R.I.P. Stan Musial

January 20, 2013 • 5:02 pm

I can’t believe it: the man seemed immortal. The Donora Greyhound died yesterday at age 92, and there’s no doubt that he was my favorite baseball player of all time. I suppose part of it is that he played for the St. Louis Cardinals, my favorite team (I was born in St. Louis), but he was also a fantastic player and an uncharacteristically modest one.

I saw him play only once—at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh when he was in the waning years of his career. But my dad, a baseball fan who was stationed in St. Louis as an Army officer, saw Musial play frequently, and was also a great admirer. He told me that he never saw Musial question an umpire’s call, and that Musial was so fast that he regularly scored from first base on a subsequent hitter’s single.

Musial is still, as far as I know, the only player to have ever hit five home runs in one day (a doubleheader).

Retired, he opened a steakhouse and, despite having been one of the greatest players of all time, eschewed interviews and publicity. Only Sandy Koufax was more elusive.

From ABC News:

“I never heard anybody say a bad word about him — ever,” Willie Mays said in a statement released by the Hall of Fame. . .

“Stan will be remembered in baseball annals as one of the pillars of our game,” Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson said. “The mold broke with Stan. There will never be another like him.”

And how often do modern players do this?

At the suggestion of a pal, actor John Wayne, Musial carried around autographed cards of himself to give away. He enjoyed doing magic tricks for kids and was fond of pulling out a harmonica to entertain crowds with a favorite, “The Wabash Cannonball.”

His records (lifetime batting average .331, fielding percentage: .984):

In all, Musial held 55 records when he retired in 1963. Fittingly, the accolades on his bronze Hall plaque start off with this fact, rather than flowery prose: “Holds many National League records …”

He played nearly until his 43rd birthday, adding to his totals. He got a hit with his final swing, sending an RBI single past Cincinnati’s rookie second baseman — that was Pete Rose, who would break Musial’s league hit record of 3,630 some 18 years later.

Of those hits, Musial got exactly 1,815 at home and exactly 1,815 on the road. He also finished with 1,951 RBIs and scored 1,949 runs.

I could go on and on. When I was in Little League, I tried to imitate his stance at the plate, which was unique. He stood with his feet close together, instead of spread wide, and wiggled his rump as the ball approached.  Then he’d uncoil—and CRACK!  That  stance never kept him from getting hits, but perhaps it wasn’t the best idea for me!

I know a sports reporter or two, and tried, in the last ten years, to interest them in getting an interview with Musial (who probably would have refused).  They weren’t interested, probably because he was largely forgotten, but also quiet and not a publicity hound. But those were the qualities that made him special.

Stan the Man, as I remember him.
Stan the Man, as I remember him.

And that stance!


35 thoughts on “R.I.P. Stan Musial

  1. I have never heard of Stan Musial, being British, and not a baseball fan, but there is a pattern in the Murdochisation of sports and how beautiful sportsmen are left behind: maybe we are nostalgic for the days when sportsmen were more like us, closer to our lifestyle. The same applies in soccer.

    My brother has just drafted a paean to a late seventies Villa player for a forthcoming book. It has similar themes to JAC’s post; I hope I don’t impinge on your, Jerry’s, sadness by quoting it, and if you think it inappropiate, do with it what you will.

    “Alex Cropley, Edinburgh Cabbie
    or Forgotten Maestros

    The charges are familiar; round up the usual suspects. Today’s footballers are whiners and divers, skivers, serial swearers of permanent allegiance – maximum-wage, interchangeable plastic boy-dolls from the oligarchs’ toybox. Plus, thanks to Sky and the internet, their on-field nonsense will live forever.

    And to those who have everything, more is given. On retirement, instead of being punished for their crimes against football, these complacent mediocrities are plastered all over our Saturdays and reimbursed at rates that would make a banker blush. Essential qualifications: the ability to wear a black shirt under studio lights; a refusal to compromise with non-Anglo pronunciation; unfamiliarity with the laws of Association Football.

    It wasn’t always thus. Until recently, ex-players would do well to glean enough golden handshake to open a carvery in Boreham Wood or Sutton Coldfield; and among these long-forgotten toilers was the occasional soccer genius, unknown except to local fans of a good vintage. One such was Villa’s Alex Cropley. How to capture his flickering, brief brilliance in the coarse mesh of human language?

