Appreciating Stan 'The Man' Musial and the best nickname in sports
Even the casual sports fan understands that the profusion of playful, inventive nicknames is one of the singular pleasures to be had from following big-time athletics. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to cite a sport that hasn't enjoyed its share of truly memorable monikers. Boxing has the Wild Bull of the Pampas (Luis Ángel Firpo) and Hands of Stone (Roberto Duran). The NFL has Sweetness, Crazylegs Hirsch and Bullet Bob Hayes. Hockey has Rocket Richard and The Great One. Basketball has Dr. J, The Iceman and Magic. There's even West Indian cricket bowler Michael Holding's unsettling tag, which sounds like something George R. R. Martin dreamed up for a Lorathi assassin: Whispering Death.
But baseball presents an especially wonderful and, it seems, inexhaustible species of the nickname genus. Maybe it's because the game has been around for so long. Or maybe it's because it has always attracted the attention of "literary" sportswriters. Whatever the reason for baseball's long honor roll of sobriquets, there's an embarrassment of riches to choose from. Some of the nicknames are evocative (The Iron Horse). Some are goofy (The Mad Hungarian). Some are lazy (Yaz). Some are Zen-like in their poetic rightness (The Big Hurt). Some are highfalutin' (The Splendid Splinter), and some are appropriately terse (Nails). But only one nickname has endured as the single most fitting—and the most elemental—of them all: The Man.
One of the most striking tidbits about Stan Musial's nickname, however, is that it was bestowed not by Cardinals fans, but by Brooklynites. The story goes that at Ebbets Field on June 23, 1946, Dodgers fans took to chanting "Here comes the man" when Musial, who routinely destroyed Dodger pitching throughout his career, stepped to the plate. Longtime St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Bob Broeg heard the chant, stuck it into his next column—and the most fitting nickname in baseball history was born.
Here, on the 69th anniversary of that moment when a great sportswriter shared an insight with his readers and helped shape the narrative of the national pastime, let's examine why Stan Musial is still the most underrated great player in baseball history. Why, in other words, he's still The Man.
Musial was, of course, a Hall of Famer—a statement that, in its confined, qualified way is akin to calling Moby-Dick a book about fishing. Musial was so much more than one of the greatest ballplayers who ever lived. For Redbirds fans, of course, he was the exemplar: "baseball's perfect knight," in the almost embarrassingly earnest words of former commissioner Ford Frick. To his teammates and his opponents, he was the consummate gamer. "Stan Musial," noted Try Cobb in a 1952 LIFE magazine article, "is the closest to being [a perfect ballplayer] in the game today.... He plays as hard when his club is way out in front as he does when they're just a run or two behind."
An exploration of his statistics, meanwhile, suggests that if there was ever anyone better—Babe Ruth? Ted Williams? Willie Mays?—it's a very close call. Musial hit for average and with power year after year. He had 3,630 hits (the most by an NL player when he retired in 1963); a .331 lifetime batting average; 475 home runs; and 1,377 extra-base hits, which still rank third all-time. On top of that, Musial very rarely struck out. In 1948, he led the majors in batting average (.376), RBIs (131), hits (230), doubles (46), triples (18), total bases (429), runs (135) and slugging percentage (.702), launched 39 home runs— and struck out just 34 times. Thirty. Four. Times. Didn't Sammy Sosa strike out 34 times in one doubleheader back in 1998?
According to Runs Created, a stat developed by Bill James that rates a ballplayer's complete contributions to a team's runs total, Musial trails only Ruth and Barry Bonds in baseball history and ranks ahead of giants like Mays, Williams, Lou Gehrig and Henry Aaron.
(It's worth noting that Musial himself famously pointed to Joe DiMaggio—the Yankee Clipper, for those keeping score on excellent nicknames—as the finest ballplayer in his lifetime. "There was never a day when I was as good as Joe DiMaggio at his best," Musial asserted. "Joe was the best, the very best I ever saw.")
Beyond Musial's mind-blowing stats was his undeniable and universal appeal. It seems that no one who ever played with or against him ever had any reason to say something bad about the guy. In fact, the famously combative Bob Gibson, himself a Hall of Famer and the ace of the Cardinals in Musial's final seasons, once reportedly observed that Musial was "nicest man I ever met in baseball. And, to be honest, I can't relate to that."
Long after Musial retired, his stature, and his nickname, still mattered. When Albert Pujols joined the Angels in 2012 after 11 tremendous seasons in St. Louis, the team placed billboards around Southern California welcoming Pujols and referring to him as "El Hombre," Spanish for The Man. That didn't sit well with Pujols, who had followed in Musial's footsteps with the Cardinals and matched his three NL MVP awards. Only one baseball player deserves to be called The Man, Pujols argued, and he wasn't that guy.
"I wish my kids had the opportunity to be around him," Pujols said, shortly after Musial died in 2013, "because that's how I want my kids to live their lives. I want them to be like Stan Musial. Not the baseball player. The person."
There's an oft-mentioned element of Musial's career that speaks volumes about the way he played, and the stratospheric regard in which he was held: In his 22 years in the majors, across more than 3,000 games, Stan Musial was never ejected. Not once. That doesn't mean he was anything less than an intense, go-for-broke competitor. All it suggests is that, while Musial played with fire in his belly, he wasn't a jerk about it.
That, too, is a measure of The Man.