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Stan Musial's average-guy niceness masked his greatness as a player

Updated on January 20, 2013

About 20 years ago one night I dreamed that I met Stan Musial. Not Musial the baseball player, but the retired Musial. In the dream, we sat around talking about hitting and baseball. I have no idea why I dreamed this – who knows why we dream what we dream – but I remember that I woke up greatly disappointed that it hadn’t really happened.

I never met Musial, of course, nor do I remember when he played although he did manage to prolong his career until I was 4 years old. But I have long thought that the most gravely underrated player of all time, at least by people under the age of 60, was Stan Musial.

Opponents heaped praise on Musial

People who played alongside and against Musial, though, had no problem pouring accolades on him as one of the greatest players of all time. Pitchers, especially, heaped praise on Musial for his ability to defy their best attempts at pitching to him.

Carl Erskine, the Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher, was famously quoted as saying he had success against Musial “by throwing my best pitch, then backing up third.” Warren Spahn allegedly feared for the safety of his infielders when Musial came to the plate.

Although I can’t find the reference for this, I’m sure that I once read that in the late 1940s, when Spahn was the dominant pitcher in the game, he was throwing a 2-0 shutout when Musial came to the plate with the bases loaded. He intentionally walked Musial to force in a run and won the game, 2-1. Asked after the game why he did it, Spahn said, “I’d rather give up one run than four.”

Even his nickname, The Man, came from opposing fans. According to legend, while on a particularly hot hitting streak in Brooklyn, the Dodger fans began chanting “Here comes The Man!” whenever Musial came to the plate. A St. Louis sportswriter reported the incident and the nickname stuck.

Musial's early years

Musial was born on Nov. 21, 1920, in Donora, Pa., the son of Polish immigrants (Ken Griffey Jr. would later also be born on Nov. 21 in Donora, Pa., a rather odd coincidence). After his mother finally convinced his father to let him be a baseball player, Musial signed up as a pitcher.

But he badly injured his left (throwing) shoulder diving for a ball in the outfield in the minor leagues. That forced him to turn his attention to hitting and by 1941, at age 20, he found himself in the big leagues for 12 games. The next season he hit .315 in his first full season and then at age 22, led the National League with a .357 batting average.

I’ve heard the conjecture that Roy Tucker in John R. Tunis’ famous book The Kid From Tomkinsville was based on Musial, since Tucker started as a pitcher but a shoulder injury forced him to become an outfielder. But the book was published in 1941 before Musial reached the majors and was reportedly the result of Tunis spending Spring Training with the Dodgers in 1940. Musial injured his pitching shoulder and made the switch to the outfield in the minors that season, so it’s possible that Tunis heard the story and incorporated it, but it probably was a coincidence.

Musial’s closed stance was well known, almost the direct opposite of Joe DiMaggio’s wide-legged stance. I remember reading that Musial seemed like a coiled spring that unwound when the pitch came in. He was told as a rookie that his stance wouldn’t work, but he didn’t do badly with it. I liked the image of a coiled spring so much that I adopted a modified version of Musial's stance in high school. I hit .368 my senior year, so it worked for me, too.

Consistency as a hitter

The stat I always found amazing, as do most people, is that Musial collected 1,815 hits in home games and 1,815 hits in road games. It illustrates his consistency.

But more than that, it show how incredibly good he was. Through 2012, only 362 players in baseball history other than Musial have even reached a total of 1,815 hits for a career – some members of the Hall of Fame never got that many hits in total.

Overall, Musial registered 3,630 hits, good for fourth place all time behind only Pete Rose, Ty Cobb and Hank Aaron (had he not missed 1945 due to World War II, he probably would have surpassed Aaron). Derek Jeter has a chance to bypass Musial, but still needs 327 hits to do so.

Musial still ranks high in offense

Musial was an offensive force and still ranks in the Top 30 in 13 offensive categories, in the Top 10 in seven of them. But at the time he retired, he ranked much higher. Here are some key categories, where he ranks today and where he ranked at the time of his retirement in parentheses.

Hits – 3,630 – 4th (2nd when he retired)

Total Bases – 6,134 – 2nd (1st)

Doubles – 725 – 3rd (2nd)

Runs – 1,949 – 8th (3rd)

RBI – 1,951 – 5th (3rd)

Extra-base hits – 1,377 – 3rd (1st)

Times on base – 5,282 – 6th (2nd)

Base on balls – 1,599 – 13th (5th)

Home runs – 475 – 28th (6th)

Slugging average - .559 – 19th (9th)

On base percentage - .417 – 22nd (17th)

Triples – 177 -19th (19th)

Batting average - .330 – 29th (28th)

So at the time he retired in 1963, Musial ranked first in total bases and extra base hits, second in hits, doubles and times on base and third in runs and RBIs. He had the fifth highest total of walks and his 475 homers ranked him behind only Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Mel Ott and Lou Gehrig. (Notice also that since he retired no one has hit as many triples as he did and only one player, Tony Gwynn, surpassed his batting average.)