    Well, Cropley was the best player I ever saw live, a Renaissance man of the Somme-like 1970s midfields. He was the last in the noble line of tiny Scottish titans churned out by the devil’s carousel of the Central Belt. Cropley looked as though he’d been raised on Irn-Bru, cod liver oil and powdered egg; to the supporters he was simply Alex, clearly one of themselves but with an infinite talent and superhuman courage. A huge crowd attended a reserve game which featured Alex’s comeback from his third broken leg. Did he score? What do you think?

    The next week he came on as a sub for the first team, naturally to a standing ovation. Wouldn’t it have been great if it had been when Villa had a corner at Holte End, if Cropley had dashed on and scurried towards the taker, if his teammate had found him at the corner of the penalty area, if, with his first touch for a season, Alex had scored with a shot from an absurd angle that travelled at the velocity of an electron? It would have been wonderful and, yes, it was.

    In fact, Cropley himself was an electron, a minute, fizzing particle of unbounded energy – and his colleagues knew it. One magical night against Fenerbache captain Dennis Mortimer had clearly given Alex an extra can of spinach; for the first half he let AC play the Turks on his own. Alex won. His unique trick flourished beautifully that evening. Between 1976 and 1980, whenever Villa got a throw-in on the left, instead of the hopeful hurl down the line, the ball would be thrown backwards and at speed to Cropley, who would hit it on the volley along a strictly orthogonal 40-yard path to an agreed rendezvous point in the middle of Andy Gray’s forehead.

    His shirt-number? I’ll give you one guess. And yet, because he was pre-modern, in a few years Cropley will be just a blurry ghost in the dying circuits of a few hundred care-home casualties. Meanwhile, Robbie Savage will preen eternally.”

  2. How lucky you are to have grown up in an era in which records were set by physical ability, hard work, talent, sweat, and determination. My own childhood heroes were little more than thugs, cheats, and dopers (excepting Cal Ripken Jr of course). Not that all past MLB greats were so great off the field, but you did really get to view or at least inhabit a world of truly great players.

    1. The fact that there was a lot less money involved in those days may have something to do with how different that era seemed. Same thing for college sports. Sigh.

  3. Being a couple of weeks younger than you, Jerry, I recall Stan the Man, and many players from the 1950s. My teams then were Milwaukee (Aaron, Mathews, Spahn, Burdette) and the Detroit Tigers (Kaline, Kuehn, Colavito, Frank Lary) even though I did live in Los Angeles. The immortal Vin Scully gave Musial plenty of verbal description, highlighting what a great player and good guy he was.

    I have a couple of great Musial anecdotes, but this is not a baseball board, so no details. In brief, they point to a genuine wonderful man, player, and teammate.

      1. First, this note: 1942 World Series. In the first game, Musial led off the 9th inning, with the Cardinals trailing the Yankees 7-0, and made the first out. The Cardinals proceeded to rally, and only trailed 7-4 with men on base, when Musial came up again. He made the third out. Cardinals lost that Game 1, but the Cardinals went on to win the Series.

        Here is a real apocryphal one, which I have seen repeated using other players instead of Musial. Supposedly, at the 2002 World Series, he was asked by a reporter what he thought of today’s pitching, versus the pitchers he faced in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Musial, of course, gave today’s pitchers high praise, and the reporter then asked him what he thought he could hit, if he was playing today. “Oh, only about .280” Musial replied. “That’s it??!” the reporter blurted.
        “Well,” said Musial, “You have to remember…I’m eighty years old!!”

        Now a couple of “Musial only, fer sure” (although I can’t remember the names of the others involved). In one tight game at Busch Stadium, Musial laced a line drive down the right field line that was obviously fair by a good foot, but called foul by the umpire (let’s just say…Bill Jackowski was the umpire). The first base coach was joined by the manager, jawing with Jackowski while Musial stood at second. Finally, Musial comes over to ask what the problem was: “Bill, what’s the argument?” After hearing Jackowski explain that he called it a foul ball, Musial exclaimed, “Well, Bill, there’s nothing else we can do. It’s a foul ball. I have to go back to the plate.” (I’m paraphrasing here…the original, told by the umpire..Augie Donatelli??, ..Jocko Conlan??! ..who ever, is better than my memory can spool up).

