Stan Musial - Baseball's Perfect Warrior
On January 19, 2013 the world of Baseball lost what may well be its last true Gentleman. Stanley Frank Musial, known and loved by many as simply Stan the Man passed from this earth and joined the All Star team in Heaven. For 22 seasons he played with a style and grace seldom seen in professional sports, and for almost all of those years he was among the best in the league. Even among his peers, he was considered the consummate professional.
I was fortunate to meet Stan the Man once, many years ago. The owner of Owens Sporting Goods in Joplin, Mo. was a one time batboy for the St. Louis Cardinals in the early to mid 1950's and had Stan come to visit one day. My baseball team at the time, Team 15 of the Joplin Farm Club League made a trip out to the store to meet him. As a lifetime Cardinal fan (even though I was but a child of 7 years) I was thrilled to meet him. I had heard of his prowess on the field from my father, and when I got a picture of him, then watched as he autographed it, I was awestruck. I also remember that he took the time to speak with each and every one of us young boys that day, and when he finally left we were left feeling that we were as important to him, as much as he was to us.
He was my hero until he was displaced some years later by another of the game's greats, Nolan Ryan. I guess I could say Nolan was my favorite pitcher, and Stan my favorite hitter, and that would be okay. For me, it is hard to say one is better than the other, and both are true gentlemen. Both are respected as much for the way they played the game as for what they've accomplished off the field. As this is dedicated to Stan the Man, I will restrict myself to his greatness.
Stan made it to professional baseball as a pitcher, before he injured his arm and the team gave him a shot as a hitter. Sound familiar? Babe Ruth was a pretty good pitcher, but found his fame as a hitter, also. Stan made his debut in semi pro ball as a pitcher, and at the tender age of 15 years old, struck out 13 batters. Now, I too played against men at that age in fast pitch softball, and while I struck out my first man at 14 years old, that is about as far as I go when comparing myself to Stan the Man.
From there, it was to the bigs, and on September 17, 1941 Stan made his debut in the Major League. In his first 12 games, he collected 20 hits and batted .426. Not too bad for a green kid from the industrial town of Donora, Pennsylvania. Trivia time: Can you name another great left handed hitter, born on the same day (November 21) and in the same town as Stan? Try Ken Griffey, Jr. It was once said of Junior that he was the second best left handed hitter born on November 21 from Donora, Pennsylvania. Quite a shadow to try and get out from underneath, Junior.
Beginning in 1942, and continuing every year through 1963 (with the exception of 1945 which he spent in the honorable service for our country in the Navy), Stan flew around the basepaths and taught opposing pitchers the meaning of fear. At one time, famed Dodger skipper Leo the Lip Durocher said the only way to effectively pitch Musial was to throw the pitch under the plate. Another great, Preacher Roe said the best way to pitch him was to throw four balls then try to pick him off first. Sound advice. How good was he? Take a look at these amazing statistics.
3,630 alltime hits. When he retired, he was second only to Ty Cobb. (He now sits fourth)
To me, perhaps the most amazing stat is this: 1,815 hits at home; 1,815 hits on the road (Talk about consistent).
Career Batting Average of .331, which is 30th all time, but 3rd among players who were his contemporaries of later (Ted Williams .344 and Tony Gwynn .338)
725 doubles, 3rd behind Tris Speaker and Pete Rose
1,951 RBI's which placed him 4th behind Babe Ruth, Cap Anson and Lou Gehrig at his retirement.
1,377 all time extra base hits, trailing only Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds.
7 National League Batting Titles.
Some other numbers to awe you: 24 All Star Game appearances, tied with Willie Mays and Hank Aaron; 6 All Star Game Home Runs, more than any other player; 3 MVP awards; 40 All Star Game Total Bases, tied with Mays for the most ever; and the true sign of a Gentleman, zero career ejections.
He also holds the record for the most home runs hit in a doubleheader. On May 2, 1954 Stan hit five, yes 5, that's FIVE home runs in one afternoon. The first two came off of Johnny Antonelli, the left hander for the Giants. Antonelli ended up with a record of 21 wins and 7 losses that year, so he was no slouch, either. Jim Hearn surrendered the third in the eigth inning of the first game breaking a 6-6 tie. Each of these homers ended up on the roof of the pavilion of the old Sportsman's Park. In the first inning of the second game, pitcher Don Liddle wisely walked him. Losing 3 - 0 in the 3rd, Liddle figured he had nothing to lose, so pitched to Stan. He hit a 400 foot shot to centerfield which WIllie Mays ran down. In the 5th inning, Hoyt Wilhelm faced Musial, and threw him a curveball, which was promptly cleared the roof in right field. In the 7th, Wilhelm threw his famed knuckleball, and watched as it too sailed completely over the roof, even further than the previous shot. Five home runs in one day. A feat never matched in all the days and games since. How good was Wilhelm? Well, all he did was become the first man to save 200 games, and the first to appear in 1,000 games; oh and he was the first reliever elected to the Hall of Fame.
What made Musial so good? He had an eye and reflexes that allowed him to delay his swing until the ball was almost halfway to the plate. He watched the release of the pitch ,and could tell from the release point and the rotation what the ball was going to do. How good was he? Well, he never struck out more than 50 times in a season in 22 years of professional baseball. He put the ball in play, and usually something good happened.
To me, the most remembered item about Stan was that he was a gentleman, both on and off the field. He lived the Golden Rule daily: treat others the way he wanted to be treated. He was never too tired to sign an autograph; never played too poorly that he stormed off, ignoring the press or fans; never had a bad thing to say about anybody. He played the game the was it was designed to be played. And he was rewarded.In 1958 he became the National League's first $100,000.00 a year player, and even then he was humble. The next year, he batted only .255 and went to the Cardinals management to insist they cut his salary by 20%, because he failed to live up to his end of the bargain. They complied. Imagine that, a player giving back part of his salary because he did not play as well as he thought he should have. Think that will ever happen again? Me neither.
I will close this with another of those unbelievable stats that leave me scratching my head. This one is not related to what he hit, or for how long, or how many home runs or any other similar stat. No, this one is totally in keeping with Stan the Man as who he was: unassuming. When the All Century Team was announced, showcasing the 30 greatest players, he had to be added by a special vote as he finished 11th in the voting among outfielders. He went about his job so quietly and for so long that he was taken for granted and those who knew him made sure he was honored, for if any truly belonged there, it was he.
His final hit came on September 29, 1963 with a hard shot past then rookie Pete Rose. A pinch runner came in for him and he walked off the field that day, tipping his hat to the crowd one final time as a player. He still maintained his love affair with St Louisians, though; continuing to appear at Opening Day ceremonies each year, and at other special occasions for the Card's. This year will be different, difficult even. For the first time in my life, Stan the Man will not be at a Cardinal's game. I will look for his smiling face seated in those cars as they roll around Busch Stadium, proclaiming the Cardinal's beginning to the year, and he will not be there.
To me, more than anything else, this marks the end of an era. The end of the Innocence of When It Was A Game, and the end of players who played for the pure joy of playing, letting the chips fall where they may regarding pay, and simply loving the game. I thank you Stan for the years you gave us, and for the enjoyment you supplied to us. You are the last of a breed, and we will never see your kind again. Fare Well Sir Knight. As it states on your statue outside Busch Stadium:
"Here stands baseball's perfect warrior. Here stands baseball's perfect knight."