Happily, the good don’t always die young. This Sunday, God willing, Stan “The Man” Musial, who was not only one of baseball’s greatest hitters but one of the nicest guys to ever wear cleats, will turn 90. He lives independently with Lillian, his bride of 71 years, in St. Louis where they are beloved.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch plans extensive coverage of Stan’s 90th this weekend, as well it should. Red Sox Nation and Fenway fanatics may get more coverage nationally. But there are also plenty of savvy baseball fans in St. Louis, home of a venerable and successful franchise in the Cardinals. Stan is remembered and revered here, even though it has been 47 years since Stan ended his career at Busch Stadium with a sharp, RBI single to right Sept. 29, 1963 against Jim Maloney of the Cincinnati Reds.
Long-time Post-Dispatch baseball writer Rick Hummel, who knows as much about the Cardinals and The Man as anyone, told me that neither of the Musials is suffering from any debilitating ailments. Stan still gets out, he said, though less often than in the past and sometimes with the help of a cane. He even makes it to his natural habitat, the ballpark, from time to time. Good thing. Somebody has to give Albert Pujols hitting tips.
“Everybody here still knows who Stan is,” Hummel said. “The fans go nuts every time he appears at the ball park.” Few players have the numbers and the gravitas to presume to advise the great Albert on hitting. But Stan certainly does. Between September of 1941 and the end of the 1963 season, with 1945 off in the U.S. Navy, Stan compiled a .331 lifetime batting average on 3,630 hits, including 475 home runs. He drove in 1,951 runs while winning seven batting titles and being chosen as the league’s most valuable player three times.
Musial, not streaky or prone to slumps, was consistent with his gaudy numbers. He hit .336 against right-handers and .323 against lefties. He hit .336 at home and .326 on the road. He had 1,815 hits both at home and on the road.
Musial put his Hall of Fame career together with a combination of God-given talent, hustle, and considerable baseball smarts. His head was always in the game. With superb coordination, sharp reflexes and eye sight, he made hitting look easy. He was rarely fooled by a pitch. When he was he was usually quick enough to adjust and still hit the pitch.
Musial always busted it out of the batters’ box when he hit the ball, after-burners blazing and extra-bases on his mind. This approach allowed Musial to hit 40 or more doubles nine times and have double figures in triples eight times during his career. He twice hit 20 triples in a season. Not even Carl Crawford has done that, and he’s faster than the wind. Many of today’s sluggers, prone to looking at what they have wrought rather than running, could benefit from Musial’s approach.
Another difference between Musial and most modern hitters is that he rarely struck out. In a career of nearly 11,000 at bats, Musial only struck out 696 times while striking 475 home runs, a remarkable strikeout/power ratio. In his greatest year, 1948, Musial hit .376 and missed the triple-crown by one home run. That year he hit 39 home runs and only struck out 34 times.
These remarkable numbers (there are more, but in considering Musial one can easily OD on stats) make Musial one of baseball’s most elite hitters. But if there were stats for best human being he would walk away with honors here as well. Just about anyone who knew Stan from school days to the present describes him as a friendly, approachable, humble but dignified man, supportive of teammates, loyal to family, and available to his many fans. He even got along with umpires. He was never ejected from a single one of the 3,026 Major League games he played in over two-plus decades.
Wayne Stewart’s commendable 2010 book Stan the Man (April — Triumph) is rich with anecdotes from Musial’s friends and relatives, and from those who played with or against him. Stewart describes a man (unavoidable pun) whom success did not spoil.
Stanislaw Franciszek Musial was born in Donora, Pennsylvania, a small industrial town 30 miles south of Pittsburgh, to Lukasz and Mary Musial. Zinc miner Lukasz was just eight years in America from Poland. Mary was a first-generation Czech-American. Lukasz gave his oldest son the nickname Stashu.
Baseball fame and success as a restaurateur and real estate investor made Musial a rich man before he was 40, but he never acted the big star. He was always solicitous of others, and treated stars, fans, the club house guy, waitresses, and the scrub player hitting .204 and destined for a career in used car sales just the same, respectfully. Even after he had won three MVP awards his home phone number was still listed in the St. Louis directory.
For baseball and business reasons Musial moved from Donora to St. Louis. But he didn’t leave his home town behind, returning often, including for his high school reunions. He remained Stashu to the people he came up with, who he never abandoned after he became The Man.
He never abandoned his Catholic faith either. He’s regularly attended mass all his life, including on the road as a player. Musial has lived his long life with considerable grace. A class act, we might be tempted to say. But all the evidence shows that Musial’s quiet charisma isn’t and has never been an act.
As a youngster in Tampa I was familiar with Stan the great hitter and Stan the approachable hero. My father, who batted and threw left for company softball teams, admired The Man, a mannerism I inherited. Summer mornings in the Thornberry household began with baseball box scores where we first checked on what Stan and the Cardinals had done the night before. Spring training for me included 25-mile Greyhound Bus rides on non-school days to watch Stan and the Cardinals play at Al Lang Field in nearby St. Petersburg.
Al Lang of those days was a rickety green band box, about 30 or 40 yards separated from the players’ clubhouses. So the players had to walk that distance out where the fans were to enter and leave the field. Between the club house and the players’ exit from the field, particularly after the sixth or seventh innings when the regulars were coming out of the training games and the minor leaguers were taking their place in the line-ups, clumps of young boys gathered to get the players’ autographs on baseballs or programs (a ball autographed by Musial on one of those magic days graces my desk as I write this).
Some of the players tolerated the kids and signed for a few, but usually ignored our attempts to engage them in conversation. Others would have none of us. I nearly got cleated one day by a surly Mickey Mantle when I made the mistake of getting between him and the entrance to the club house. One player, the most gifted of all who walked that path, was never impatient with his fans.
Musial would sign autographs for everyone, no matter how long it took. He would even engage our conversation, though it was hardly high-toned stuff. Programs signed and the visit over, he would disappear into the clubhouse with a “See ya later.”
Baseball fans, and fans of the well-lived life, pray it will be many years before we have to say, “See ya later” to Stan Musial for the last time. Many happy returns, Stan.