Gene Collier: Stan Musial was a legend with a bat

Published:

Baseball's perfect knight has fallen, but it won't do to simply call him great.

"Great" is an adjective just so perfectly inadequate, because the subject was, instead, by crucial distinction, firmly among the greatest, and the very greatest at that.

Stan "The Man" Musial, whose thumping baseball elegance and unfailing humanist poise adorned most of an American century, died Jan. 19. He was 92.

The Hall of Famer won seven National League batting titles, was a three-time Most Valuable Player and helped the St. Louis Cardinals capture three World Series championships in the 1940s.

If, as has been attributed to baseball's cultural geography, Willie Mays' glove is the place where triples went to die, then Musial's bat is the long-shuttered factory that for decades pounded out doubles off the wall, and those were just a portion of the monstrous industrial production that carved the image of Stanley Frank Musial into the game's eternal pantheon.

Mays, whom many consider the game's enduring king of all skills, gave a speech about aspirations early in his career that ended, "But most of all, I'd like to hit like Stan Musial."

To get your baseball mind around the way Musial hit, to embrace the utter relentlessness of his prowess, it's instructive to think of another Willie, of the late Wilver Dornell Stargell, the first-ballot Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Famer. Musial was the arithmetic mirror image of Stargell in that each hit exactly 475 home runs, except that Musial's batting average (.331) was some 50 points higher, with roughly twice the doubles and three times the triples.

Such are the differences between the truly great and those few who are assuredly among the greatest. Some 17,000 men have played Major League Baseball. Five drove in more runs than Musial.

To hit like Musial was a goal achievable only by the game's greatest artists, as Stan The Man's bat was the instrument not so much of a calculating masher as an obsessively practiced virtuoso.

"He had little baby hands, and he used the thinnest bat handle you could get," said the now-81-year-old Dick Groat, the former Pirates MVP and a teammate of Musial's on the 1963 Cardinals. "A normal player couldn't use a bat like that. It would break every time the ball hit it almost. But Stan rarely broke a bat. He always hit it right on the sweet spot."

Before he was Stan The Man, the nicknamed affixed to him by adoring crowds in the otherwise hostile climate of Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, where Musial routinely tortured the Dodgers ("Here comes that man again!"), he was "The Donora Greyhound," as it was that very Pennsylvania mill town where Musial's father, Lukasz, settled after leaving Poland in 1910.

Musial made it to the big leagues in 1941, and the first impression of baseball's establishment was that this kid would never hit like crazy, and maybe not as all, not as long as he stood in the batters box like a kid peeking around the corner of a candy store to see if anyone was behind the counter.

But in the 1948 season, Musial led the National League in runs, runs batted in and on-base percentage, and led both leagues in hits, doubles, triples, batting average, slugging percentage and, though the stat hadn't been invented yet, in OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging). He had five hits in a game four times that season.

Had he homered on the final day of the season, he would have won the Triple Crown. He finished with 39 homers, 131 RBI, and a batting average of .376.

He remained among the game's truly immutable forces throughout the 1940s and '50s.

For all Musial's capacious aptitudes, his baseball life was stationed in the shadow of other greats, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio in the early part of his career, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays in the later part.

Before he became ill near the time he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2011, Musial had enjoyed a long career as a successful restaurateur and businessman, had campaigned for John F. Kennedy ("My buddy") in 1960 along with Angie Dickinson, and Rat Packers Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Nearly two decades later, Musial, through business and political connections, made himself an eyewitness to the ascendancy of the first Polish pope, John Paul II.

He played a crucial role in the early career of Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color line in 1947. The Cardinals, some of whom had threatened to strike rather than play against Robinson, were eventually swayed in no small part because of Musial, who had played with African-Americans and would eventually lead a walkout from a Pittsburgh restaurant that would not serve a black teammate.

Two years after getting his 3,000th hit, Musial did the unthinkable in baseball, or probably in any other professional sport. He asked for a pay cut, from $100,000 to $80,000, because he did not think he performed that well in either 1958 or 1959. In '58, he hit .337. Though his average dipped to .255 in 1959, by 1962, he was hitting. 330 again.

Legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully once said this of the great man and baseball player: "How great was Stan Musial? He could take your breath away."

(Contact Gene Collier at gcollier@post-gazette.com.)

Want to leave your comments?

Sign in or Register to comment.