Sunday, August 08, 2010

Still "The Man"

Stan Musial on the cover of Baseball Digest in 1948 (Wikipedia photo).

Like most American magazines, Sports Illustrated has suffered something of an identity crisis in recent years. Beset by falling readership and ad revenues, the flagship sports publication has sought to re-invent itself, with decidedly mixed results. Pick up a copy and it's hard to tell if SI wants to be People for the jock crowd; a pale imitation of ESPN The Magazine, an upscale version of Fantasy Sports, or some combination thereof.

Yet, despite the editorial schizophrenia, SI still produces first-class sports journalism on occasion, just as it did when writers like Roy Blount Jr., Robert Creamer and the late Bud Shrake routinely graced its pages. A fine example can be found in the current issue, with St. Louis Cardinals legend Stan Musial on the cover.

Titled "Cardinal Virtue: What Modern Baseball Can Learn From Stan the Man," it's a thoughtful and moving piece, as writer Joe Posnanski explores Musial's lasting impact on baseball and the city he has called home for the past 69 years.

Today, Musial remains the quintessential Cardinal, the name that instantly comes to mind when you compile a list of the team's all-time greats. Not bad for a guy who played his last game seven weeks before the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. And not bad for a player who never produced headline-grabbing stats. As Musial's long-time friend Bob Costas observes:
"Stan Musial didn't hit in 56 straight games. He didn't hit for .400 in a season. He didn't get 4,000 hits. He didn't hit 500 home runs. He didn't hit a home run in his last at bat, just a single. He didn't marry Marilyn Monroe, he married his high school sweetheart. His excellence was a quiet excellence."

"Too quiet," says Posnanski.

"ESPN recently called him the most underrated athlete, ever...a few years back, when Major League Baseball held a fan vote to name its All-Century team, a special committee had to add Musial because the fans did not vote him as one of the 10 best outfielders ever. Ten! Only Aaron had more total bases. Only Tris Speaker and Pete Rose hit more doubles. Using Bill James's famous formula, only Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds created more runs. Still, Musial did not get America's vote.

But "Stan the Man" remains a favorite in St. Louis and by extension, across much of Middle America, where fans of a certain age remember a player of tremendous skill, and a man of exceptional grace. Over 22 big-league seasons, Musial was never ejected from a single game, even when the umpires got it wrong, and he had every right to dispute the call. Posnanski recounts a particularly memorable game against the Cubs that added to Musial's reputation as both a player and a sportsman.

It was April 18, 1954 in Chicago. The Cardinals trailed 3-0 in the seventh and lefty Paul Minner was on the mound. There was a man on first, one out, when Musial smacked a double down the right field line, scoring the runner from first. Musial was standing on second while the St. Louis dugout celebrated until someone noticed that first base umpire Lee Ballanfant had called the ball foul.

The Cardinals bench erupted. Shortstop Solly Hemus went after Ballanfant. The umpire crew chief, Augie Donatelli, realized that Ballanfant had blown the call, but had to back up his guy. Donatelli ejected Hemus from the game, and tossed St. Louis manager Eddie Stanky when he charged onto the field. Donatelli was about to give Peanuts Lowrey the heave-ho when Musial, not sure what the commotion was all about, ambled over from second base.

"What happened, Augie?" Musial asked. "It didn't count, huh?" Donatelli nodded and said the ball had been called foul.

"Well," Musial said, there's nothing you can do about it."

And without saying another word, Musial stepped back into the batter's box and doubled to the same spot in right field. This time it was called fair. The Cardinals rallied and won the game.

Musial was also generous with his fans. The late Phillies Hall of Famer Robin Roberts stated that Musial never turned down an autograph--an extraordinary act, even in an era when players were more willing to sign. Legendary broadcaster Harry Caray (who called Cardinals games for much of Musial's career) remembered watching him sign dozens of autographs after a brutal summer double-header at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis. Musial had played both games of the twin bill and could barely walk to his car. Yet, he still signed dozens of autographs for waiting fans and climbed into his car only after the last fan had departed.

Posnanski also relates another anecdote that speaks volumes about the character of Stan Musial. It occurred in 1952, against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Joe Black, up from the Negro Leagues, was on the mound for the Dodgers. As Musial settled into his batting stance, a voice boomed from the Cardinals' dugout:

"Don't worry, Stan...with that dark background on the mound, you shouldn't have any problem hitting the ball."

Musial said nothing, and flied out a few pitches later. After the game, Black was stunned to see Musial in the Dodgers clubhouse, apologizing for his teammate's racist taunt.

"I'm sorry that happened," Black remembered Musial whispering. "But don't worry about it. You're a great pitcher. You will win a lot of games."

Towards the end of the piece, there is one final Musial story that affirms his place in the history of baseball and the city of St. Louis. At age 90, the Cardinals legend doesn't get out much anymore, but he was on the field before last year's All-Star Game in St. Louis. The festivities included a meeting between Musial and Albert Pujols, arguably the greatest Cardinal player of the last 25 years.
The two men had met before, but this time, their conversation blossomed. Pujols, who prides himself on consistency, was stunned by one of the largely-forgotten stats of Musial's career. The number of hits he accumulated at home (1815) matched his total for road games.

Pujols left the meeting with even more respect for Stan Musial and his place in baseball history. And not long after that, he politely asked people to stop calling him "El Hombre" the Spanish equivalent of "The Man." As Posnanski reports, the current Cardinals slugger understood that his nickname was an homage to Musial. But he still asked people to stop it.

"There's only one Man," he said.

Indeed, there is.

1 comment:

lgude said...

I remember him well in particular for his closed batting stance which I tried but never could make work. But I remember him best coming to the plate in a game against the Dodgers at Ebbets Field with the bases loaded. I was torn between my Dodgers and my favorite player. Of course I thought grand slam. And he did.