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Perfect Warrior

He started out as a dead-armed Class-D pitcher and turned into one of the most consistent and accomplished hitters of all time; a first-ballot Hall-of-Fame player who rewrote the record book.  “He could hit .300 with a fountain pen,” said Joe Garagiola.  Even now, he continues to be overlooked time and time again.  His middle name should have been “win,” not Frank.  On May 2, 1954, he hit five consecutive home runs in a double-header; it’s only been done one other time.  You did not want to get caught in the john when this guy came to bat.  Some say you could have placed him in the line-up in a wheelchair with no bat, and just his presence alone would have made everyone else better.  Striking this guy out was like Einstein having trouble with mathematics; it just didn’t happen.  He was considered a man who was wholesome, with great character, and he always smiled on or off the field.  He could have easily been on the cover of Saturday Evening Post.  He was a good guy, the Lone Ranger with a bat.  He owned a “gee whiz” attitude and an “aw shucks” grin.  He was tall and appeared frail with apple-colored cheeks.  He learned slight-of-hand magic and drove cars very fast, like he was out of cigarettes.  He never went to college, but he has been to the White House.  He had good speed and ran the bases so smoothly, with no movement from the waist up, except his arms.  They may have invented the word “impact” to describe this guy.  
     There have been many great baseball players, and then there was Stan Musial.  “Stan the Man” was the perfect warrior and connects us to thousands of yesterdays.  What boy didn’t want to pick up a bat and hit like Stan Musial?  His swing was so level, if you placed a coin on top of his bat, it wouldn’t fall off.  He recorded 3,630 hits, 1,815 at home and the same number away.  He looked funny, swung funny, but he sure could hit.  At his place or yours, he could flat-out hit.  It has been said that the only marks on his bat were on the “sweet spot,” a five-inch area on the barrel of the bat.  Many times, the results of a St. Louis Cardinals game could be summed up in three words, “Too much Musial.”  Hall-of-Fame Broadcaster Vin Scully once said, “He was good enough to take your breath away.”
     November in Donora, Pennsylvania, is typically cold and grey.  The city lies 28 miles South of Pittsburgh, the home of his favorite baseball team, the Pirates.  It was on November 21, 1920, that Stanley Frank “Stan” Musial was born to Polish parents, Mary and Lukasz Musial.  They would live in his grandmother’s house.  His original name was Stanislaus, but was later changed to Stanley when he enrolled at school.  He would be the fifth of six kids and the oldest boy.  “The first toy I ever received was a baseball that my mother made for me,” said Musial.  Being left-handed, his favorite players were pitchers “Lefty” Grove of the Philadelphia Athletics and Carl Hubbell of the NY Giants.  Stan pumped gas at a service station for $25 a week, while becoming a very good basketball and baseball player for the Donora High School Dragons.  He once struck out 17 batters in a single high-school game.  Stan and his brother Ed dreamed of the big leagues.  They would use sports as an escape.  Musial was offered a basketball scholarship by the University of Pittsburgh, but turned it down.   
     In 1941, Bernard Kahn wrote a report on Musial after watching him play at Spring Training in Hollywood, Florida.  “Musial runs like a silk hose, throws like a bullet, and hits like, well, like hell,” said Kahn.  Kahn was right; Musial would make his Major League debut on September 17, 1941.  He signed a $400-a-month contract and played leftfield for St. Louis Cardinals’ skipper, Billy Southworth.  Musial did not understand why his boyhood team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, never scouted him.  Southworth, known as “Billy the Kid,” made sure that Stan knew he was his leftfielder.  With teammates like big John Mize, Enos Slaughter, Terry Moore, Marty Marion and Harry Walker, it was easy for a kid to be intimidated.  Musial’s first hit was a double off knuckleball pitcher, Jim Tobin of the Boston Braves, in the second game of a doubleheader. 
     At the beginning of the 1942 season, Branch Rickey tore up Musial’s old contract and gave him a new one for $700 a month.  Stan promptly began to earn his new pay with his first Major League home run off of Pirates’ pitcher Rip Sewell, in Pittsburgh.  “I started to crouch, because that way I could guard the plate better, and I always wanted to hit .300 in the big leagues,” said Musial.  Later, Musial connected on his first grand slam off the same pitcher, but this time in St. Louis.  Musial and the Cardinals would go on to win the 1942 World Series against the New York Yankees, four games to one.