        Resuming his place in the batter’s box, Musial rips the next pitch down the line again, only this time it is about five to ten feet fair, and he cruises into second (again!) with a double.

        The other good story was written in “Baseball Digest”, which featured stories of players who only got the proverbial “cup of coffee” in the big leagues. They were interviewed many decades after the fact, recalling what they experienced in their short stay in the Major Leagues.

        One former player recounted his call-up to the Cardinals (let’s call him Jim). He was pressing to the extreme, and was not doing too well. The accomplished veteran Musial invited Jim to dinner after a game, just the rookie and Musial. Jim was surprised yet quite honored. After plenty of small talk, Jim finally had to get it off his chest: every time he batted, he became extremely nervous, and he just couldn’t be himself, and felt he was playing like crap because he was so nervous. Musial reached over and touched his arm, “Nervous?!! Hell, I’m the most nervous guy you’ll ever see batting. I’m as nervous as can be!!! Heck, if you aren’t nervous while batting in a big league game, maybe you aren’t alive!!”

        Jim never forgot that little exchange for the rest of his days. He was so impressed that an accomplished, obvious future Hall of Famer like Musial would declare himself “in the same boat” as this rookie, trying to boost up Jim.

      2. I remember the quip by Musial in Sports Illustrated about his career. “I was a lowball hitter and highball drinker.”

  4. Sports were better when I was young, tickets were cheap, you could afford hotdogs and soda and the players weren’t all in it for the dough. I remember meeting several Dodgers’ players at my local Vons supermarket, where they’d sit at a folding table giving away signed 8X10’s. Try getting a free autograph today. I saw a Raider MLB in Costco a few years back signing anything for $50. After making all that money…

    I met Sandy Koufax, Don Sutton, Don Drysdale and many other players (too bad my mom threw out my photos when I went in the military…things mothers do). I can say that about actors too. One thing good about the Catholic Church when I was a kid, was that they had a “Retreat” each year where they always had people who starred in Westerns show up and sign autographs. I must have had a hundred of those also, including Eastwood, James Arness, etc., mom tossed those too. 🙁

    Anyway, I always appreciated these people back then and will remember my half hour talk with Mr. Koufax when I was about ten (only about 5 kids showed up). Those were the days and those were real heroes to us poor kids.

  5. I remember an interesting Musial story from I-don’t-know-where, showing what an incredibly gifted athlete he was:

    Curt Flood was sitting next to Stan in the dugout, and after Stan had a particularly excellent day at the plate (even at an advanced age for a normal ballplayer), Curt asked him, ‘Hey, Stan – how the heck do you do that, anyway?”

    Musial said, “I just keep my eye on the ball and swing as hard as I can.”

    Of course! Easy for him, maybe. Not so easy for the rest of us, even those guys who made it to the Majors and could never dream of being as great as Stan on their best day.:)

  6. To an outsider, baseball is about the most boring of all possible forms of sport. Watching it (I have tried it out of genuine curiosity) is pretty much like watching the paint dry. It is very hard for me to understand what is that anyone can find interesting about it.

    So, I find this American love of baseball wonderfully endearing. It’s like Ullamaliztli, the strange aztec ball game. It’s a part of a certain local culture that is probably not meant to be understood by outsiders, only to be appreciated as a huge phenomenom. In a way, it’s actually a bit dimished if exported abroad (e.g. the Olympics).

    And I somehow love the idea of seeing sabermetrics as a science. Futile, useless, without practical value apart from the coaches. Information just for the hell of it.

    1. You have to learn it by playing it. And, doing so as a kid.

      I recall a quote that rings very true: “If you want to understand Americans, you have to understand baseball.”

      It’s extremely hard to grasp the subtleties without playing it first. Imagine learning to ride a bike by watching it on videos, then entering a race, on a physical bicycle for the first time. In such a case, you’d be lucky to get a “watching paint dry” experience.

    2. Scott is right. To appreciate baseball; you have to know baseball. It is not a sport you can watch without understanding the nuances of the game. People can watch basketball, football, soccer, and even hockey, and find them entertaining, without understanding a lot of what is going on, but baseball is different. If you don’t understand the game you won’t like the game.

      Baseball is like chess in more ways than one, but perhaps it is most similar to chess in this regard: If you don’t understand it, I guarantee you that you will find it immeasurably boring.


