The most revered player in St. Louis Cardinals history, Stan Musial‘s life was defined by his graciousness. Musial, who died Saturday night at 92, was not only one of the most extraordinary baseball players in history, his legacy is that everyone who met him thought he was a nice guy, from the fans he signed autographs for, to teammates, associates in business and those he left behind in Donora, Pennsylvania when he moved to the national stage.
Even his nickname, “Stan The Man,” was bestowed by the fans of an opposing team–the Brooklyn Dodgers and that may be a first and only event in baseball lore.
“I never heard anybody say a bad word about him–ever,” said fellow Hall of Famer Willie Mays, who issued a statement through the Hall in Cooperstown.
At a time when it took a bit of a social conscience to be recognized as a good guy, Musial was regarded by Jackie Robinson as one of the gentlemen of the National League. Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier with the Dodgers, was met with taunts and jeers by many players when he made his Major League debut in 1947. Unlike some other foes, Musial greeted Robinson in a friendly manner and wished him luck.
Musial had been in fading health for some time. He played his last inning 50 years ago, in the 1963 season, and as an outfielder and first baseman with the Cardinals for 22 seasons, Musial was a money hitter. His distinctive left-handed crouching stance produced clutch hits, power, and high averages.
“I love play to play this game of baseball,” Musial said. “I love putting on this uniform.
St.. Louis long ago retired Musial’s No. 6 and built a statue to honor him outside of Busch Stadium. Musial won the National League batting title seven times and retired with a lifetime average of .331.
“The key to hitting for high average, ” Musial said, ” is to relax, concentrate and don’t hit fly balls to center field.”
Musial was a three-time Most Valuable Player and the Cardinals won three World Series with him in the lineup. Among Musial’s hitting achievements were clouting 475 home runs and collecting 3,630 hits. Musial’s lifetime on-base percentage was .417 and he gathered 1,951 RBIs. He also had 1,949 runs scored. Musial is third on the all-time doubles list with 725.
An oddity of Musial’s career was that he notched precisely the same number of hits at home and on the road, 1,815 on each side. When he retired in ’63 Musial held 55 records. A half century later, many of them are gone. What remains are images.
Musial possessed was uncommon determination and while he was a nice man off the field he was a killer on it, never surrendering an at-bat. Musial came from Pennsylvania coal country and he did not wish to return for a job in the mines. He was going to be a pitcher until he hurt his arm and switched to the outfield.
Breaking into the majors in 1941, Musial’s reputation and playing days were forged alongside Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, although he out-lasted both of them. For a while they were the big three in the sport, though Musial had National League honors to himself until the 1950s when Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente came along.
Musial has the distinction of being selected for more All-Star teams than years he played. During the early 1960s when there were two All-Star games per season, Musial was selected twice in the same year. He was chosen for All-Star games 24 times.
When Musial retired he was second on Major League Baseball’s all-time hits list and he held the NL record. He led the league in hits six times. Overall, Musial is still fourth all-time behind Pete Rose, Ty Cobb and Aaron.
Beyond his undisputed greatness on the field, Musial, who loved socializing with the public and signing autographs for kids, was likely one of baseball’s greatest ambassadors. Musial often visited sick kids in hospitals, in St. Louis and on the road, and reporters never knew it. Red Schoendienst, another Hall of Famer who not only was a long-time Cardinal teammate, but a close friend of Musials, sometimes went with him.
“He enjoyed making other people happy and maybe give them a small ray of sunshine to brighten up their lives,” Schoendienst said.
Musial loved mingling and he carried a harmonica with him, enabling him to break into song on short notice. When he was still well enough to attend the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Cooperstown, Musial had an odd little gig. A break was taken in the events and he played a harmonica solo of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” for the assembled Hall of Famers and onlookers. Because of Musial’s faltering health in recent years, Johnny Bench has taken on the role.
Acknowledging Musial’s stature and his public community role, in 2011 President Barack Obama awarded Musial the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
When Musial retired from the Cardinals’ lineup in 1963 Ford Frick was the commissioner of baseball and he uttered one of the most flattering and telling summations of a career. Of Musial, Frick said, “Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.”
No doubt when Stan Musial is buried someone will take the time to mimic those words and say “Here lies baseball’s perfect knight.”
It sounds fitting.