     Stan was elected to his first All-Star game in 1943.  It was played in Philadelphia and was also the first All-Star game played under the lights.  He hit .357 that year and won his first National League batting title and the Most Valuable Player Award.  Musial said, “The key to hitting for a high average is to relax, concentrate, and don’t hit the fly ball to centerfield.”  Unfortunately, the Cardinals lost the 1943 World Series to the New York Yankees.  St. Louis won the pennant again in 1944 and faced the Browns in the first and only all-St. Louis World Series.  Interestingly, the two managers, Luke Sewell of the Browns and Billy Southworth of the Cards, shared an apartment during the regular season.  The Cardinals would beat their cross-town rivals four games to two.  Musial and the Cardinals had played and won three pennants and two World Series in four years.  Stan was drafted and decided to join the Navy on January 23, 1945.  He was shipped to Pearl Harbor to help repair the U.S. fleet, but instead mostly played baseball to entertain the troops.  It was here that he played first base for the first time.  He never did learn much about ship rebuilding.  He was discharged late in 1945, in time to start the 1946 season with St. Louis. 
     Stan was given the nickname “Stan the Man” in 1946.  “I’d always hit hard against the Dodgers,” said Stan.  “My friend and writer for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Bob Broeg, detected a chant from the Brooklyn crowd.  Every time I came to bat they would chant, ‘Here comes the man.’”  Stan’s nickname was born.  “I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit liking it,” said Musial.  No doubt about it, Stan Musial owned Ebbets Field.  Stan recorded a .356 career average at Ebbets Field, which included a two-year period, where Stan batted .531, accumulating 43 hits, consisting of 11 doubles, 5 triples, and 8 home runs.  He even received standing ovations from the Brooklyn fans.  Dodger pitcher Carl Erskine said, “I’ve had pretty good success with Musial by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third.”  The Cardinals and Dodgers met in a best of three-game playoff, and St. Louis won two out of the three games to meet the Boston Red Sox in the 1946 Series.  Musial and his mates would square off against Johnny Pesky, Dom DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, Rudy York, and the amazing Ted Williams.  During the season, “Teddy Ballgame” hit .342 with 38 home runs and 123 RBI’s, while Musial had hit .365 with 50 doubles, 20 triples, 16 home runs, and 103 RBI’s.  Stan would out-hit Williams during the Series, and St. Louis won another Championship.  Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter’s mad dash from first to home, to score the winning run, had been the difference.  It was St. Louis’s sixth World Series title.  Stan also won his second Most Valuable Player Award.  Everybody wanted to be connected to Musial; the kids even painted his #6 on their tee shirts.  At school they learned to divide, so they could keep up with his batting average.
     Musial hit his first All-Star Game home run in 1948 off Walt Masterson at St. Louis’s Sportsman’s Park.  He also finished the year with 39 home runs during the regular season.  Dodger Pitcher, Preacher Roe, was quoted as saying, “I know how to pitch to Musial.  Walk him on four wide ones and then pick him off first.”  Stan also tied the 1922 single-season record, held by the great Ty Cobb, of four games with five hits.  Here’s the part you never hear about.  Stan Musial, in the record-tying fourth game, only swung at five pitches and connected all five times for base hits.  He would win his third Most Valuable Player Award, the first National League player to do so.  Stan was indeed the man. 
     As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, on May 2, 1954, Stan hit five home runs consecutively during a doubleheader.  Musial would return for the 1957 season with a secret.  He had quit smoking, and been told by Busch that his #6 was going to be retired after he finished playing.  No Cardinal would ever wear that number again.  But those two things were not the secret.  The secret was that for the first time ever, Stan Musial had changed his batting stance.  He hoped it would be such a small change that no one would notice, but some of his teammates said he looked like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, in the batter’s box.  The slider was rapidly becoming a major pitch in most pitchers’ arsenals and Stan had trouble hitting that pitch.  By cutting down on the degree of his stride towards a pitched ball, he was able to pull the inside pitch and hit it with power.  He was willing to give up the outside corner realizing that few pitchers had good enough control to throw three pitches for strikes on the outside part of the plate.  Stan was right and, of course, it worked.  Stan went 4 for 4 on opening day against Cincinnati.  Musial won his seventh batting title and was elected the 1957 Sporting News Player of the Year. 
     It also helped him on January 29, 1958, as he became the first National League player to sign a contract for $100,000.  On May 13, 1958, Musial hit a double at Wrigley Field against Cubs’ pitcher Moe Drabowsky for his 3,000th hit.  Stan hit number 3,001 the next day in St. Louis.  At the time there were only eight players with 3,000 hits and three were dead:  Honus Wagner, Eddie Collins, and Cap Anson.  The St. Louis Cardinals threw a party for Stan and invited the remaining members.  Tris Speaker and Paul Waner attended, while Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie were too old and feeble to make the trip. 