MVP Awards and leading categories

He won the MVP Award in 1943, 1946 and 1948, and probably could have won it at least two other times. In fact, he finished second in the MVP voting in 1949, 1950, 1951 and 1957. He received MVP votes in 18 of his 22 years in the majors.

From 1948-1955 he average 200 hits, 40 doubles, 10 triples and 32 homers per season, along with 118 runs and 114 RBIs. He had an average of 94 walks and 36 strikeouts during that time, with a .342 batting average, .435 on base percentage and .608 slugging average.

He won seven batting titles and led the National League in on base percentage and slugging percentage each six times. He led in doubles in eight times, hits six times, triples five times and runs five times.

In 1948 he missed the Triple Crown by one homer – allegedly he hit one in a game that was canceled by rain before it reached the fifth inning. But 1948 was still an amazing season – Musial led in batting average (.376), on base percentage, slugging percentage, RBIs, runs, hits, doubles, triples and total bases. He hit 39 homers, one fewer than Ralph Kiner and Johnny Mize. He even had seven steals, which in those days tied him for 11th place.

He also didn’t strike out often, just 696 times in his career. He only struck out 40 or more times in a season three times, two of those his final two seasons when he was 41 and 42 years old. He had more than twice as many walks as strikeouts.

Many reasons Musial has been underrated

So how can a player with those kinds of numbers be so underrated over the course of time? I think part of it was his consistency. Musial put up very good numbers year after year and people came to see it as normal rather than it being unusual.

He also never led the league in home runs and in RBIs only twice, both of which became highly valued by the 1950s and 1960s. His career run total dropped from sixth best to 13th best in a little over a decade after he retired, and even further down within two decades, at a time when home run totals took on new importance.

He didn’t hit long home runs, he didn’t harangue fans and sportswriters, he didn’t play spectacularly bad or great defense and he played left field and first base, two positions often undervalued by both old school and new school stat heads. He spent two years as general manager of the Cardinals in 1967 and ’68, but otherwise never managed or coached, which would have kept his name at the forefront of people’s thoughts.

Musial one of the nicest people ever

But, bizarrely, probably the reason he seemed to slip people’s minds was because he was too nice, too ordinary. Not only have I never seen anyone say a bad word about Musial, I don’t think anyone even had a bad thought about him. Trying to think of something negative about him would probably cause the brain to explode.

Musial was famous, even among his peers, for never stiffing anyone making an autograph request. He helped not only his teammates, but opposing players with their hitting. He had a sunny outlook that he passed on whenever he could. Curt Flood, an outfielder for the Cardinals in the 1960s, said he once counted Musial saying “wunnerful” (wonderful) eight times in a speech of less than 100 words.

Musial felt uncomfortable speaking in public, so he learned to play the harmonica as a way to entertain people. He played “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for crowds during the annual Hall of Fame festivities.

It’s not that people didn’t respect and even revere Musial. When people started calling Albert Pujols El Hombre, Spanish for The Man, he asked them to quit because there was only one The Man.

Hard to reconcile the ordinary with the greatness

But there never seemed to be a hook to hang the Musial legend on – no mammoth home runs like Mantle, no flash like Mays, no assault on the record books like Aaron, no contentiousness like Williams, no classic aloofness like DiMaggio.

Musial simply was that ordinary nice guy next door, and it was hard to reconcile one’s mind to the fact that someone that nice, that normal, could also be one of the greatest baseball players of all time.

In 1999 he was a glaring omission on the All Century Team, even though 10 outfielders were listed (Ruth, Aaron, Williams, Mays, DiMaggio, Mantle, Cobb, Ken Griffey Jr., Pete Rose and Roberto Clemente were all chosen in front of him; later a select committee dropped Clemente and replaced him with Musial).

Look past the man to remember the player

Bill James, in his 2001 edition of his Historical Baseball Abstract, listed him as the 10th greatest player of all time, behind Ruth, Honus Wagner, Mays, Oscar Charleston (Negro Leagues), Cobb, Mantle, Williams, Walter Johnson and Josh Gibson (Negro Leagues). I’d say that sounds about right.

This is usually where writers ask people to remember the person, not just his feats on the field. After his passing on Saturday at age 92, many of the articles commemorating Musial focused on his nice personality and ordinariness that made him a legend after his career ended. Many have glossed over his exploits on the baseball field.

So I will ask that, in addition to remembering what a great man he was, remember also that he was one of the best – probably one of the 10 best – to ever play baseball.

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