      1. I don’t think baseball needs mystifying; it’s a relatively simple and aesthetically beautiful game, mentioned somewhere by Austen, no less. If I were American, I’m sure I’d love it; failed to get into a sold-out Fenway Park on my sole visit to the U.S. Misère, misère.

        1. I didn’t mean to indicate that baseball was overly perplexing. Just that the intricacies of baseball are much more integral to its appreciation and enjoyment than in most other major sports.

          Baseball, at least superficially, is quite simple, but that is not what makes it entertaining. It is the stuff going on underneath the surface, that’s not so obvious to outside observers, that makes it enjoyable and entertaining. For example, if it is a 1-2 count and the pitcher throws a fastball high and out of the zone. Most untrained observers will think he wasted a pitch, but that’s not it at all. He was trying to get the batter to chase a pitch that is more difficult to hit in a situation where he is going to be more likely to chase a pitch. Or maybe he was just changing the hitter’s eye level. Setting him up for something low and outside. Whatever he was trying to do, now, the count is 2-2 well usually this is a fastball count, but do you try to go off-speed to fool the hitter? Do you go inside or outside or high or low or low and inside or low and outside or high and inside? It all depends on who is at the plate and who is on the mound. Is the batter left-handed or right? Is the pitcher left-handed or right-handed? Does the hitter struggle with off-speed pitches? Does the hitter have power? What does the pitcher have working today? Is he locating his pitches? Does the hitter like to go the other way or does he like to pull the ball? What’s the umpire’s strike zone today? This kind of reasoning is what is going on between every pitch at much more complex level for trained observers. And it becomes even more complex with runner’s on base and in later innings. And I haven’t even touched on defensive positioning or what should happen if the ball is put in play.

          People that don’t know these things will almost always find baseball too slow and boring like ColdThinker.

            1. That reminds me of something Larry Kind said once of how he couldn’t imagine getting on in life without the excitement of looking at the box score in the morning. Paraphrase of course.

    3. Scott and Persto make very good points, particularly about playing the game. Having played a lot of shortstop, I know what it feels like before every pitch is delivered and understand that there really is no such thing as a ‘routine’ play – it’s just a matter of the level of difficulty. Playing also gives one a perspective on the incredible talent of the professionals, from fielding to hitting 90+MPH pitches.

      I don’t have much sports memorabilia from yesteryear, but the one autographed b&w photo that I do have is of Stan the Man – one of the best to ever play the game.

    4. In all fairness, many games ARE about as exciting as paint drying. Some games, unless you are a true hard core stats geek with a deeper than average understanding of the intricacies of the game, are so slow and uneventful that you’d swear you can hear the grass growing underneath the players’ feet. This is a problem particularly when there is a “fierce” pitching duel. I think that one of the best ways to really get into a game is to be there in person with someone who can tease out the details, explain the stats, and assist you with filling out a score card (not that I ever see anyone fill them out anymore) which encourages you to be a more involved in the game rather than being a passive observer.
      The best way to understand baseball, and probably the most enriching, is enculturation via parents and grandparents. My childhood is filled (and thankfully continues to be as an adult)with afternoons sitting on the front porch or on a boat in the Lake of the Ozarks with my grandpa while a ball game plays out on a tinny-sounding old transistor radio. Unfortunately, We’re from Kansas City.

      1. What got me hooked was listening on the radio. With good announcers you’re getting all the strategy, history, customs, personalities, etc., in real time. Nowadays, even if I were to go to the ballpark, I’d want to have the radio in my earbuds.

        Tigers fan here; we no longer have Ernie Harwell, but you can’t find better announcers than Dan Dickerson and Jim Price.

        1. Mentioning announcers brought back the memory of Dizzy Dean – what a hoot it was to listen to Dizzy call a game, with all his colorful language and ‘me and my brother Paul’ [Daffy]