     One record after another occurred for Musial, in 1962.  I guess if you play long enough, those things happen.  It had been said that Stan Musial would never get into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, because he wouldn’t retire.  Early that year, Stan tied and passed Honus Wagner’s record for the most hits in the National League.  In June, Stan passed Ty Cobb’s Major League record of total bases with 5,863.  In July, Musial broke Mel Ott’s National League record of 1,860 RBI’s.  The record was established against LA Dodger Don Drysdale.  As a rookie, Drysdale had been quoted as saying that Stan Musial was his favorite player.  Ted Williams told this story about Musial.  “When I was at the 1960 World Series, a woman came up to me, told me I was her favorite ballplayer, and asked for my autograph.  While I was signing, she casually mentioned that she was Stan Musial’s mother.  I told her she should be giving me her autograph.”  Williams continued, “He wasn’t just one of the best, he was the best hitter in the National League for almost 20 years.”   
     Stan always said that lefthanders, Johnny Vander Meer and Curt Simmons, were the toughest pitchers he had ever faced.  He added Clem Labine as the toughest right-hander.  Warren Spahn once admitted, “Stan Musial was the only batter I ever intentionally walked with the bases loaded.”  On May 8, 1963, Musial hit a home run off Dodger pitcher Bob Miller, which broke Babe Ruth’s Major League record for extra base hits at 1,356.  To be fair, Musial had been to bat 2,500 more times than the Babe.  Musial’s last career hit (3,630) came in his last at-bat on September 29, 1963.  Musial had collected two hits in his last game just as he had in his first game (September 17, 1941).  The score for both games was also the same, 3-2.  One of those hits was a “screamer,” just out of the reach of Cincinnati rookie second baseman, Pete Rose.  Welcome to the big leagues, Pete.  Stan Musial retired at the end of the 1963 season.  The scorecards for his final game actually said “Stan Musial’s last game.”    
     Musial’s numbers are astounding.  Stan played 22 seasons, all for the Cardinals.  He played in 100 or more games, 21 seasons in a row.  He batted .310 or better for 17 seasons and hit 475 home runs, with 1,951 RBI’s.  He played in 3,026 games and struck out only 696 times.  That’s one strikeout every 4.3 games.  Stan never struck out 50 times in a season.  He scored 1,949 runs and walked 1,599 times, while hitting .331 for his career.  He played on three World Series championship teams in five seasons and won the National League MVP Award three times.  He finished second in the voting four times.  He won seven National League batting titles.  He was elected to 24 All-Star Games and was chosen to the Major League Baseball All-Century team.  From 1959 to 1963 there were two All-Star Games each year.  Stan Musial is still the only Major League player with more than 400 home runs and less than 700 strikeouts.  Stan Musial owned 55 Major League records when he retired at the end of the 1963 season.  He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969 on his first ballot, with 93.2% of the vote.  “When Stan was around, you just got the feeling everything was going to be okay,” said Tim McCarver. 
Musial was named Vice President of the Cardinals’ organization in September of 1963.  He would later be named the Cards’ General Manager during the 1967 season, and he oversaw that club’s World Series championship.  On August 4, 1968, a statue of Musial was erected outside of Busch Memorial Stadium.  The inscription was attributed to former baseball commissioner Ford Frick who said, “Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior.  Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.”  Stan has been ranked as the tenth greatest baseball player of all time and the second best leftfielder of all time.  He was placed behind; you guessed it, Ted Williams.  
     In February of 2011, Musial was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.  It is the highest American civilian honor for contributions to society.  A second statue of Musial was also unveiled at Busch Memorial Stadium.  I guess one was not enough.
     The Heavens are weeping tonight in St. Louis, because Stan Musial has passed away.  The date is January 19, 2013.  Stan was 92 years old.  Musial is the second Hall-of-Famer to pass in less than 24 hours.  Eighty-two-year old Earl Weaver left us this morning.  Musial died in his suburban home in the Ladue section of St. Louis surrounded by family.  He had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and was under the care of hospice.  Why is it that we are always so much more appreciative of someone we’ve lost?  Stan may be one of the most overlooked baseball players in the history of the Major Leagues.  Will Rogers once said, “You wouldn’t worry so much what people thought about you, if you knew how seldom they did.”  That may be true unless your name is Stan Musial.  His name will live as long as there is a game called baseball.  
Andy Purvis is a local author.  His books "In the Company of Greatness" and "Remembered Greatness" are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc.  They are also available in e-reader format.  Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or andy.purvis@grandecom.net.

6 Comments to Perfect Warrior:

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