Baseball, my beloved refuge from the world, is a game of numbers. I find it a great irony that a game which is a lazy pastime is caught up in advanced mathematics.
There are great players, phenomenal players, Hall-of-Fame players …. and then there are the highest echelons …. the Immortals. Ruth and Gehrig, the racist paranoid Cobb, Teddy Ballgame, the Say Hay Kid …. Hammerin’ Hank. The last two are the last alive on that list, because another of their number passed on this past week. Stan Musial. Stan “the Man”.
For those interested in ethnicity, the Italians had the private and quiet DiMaggio. The Puerto Ricans had the immortal Roberto Clemente. For Jews, there was the great slugger Hank Greenberg. Poles had Stanislaw Franciszek Musial. He was soft spoken, and fit in perfectly in the Midwest. While DiMaggio stayed in the shadows, and Ted Williams was considered too antagonistic (though this was overblown by the press), Musial was a public commodity: as beloved by the public as he was respected by his colleagues. Mickey Mantle once said something to the effect of “He is a better player than me because he is a better person than me.”
Musial was named or elected to 24 All-Star games. That’s as many as Willie Mays, and no one has been elected to more. Given the current structure of the All-Star Game, it is highly unlikely that this record will be approached, let alone topped. He slammed 475 home runs, and walked 1599 times …. amazingly striking out only 696 times … all good for a 0.331 batting average. His 725 doubles is third all-time, and since he hit his 177 career triples, no one has hit as many. Only he and Gehrig have 400 home runs, 500 doubles, and 150 triples. The man … he didn’t care what kind of hit …
… he also didn’t seem to care where. On the last game of his career, he hit safely for the 3,630th time in his career; then the all-time National League record. At the time, only Ty Cobb had more, and since, only Hank Aaron and Pete Rose have hit more. One of the most extraordinary things about his career: 1,815 of his hits were collected at home in St. Louis, and 1,815 were collected in road games. He was unfazed by his settings.
His first at-bat in the Major Leagues was a hit. So was his last. His last hit went past the diving rookie second baseman of the Cincinnati Reds. When the outfielder returned the ball to the infield, the second baseman caught the ball, and walked it over to Stan Musial just before he was taken out of the game.
That second baseman was Pete Rose … the man who would one day pass Musial to set the National League and then the Major League record for hits. No one could have fathomed the importance of that simple moment, yet it must go down as one of baseball’s all-time great moments.
Musial was also the measuring stick of the passage of time. Musial’s first game was in 1941. This was the last summer of peace in the United States. Players still left their mitts on the field when they went in to bat. Jackie Robinson was still six years off. St. Louis was the furthest west that professional sports went in the United States.
His last at -bat was in the Autumn of 1963. John Kennedy had less than two months to live. We were well into the space age. Musial’s teammates included Bob Gibson and Curt Flood, two African-American players, one who would re-write the record books of baseball pitching, and the other who would help rewrite the labor rules of the game. Flood scored on Musial’s last hit; his final RBI. The Braves had moved to Milwaukee, and the Dodgers and Giants, New York institutions, were now in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Musial was beloved even by baseball fans who lived nowhere near St. Louis. Among players, he was well respected. Ty Cobb hated everyone, and even Cobb once said “No man has ever been a perfect ballplayer. Stan Musial, however, is the closest to being perfect in the game today….” When Albert Pujols established himself as a great slugger with the Cardinals in the last decade, some took to calling him “El Hombre”. He asked people to stop it. Even though he wasn’t alive to see Musial play, he felt that he was unworthy to share Musial’s nickname, even if it was in Spanish. How unfathomable is it for a modern player to recognize that greatness, and to realize that he was unworthy of the comparison?
After retirement, he spent time as the President’s Special Adviser on Physical Fitness. In 1967, the Cardinals hired him as general manager, but before 12 months had passed, he resigned to take control of his business interests after his business partner died. In his one year as General Manager of the team, the Cardinals won the World Series.
His life followed a certain simplicity. He was born in the coal mining town of Donora, Pennsylvania, and he was known among baseball fans as “The Donora Greyhound”. When he was 15, he met a girl named Lillian. They married in 1940, and remained married until her death in 2012. That might be the most impressive number associated with Musial. He lived to celebrate his seventy-second wedding anniversary!! He stayed so consistent that he became a grandfather for the first time in 1960, and then celebrated by hitting a home run later that evening. Not many grandfathers get to play Major League Baseball.
No one is perfect. I am sure that Musial wasn’t. But given the long list of baseball stars whose weaknesses overshadow their greatness, Musial managed to make it through his career and through a retirement of over 50 years without any significant scandal or concern. Ford Frick once had attributed to him one of baseball’s most beautiful quotes, supposedly said in reference to Musial: “Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.” It is inscribed on one of the two statues representing him at Busch Stadium. That’s right: 2 statues.
A few years ago, my uncle bequeathed me some of his memorabilia. One of them was a personally autographed photo from Musial that he got while he was recovering from a severe injury in the hospital. My uncle lived on the South Side of Chicago. He wasn’t a Cardinals fan. Musial didn’t seem to care. I had it framed, it has occupied a prominent place on the wall.
When Musial came to bat for the final time, St. Louis radio fans were listening to young Harry Caray.
As Harry put it:
This might be the last time at bat in the Major Leagues … Remember the stance … and the swing … You’re not likely to see his likes again.
For as goofy as Harry could get, he was likely never as prescient as in that moment. This is the 50th anniversary year of his leaving baseball. We have had Ripkens and Schmidts. We have had Thomas’ and Thomes. Carters and Fisks. Bretts and Biggios.
We wait still for the next Musial.