short attention span of the vox populi. Even presidents come and go in the power ratings.
With his deceptively transparent smile, Eisenhower –as in “I Like Ike” – won two elections handily, but after he was out of office Ike was often depicted as a mediocre fuddy-duddy.
Early in the 21st century, Ike began making a comeback. To demonstrate the contrast to a certain inarticulate president of more recent vintage, David Letterman displayed videos of Ike’s clearheaded warning about the “military-industrial complex.” Ike was looking better all the time. Maybe Stan the Man’s time would come around again.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this passage. After all, Vecsey works for the New York Times and it would seem its employees are contractually obliged to take digs at President Bush even when the subject matter has little or nothing to do with politics. If Vecsey dislikes Bush, then fine. If Vecsey genuinely believes there’s no difference between Rush Limbaugh and Mohammed Atta, then so be it. There is nothing stopping him from writing books on those subjects. I just wish he hadn’t expressed those views in a book that supposed to be about the life of Stan Musial. They are completely out of place. Musial deserved better.
I am also unaware of the 21st century comeback of Dwight Eisenhower of which Vecsey writes. It is a figment of Vecsey’s imagination. So is the idea that Stan Musial’s time will come around again. Let us remember that during this past off-season, Albert Pujols was looking to extend his contract with the Cardinals. It is believed that he wishes to supplant Alex Rodriguez as MLB’s highest paid player. The deadline to renegotiate the contract was set for February 15, 2011. However, at the last minute, both parties agreed to extend the deadline by 24 hours because that was the day Musial was set to be bestowed with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. Curiously, Vecsey does not see fit to mention this tidbit.
Albert Pujols might very well end up being the greatest player ever to don a baseball uniform. When it’s all said and done, Pujols might finish his career eclipsing Pete Rose in hits, Barry Bonds in homeruns and Hank Aaron in RBIs. Pujols might be King Albert, but Musial is still The Man. Vecsey might be content to wait for Musial’s time to come around again. I say that he has never left us.