Our Man’s Gone Now

This past weekend brought momentous baseball news – the deaths of all-time Cardinal great Stan Musial at 92 and celebrated Orioles’ manager Earl Weaver, suddenly on a baseball-related cruise at 82.  Because Musial was older and his career more distant, I read less commentary on him, so will deal with him first and Weaver later, in a separate entry.

“Stan the Man”, baseball’s “perfect, gentle knight”, suddenly gone at 92.  It’s perhaps not appropriate to mourn the passing of someone who lived that long, he wasn’t cheated, certainly beat the odds.  When someone of his stature goes though, it’s fitting and natural to pause for a moment, to take stock and remember why we were lucky to have him with us for so long.  It’s apt that Musial lived to be such an age, he didn’t have any bad habits, looked after himself and his baseball career was defined by consistency and longevity.

Musial was born November 20, 1920 in Donora, Pennsylvania, a small town in the state’s coal mining region, which also produced both Ken Griffeys, senior and junior.  I guess there was something in the water.  He broke into the major leagues in 1941 as a 20-year-old, playing 12 games with the Cardinals, hitting a very loud .426.  This was enough to make him a regular in 1942, even though the Cards at the time were a powerhouse and a very tough team to catch on with, owing to Branch Rickey’s obsessive stockpiling of young talent in the St. Louis farm system during the late 1930s.

Musial was not particularly big – 6′ tall, 175 pounds, and was noted for his uniquely balanced, left-handed “peekaboo” batting stance, so called because he kept the bat held high and back and his head tucked in, peering out at the pitcher over his right shoulder.  His beautiful, quick and level swing uncoiled tremendous line-drive power – in his early years he averaged 45 to 50 doubles and 15 to 20 triples a season – the swing also brought consistency.  His batting average in his peak years 1943-52 was about .350, with 200 hits per season. 

Apart from his talent, Musial was hard-working, dedicated and a very intelligent player.  This showed in the development of his home-run hitting, which spiked upward as he turned 27; in the years 1942-7 he hit between 10 and 19 homers, from 1948 to 1957 he would average over 30 per year, with a high of 39 in 1948.  He wasn’t really a slugger, home runs were one of the few categories he never led his league in.  He always hit the ball hard though and struck out very seldom, surpassing 40 whiffs in only three seasons, two of these in his final years, when he was past the age of 40.

In terms of team achievement, the glory phase of Musial’s career came during his first five years.  The Cardinals would win the pennant 1942-44, 1946 and finished in a tie for it with the Dodgers in 1947.  The only year they missed winning the pennant then was 1945, when Musial was in the army, which should tell you something.  The Cards won three championships – in 1942, ’44 and ’46 – they lost the Series to the Yankees in 1943 and the three-game pennant playoff to the arch-rival Dodgers in 1947.  From that point on, the Dodgers would eclipse the Cardinals as the National League’s dominant team, but this would not be due to any lack of effort or achievement on Musial’s part.  It largely had to do with a difference in team-building philosophy – the Dodgers pioneered the use of black talent in major-league baseball – the Cardinals, as baseball’s most Southern team, did not use a black player until the mid-1950s.

Indeed, Musial’s nickname, “The Man” was bestowed by Dodger fans out of respect for Musial’s hitting in Ebbets Field, a park where his bat always wreaked devastation.  When the Cardinals visited, the denizens of Brooklyn got in the habit of saying, “Here come dose Cardinals and dat man Musial, dat man who always kills us” and so a rare moniker from the enemy camp was born.

Musial of course played his entire 22-year career with St. Louis, and is the epitome of Cardinals baseball along with Bob Gibson and a few others.  He lived in St. Louis during all of his career and retirement and was a much-revered local institution and that rarity of rareties – a star who was a regular guy, an idol who walked among the people. 

Musial shifted from left field to first base and I always assumed this happened as he began to slow down, but it may have had more to do with team needs, because the pattern is not consistent.  He played first base in most of 1946 and all of 1947 (early in his career), then moved back to the outield until 1955, when he played four years mostly at first base again.  In his final years though, he was back in the outfield almost exclusively.  This is unMusial – sorry – unusual.

