Saturday, January 23, 2010

Stan Musial - The Cardinals' Prince

When Stan Musial hit the ground diving for a flyball in the summer of 1940, his career should have been over. He blew out his arm; not good for a pitching prospect playing in his third year of Class D ball - glorified semi-pro. The Cardinals had almost released him after his underwhelming first year (6-6, 4.66 ERA) for being wild and inconsistent.

But a friend encouraged Musial to try the outfield. Musial had no home run power (2 homers in over 500 ABs) but he could hit a little in the gaps and could run.

The next year, he started as a border-line prospect in Class C and wound up in late September with the St. Louis Cardinals in a pennant race. He hit .426 in 12 games - with power. By 1943 he was the league’s MVP. The Cardinals won four pennants and 3 World Championships in Musial’s first four full years.

And then he got better.

In 1948, he hit .376, with 39 homers and 131 RBIs. Musial won his 3rd MVP award but missed the Triple Crown by one home run. Blame the St. Louis Browns. The Cardinals had beaten the Browns in the World Series in 1944. The usually inept St. Louis Browns owned Sportsman's Park where the Cardinals played. The Browns had covered the right field stands in 1929 with a wire screen on an off-day after they had been hammered with home runs by the Tigers. (Four of Ruth's 60 home runs in 1927 had been at Sportsman's Park.) In 1948 Musial must have caromed a couple of his 46 doubles that year off the screen that, but for the Browns, would have been home runs. The Browns had their revenge for 1944.

1948 produced Musial's 2 "rookie" cards. (The card business had taken a breather during World War II.) The more famous of the 2 was a black and white portrait known as Bowman #36. To the right is a chrome refractor reprint of #36, serial numbered 255/299.

In 1952, Bowman produced another Musial classic card #196. Musial is shown in his batting stance wearing a Cardinals' home jersey with his signature at the top of the card. A beautiful card - but the artist may have failed to capture Musial's famous crouch. (Click on this link to view a video of Musial in his batting stance and see what you think.)

In Musial's first 16 years, he never hit below .300. He had a particular fondness for Dodger pitching. Carl Erskine, the fine Dodger pitcher of the '50s, said of Musial "I've had pretty good success with Stan by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third." One day at Ebbetts Field the Dodger fans in the bleachers started chanting: "Here comes that man again." whenever Musial came to bat.

Musial had a nickname: "The Man."

Musial was an exciting hitter, shooting the gaps and always gunning for the extra base. He hit 177 triples (the most exciting play in baseball) in his career - more than any other player since 1940. He was the National League batting champion 7 times. He was also the glue of the city. Cardinal fans would listen to the games on their front porches. Listening to Harry Carey on sultry summer nights. Drinking Busch Bavarian beer. Waiting for Musial to come to bat. Vin Scully said Musial took your breath away when he played.

And he may have been a better man. He was universally respected by the players. Ty Cobb was an outspoken admirer. Musial rarely argued a call. Was never thrown out of a game. He was generous with his time. When Dickie Kerr, the man who had encouraged him to stay in baseball as an outfielder, fell on hard times, Musial didn't send flowers. He bought Kerr a new home.

Musial was a part owner of a bowling alley on the South side of St. Louis. In the 5th grade I bowled in a league there. My team won the championship. Trophies were to be passed out on a Saturday morning. That day, Musial was there dressed in a gray suit, passing out trophies to somebody else's kids. Instead of sleeping in, he game them a memory to last a lifetime.

Musial faded a bit toward the end of his career but he still had enough pop to hit .330 as a semi-regular in 1962 when he was almost 42 years old. He stayed in St. Louis after he retired in 1963. He became the Cardinals' general manager for 1 year in 1967. They beat the Red Sox in 7 games in the World Series that year.

He still lives in St. Louis with his wife of 70 years. The Cardinals have had maybe more great players than any other team in baseball not named the Yankees. Hornsby, Frisch, Dizzy Dean, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith and now Pujols are some. But none compares to Musial who Bob Costas described as representing "more than two decades of sustained excellence and complete decency as a human being."

My son Caleb and I have been lucky in pulling 2 of Musial's autographed cards. One came from a 2006 Topps Sterling pack, shown above left. The card features Musial's September call-up in 1941 with what looks like a mid-career photo of him in the midst of a swing. Musial's signature is in blue ink and readable. The card is numbered 7 of 10.
Die cut on the left side of the card is the year "1941" inside of which are embedded 2 swatches of material from a flannel home jersey,1 swatch of a flannel road jersey, and a piece of one of Musial's bats. The second autograph came from a pack my son ripped from a box of 2004 Leaf Certified Cuts. The player featured on the box was Musial. The card is serial numbered 1 of 14.

The more that time has separated fans from Musial's playing days, the more his star has dimmed compared to his American League counterpart Ted Williams. Perhaps it's because Williams' darker personality attracts more interest than Musial's gentle optimism. Bill James in his HIstorical Abstract published in 1986 rated Musial as the best left fielder of all time. Williams was 2nd. (Musial, interestingly, played positions other than left field most of his career.) In James's second edition, published 15 years later, he ranked Williams ahead of Musial - without explanation. With 2 players as great as Musial and Williams perhaps you shouldn't rank them.

But if you have to, I think James had it right the first time.

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