Saturday, November 21, 2020

This Day in Baseball History (Birth of Stan Musial—Batter of Consistency, Model of Decency)

Nov. 21, 1920— Stan Musial, who through 22 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals earned the respect of teammates and opponents alike with consistent ferocity at the plate and unwavering kindness to those in contact with him, was born in Donora, Pa.

The son of a Polish immigrant who died from breathing fumes from a local zinc factory, Musial was used to personal setbacks. That might be why, when he damaged his left shoulder as a young pitching prospect in the Cardinal minor-league system, he accepted his manager’s advice and transitioned, like Babe Ruth two decades before, into becoming an outfielder.

In St. Louis, Musial became the linchpin in the best years of the franchise between the Dizzy Dean’s “Gas House Gang” of the 1930s and the Bob Gibson-led team of the 1960s. From the early-to-mid 1940s, that squad won four National League pennants and three World Series titles. During those appearances, Musial established a reputation for clutch hitting, batting .315,.357, .347 and .365 in the “Fall Classic.”

Even as he established a reputation for geniality in St. Louis, Musial filled opposing fans with dismay for the way he crushed the hopes of their hometown heroes. That was especially the case in Brooklyn, where Dodger diehards groaned at what “that man” was doing to their pitchers. That gave rise to the affectionate nickname he kept for the rest of his life: “Stan the Man.”

(Such was the reverence felt in St. Louis for “Stan the Man” that in 2012, the mainstay of the franchise for the prior decade, Albert Pujols—now relocated to the California Angels—objected to the title bestowed by his new team’s marketing department: “El Hombre.” "No, I'm not comfortable with that, because I believe there's one Man and, believe it or not, it's God," Pujols said in an ESPN “SportsCenter” interview. "God is the Man and there's another Man, Stan 'The Man' Musial in St. Louis. I know six years ago, when people first started making jerseys, I wasn't comfortable with that because of the respect I have for Stan Musial.")

In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, the statistics maven compared Musial with Carl Yastrzemski, another All-Star of Polish descent who spent two-thirds of his career in left field and the rest at first base. But the most interesting similarity between the two Hall of Famers is that they began as contact hitters before experiencing power surges at age 27, when they achieved career highs in home runs. Each remained a power hitter throughout the rest of their long careers.

Time—and let’s be frank, players’ increased use of performance-enhancing drugs—has decreased the number of major league records (55) held by Musial upon his retirement in 1967. But the following statistics testify to his extraordinary consistency:

*His 3,630 hits (still fourth overall, behind only Pete Rose, Ty Cobb and Hank Aaron) were divided exactly between home and the road;

*He walked more than twice as much as he struck out (696 times vs. 1,599 times)—and most contemporary players would kill to strike out so little while hitting his number of home runs (475);

*Even when not clubbing homers, Musial made outfielders sweat, as he earned more than 900 doubles and triples (a total exceeded only by Tris Speaker);

*His 24 All-Star Game selections are second only to Hank Aaron;

*He was named Most Valuable Player three times and was among the top five in the vote counts another five times.

His inside-out swing and “corkscrew” stance (in which his back actually faced the pitcher) were, to say the least, unusual. But it didn’t matter: As teammate Joe Garagiola once joked, “Musial could hit .300 with a fountain pen.”

Nobody could play like this without a burning rage to compete, but Musial never took it out on opponents or umpires. (Astonishingly, he was never thrown out of a game.)  He was held in such high regard by teammates that second baseman Julian Javier named his son Stan after him.

Yet even rivals benefited from his kindness. Chuck Connors recalled how, during his 1951 season with the Chicago Cubs, he followed up on teammates’ suggestion that he ask Musial for advice on how to break out of a slump.

“I was a bum of a hitter just not cut out for the majors,” Connors—later famous as a TV actor— remembered. “But I will never forget Stan’s kindness. When he was finished watching me cut away at the ball, Stan slapped me on the back and told me to keep swinging.”

In 2011 Barack Obama awarded Musial the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the United States can bestow on a civilian. The great slugger passed away in 2013, mourned by true aficionados of the National Pastime.

(For the best short treatment I have come across on “Stan the Man,” I urge you to read this November 2012 post by blogger Joe Posnanski on Medium.)

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