To get some idea of his overall greatness, a look at his career record in the McMillan Baseball Encyclopedia is instructive.  In these charts, any season a player leads his league in any category, the number is printed in bold ink.  A very good player may have 10 or so of these marks, a Hall-of-Famer closer to 15 or 20; this is what statisticians and historians call “passing the black ink test.”  Musial has 40 of these bold marks.  The McMillan numbers are skewed toward certain things and ignore others, so this method is far from perfect or scientific.

But, to give you some idea, Babe Ruth has 68 bold marks, Ty Cobb has 55.  Ted Williams has 44, Mickey Mantle 29, Hank Aaron 25, Willie Mays 24.  Stan Musial’s bold ink marks are spread across many categories.  He led the league in doubles eight times (with a second-best 725 in his career) and won seven batting titles (hitting .331 lifetime.)  He led in slugging percentage six times (.559 overall.)  Five times he led the league in hits (3,630), triples (177) and runs scored (1,949.)  He led in RBI twice (1,951, over 100 in 10 seasons) and once in walks and at-bats.  As mentioned, he never led the league in home runs, but the man hit 475 of them, he wasn’t exactly a slouch in this department.  The McMillan numbers don’t keep track of things like on-base-percentage or on-base-plus-slugging (OPS), otherwise Musial would have had 53 bold marks.  He led the league in OBP six times (career .417) and OPS seven times (an extremely high .976 for his career.)  You get the picture here, Musial was an automatic first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee, the very definition of what being an absolute, Grade-A Hall-of-Famer is – a truly great player on the field and a good person away from it.

His only real rival as the greatest left-fielder ever is his contemporary, Ted Williams.  Williams was clearly a better hitter than even Musial in all respects, but in other aspects of the game – baserunning, fielding, hustle, contributing to the clubhouses of winning teams – I’d have to go with Stan.

The most similar player to Musial was probably Carl Yastrzemski.  Except in batting average – Yaz hit .285 – their career numbers are very close, though Musial was clearly better, his talents pitched a little higher.  They had the same strengths though and there are other strong parallels – both came from hard-working Polish immigrant stock, both were dedicated, serious-minded ballplayers who played long careers with one team, at the same positions.

Though cheerful and good-humoured, with an oft-seen smile, Musial was never flamboyant or bold, was rather staid and modest in his career.  Not a goody-goody, but not a party boy or attention-seeker either.  He absolutely loved everything about playing professional baseball and never said or did anything to besmirch the game, to bite the hand that fed him.  We now live in a much different baseball time, one of free agency, inflated salaries, saturation-level media coverage and celebrity worship.  This has led to some inflated, surly egos and the frequent overhyping of certain players, some of them deserving, some not, some a little prematurely, almost all of it excessive.  I have this old-fart voice in my head that most often reacts to this with, “Yeah, so-and-so had a great year and he looks pretty good – but is he Stan Musial?  Can he keep it up for fifteen or twenty seasons?  How soon will he say or do something stupid to embarass us, himself, or the game?”  To me, Musial and a handful of others really represent the overall standard against which aspirants or pretenders to baseball greatness must be measured, both on and off the field. 

Maybe the most telling detail of his career was that the only time he was seriously injured came as a result of an off-season workout.  Think about that for a second, if you were the owner or manager of a team, this is how you would want your star to injure himself in the winter, if at all.  Not in a bar fight or drag-racing, not falling down and breaking a leg pulling on cowboy boots or doing the mambo on “Dancing With the Stars”, but trying to stay in shape.  No, Stan the Man was not colourful or controversial, wasn’t good copy or a memorable, sexy interview.  What he mostly was however, was a ballplayer.  The kind who comes along once in a generation, maybe even once in a lifetime.  So Stan, rest in peace, and thanks for raising and keeping the bar so high.

© 2013, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

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