  7. I am not the father of the poster above, but I grew up in Decatur, where my dad worked in the Round-House of the Wabash Railroad. We were quite poor, but we could get a pass to ride the railroad to St.Louis, Chicago, or Detroit (the Cannonball went between St. Louis and Detroit).
    On Sunday, May 2, 1954, I got on the train to St. Louis with my friend, Larry (his family was affluent enough to buy him a ticket), and we caught the bus to old Sportsmans Park on N. Grand, and watch Musial hit those five HRs against the hated Giants. Then back home for school Monday morning (we were sophomores). I can still picture the short right field wall.
    Also there that day was eight year old Nate Colebert, who had the only other 5 HR day (1972, with the expansion Padres).
    Musial was my idol, though I had a real soft spot for Red Schoendienst. I am a lefty, and of course I started with my feet close together and wiggled my butt; wasn’t good enough to make my high school team. I listened to every game (Harry Carey), struggling to tune in to KMOX (easy at night), keeping score in my home-made book.
    The “owner” of the Wabash Cannonball song, in the baseball world, was Dizzy Dean, who broke into song when there was a lull in the action. Since I rode on it occasionally, I was puzzled about the lyrics, referring to Atlantic to Pacific and mountains! (The Wabash River divides southern Indiana and Illinois.) I eventually learned that the song was first about the Rock Island Line (still no oceans or mountains), and the Wabash Railroad took the name of the train from the folksong, not vice versa.

  8. Very nice tribute to a great ballplayer. By all accounts Musial was a class-act; nobody seems to have had a bad word to say about the guy, ever.

    But you may be misremembering one detail of what your father told you about him (or maybe what he told you wasn’t accurate): No major leaguer has ever “regularly” scored from first on a single.

    Musial had good foot speed, and he was a heads-up base-runner. Nevertheless, there have been faster ballplayers, and none of them ever made it home from first on a single on a regular basis either.

    The play is something of an oddity, like an inside-the-park homer. It usually involves a hit-and-run, or an attempted stolen base, or where there are two out and a full-count and, thus, the runner on first is off with the pitch — a situation, that is, where the base-runner is well on his way to second by the time the ball is hit. (Otherwise, it’s also scored as scoring from first on a single where the batted ball should be an extra-base hit but, for one reason or another, the batter doesn’t get past first.)

    Your dad may have been generalizing a bit hastily from what he saw happen a time or two while stationed in St. Louie — or maybe a regular at the ballpark there exaggerated to him the frequency with which Musial could make it around the horn from first on a single.

    Anyway, thanks for the remembrance of “Stash,” a ballplayer’s ballplayer, if ever a one there was.

  9. Lovely post. His characteristic pose is feline–the coiling, the rump wiggle, then the sudden burst of energy–down to the last detail!

    There seems presently to be not much appreciation for subtle people. When did our culture get so loud?

    Though not interested in watching/playing team sports (give me the person swimming around Manhattan or climbing a mountain, then you have my interest in the sense I will devour reading about their exploits, and even better nowadays, their websites!), the men that played baseball when I was growing up in America were admirable people who had a good time giving their best for others.

  10. My freshman year in high school I played a baseball board game with a friend of mine regularly. We kept stats, traded players, it was serious business. This game had all of the great players of the past, Hall of Famers, and some shamers like Shoeless Joe Jackson. One night we were playing and my friend’s older brother came in and he was checking out the game. He saw one of us had Stan Musial on the bench. He said, “You got Stan the Man on the bench? That’s Stan the Man! You gotta play Stan the Man!” “Who?” “Musial!” LOL! We didn’t know who the hell he was at the time.

  11. Thanks for the post. I’ve been a lifelong Cardinal fan, and Stan was my boyhood hero. When the Cards came to Chicago, I loved going to see Stan play in the lovely confines of Wrigley Field. A great ballplayer and a gentleman.

    By the way, I just finished your book which was recommended in the Coursera class that I was taking. Great book.

  12. As a Cub fan, I grew up hating everything about the Cardinals – except for Stan Musial. You just had to like and respect the man. I always liked what Bill James said about Ken Griffey, Jr. – “The second-best left-handed hitting, left-handed throwing outfielder ever born in Donora, Pennsylvania on November 21.”

    Griffey Jr. will probably be elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 2015 (he is not, at least at this time, of steroid use). But as good as he was, he did not surpass Stan the Man.

  13. Growing up in San Diego, I followed the Padres. Which is why I know that the only other player besides Musial to hit 5 home runs in one day is Nate Colbert, who had 5 homers and 12 RBIs in a doubleheader in 1972.

    Of course, that highlights the difference between one-game or one-day feats versus season-long or career-long accomplishments. Colbert was the best Padres player in those days, but he was obviously no Stan Musial.

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