Stan Musial does this origami trick with a dollar bill. He folds the bill one way, then back. He folds it again and again, never looking at his hands. He smiles throughout. If he's in the right mood, Musial might offer a corny joke to keep the time moving. Horse walks into a bar. Or, How do you know that God is a baseball fan? That sort of thing. He will break into his particular brand of baseball chatter: "Whaddya say! Whaddya say! Whaddya say!" After a few seconds Musial holds up the dollar bill and, absurdly, it has transformed into a ring. The audience always oohs with surprise. Musial will look surprised too. How did I do that? Then Stan Musial, with the tenderness of a groom, will slip the dollar bill ring on someone's finger, wink and walk off to the happy murmur that he has inspired in people for most of his 90 or so years on Planet Earth.
It's a good little trick.
The question is, Why would a man learn such a trick?
And what does it say about Stan the Man that he's so good at it?
August 1, 2010
"Stan Musial," his teammate Bob Gibson says, "is the nicest man I ever met in baseball." Gibson smiles. "And, to be honest, I can't relate to that. I never knew that nice and baseball went together."
This is a story of little stories. Small kindnesses. Quiet dignity. These are at the heart of Stan Musial. His greatness is not made up of the bold stuff of action heroes. There is no rushing into burning buildings here. Even after all these years it is hard for people to explain exactly what Stan Musial means to them. Willie Mays, sure, that's easy: He means youth and a baseball cap flying off in a rush of wind and long-ago stickball games in Harlem. Mickey Mantle means tape-measure home runs and impossible promise and a body that could not hold up to the pounding and late nights. Hank Aaron means dignity and consistency, and a home run record pursued through pain. Sandy Koufax means high fastballs and low curves and a pause for Yom Kippur as the World Series began. Ted Williams means the never-ending quest for perfection and just the right pitch to hit.
But what of Stan Musial? There has never been a best-selling biography of the man. There has never been a movie about his life. There are few legendary stories about him. There are few baseball records he can call his own.
"Stan Musial didn't hit in 56 straight games," says Musial's friend Bob Costas, who began his broadcasting career with KMOX in St. Louis. "He didn't hit .400 for a season. He didn't get 4,000 hits. He didn't hit 500 home runs. He didn't hit a home run in his last at bat, just a single. He didn't marry Marilyn Monroe; he married his high school sweetheart. His excellence was a quiet excellence."
Too quiet, perhaps. ESPN recently called him the most underrated athlete ever. Fox did not even televise Musial throwing out the first pitch before last year's All-Star Game in St. Louis. A few years back, when Major League Baseball held a fan vote to name its All-Century Team, a special committee had to add Musial because the fans did not vote him as one of the 10 best outfielders ever. Ten! Only Aaron had more total bases. Only Tris Speaker and Pete Rose hit more doubles. Using Bill James's famous formula, only Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds created more runs. Still, Musial did not get America's vote. He is not forgotten, not exactly. It is more this: For most of the nation, Stan the Man is a name that has faded into the great American past like singers wearing tuxedoes, John Wayne movies and kids shooting marbles.
But not in St. Louis. No, here they shout out for Stan Musial. They hold a citywide campaign—Stand for Stan!—to encourage President Obama to award Musial the Presidential Medal of Freedom, something like an American knighthood, a medal that has already been given to Musial contemporaries Aaron, Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Frank Robinson. Fans are encouraged to have their photos taken with a paper Flat Stan the Man, a play off the children's book, Flat Stanley. People meet at the Musial statue in front of the new ballpark; the Musial statue has long been St. Louis's favorite meeting spot, even before it was moved from in front of the old Busch Stadium to the new one. And during spring training this year Cardinals players came back to the clubhouse to find a reading assignment, a story about Musial that manager Tony La Russa had printed out for them to read and discuss.
"To me," La Russa says, "Stan's spirit is very much a part of what we're trying to do here."
There is, perhaps, even a bit of desperation about it all. Stan Musial will turn 90 in November. He appears in public less and less often. And there's a feeling here in St. Louis, an unmistakable feeling, that when we lose Stan the Man Musial, we will lose something precious and wordless and irreplaceable.
There's a feeling here, an unmistakable feeling, that as a nation we already may have lost it.
Stan Musial was never thrown out of a game. This is a pretty remarkable thing if you think about it. He played ball in the majors from 1941 to '63 (with a year spent in the Navy in '45). He changed dramatically in those years; he was the fifth-youngest player in baseball when he began and the third oldest when he walked away. A quick count shows that Musial dealt with at least 40 different home plate umpires—from Augie Donatelli to Ziggy Sears—and he never got one of them on a bad day. Or, more to the point, they never got him on a bad day.
There's one Musial story that has been told many different ways ... according to different versions it happened in Brooklyn or Philadelphia; it happened in the top of the ninth or in extra innings. It led to a grand slam or a heroic homer into the lights as in The Natural. The many versions of the story suggest that there were countless other incidents like it in Musial's career. But this is how the story really happened.
It was April 18, 1954, in Chicago. The Cardinals trailed 3--0 in the seventh, and lefty Paul Minner was on the mound. There was a man on first, one out, when Musial smacked a double down the rightfield line. Or, anyway, the Cardinals thought it was a double. Wally Moon, the man on first, ran around the bases to score. Musial stood happily at second. The Cardinals' bench cheered. And apparently nobody noticed that first base umpire Lee Ballanfant had called the ball foul.
No footage of the play remains, of course, so we only get what we can read in the newspaper reports: Apparently the ball was definitively fair. Cardinals players came racing out of the dugout to go after Ballanfant, starting with shortstop Solly Hemus. Donatelli, the crew chief, who was behind home plate (and who apparently realized that Ballanfant had blown the call), threw Hemus out of the game. Cardinals manager Eddie Stanky was right behind. Donatelli threw him out of the game too. Peanuts Lowrey rushed out, and Donatelli was telling him to get back or he would get tossed too. And it was about then that Musial, who apparently was not entirely sure why there was so much commotion, wandered over to Donatelli.
"What happened, Augie?" Musial asked. "It didn't count, huh?" Donatelli nodded and said the ball had been called foul.
"Well," Musial said, "there's nothing you can do about it."
And without saying another word, Musial stepped back into the batter's box and doubled to the same spot in right field. This time it was called fair. The Cardinals rallied and won the game.
Musial was famous for signing autographs. So many Musial stories revolve around his seemingly boundless willingness to give people his signature. The old Cardinals announcer Harry Caray used to tell a story of a Sunday doubleheader in the St. Louis heat and humidity. Musial played both games, of course—in the 11 seasons after he returned from World War II, Musial averaged 153.5 games per 154-game season. And after the nightcap, Caray said, Musial looked as if he had been through a prizefight. In those days they still called boxing matches prizefights.
When the second game ended, Musial stumbled out to the parking lot. He barely looked strong enough to stand. And there, at his car, he found dozens of fans waiting, hoping, shouting, "Stan! Stan the Man!" Caray turned to the person next to him and said, "Watch this." And together they watched Stan Musial walk up to the group and shout out his trademark "Whaddya say! Whaddya say! Whaddya say!" And he signed every single autograph.
Musial grew up the fifth of six kids in a five-room house in Donora, Pa., a hardscrabble town built around the U.S. Steel Zinc Works factory that pumped black smoke into the sky. Musial would always believe that that black smoke killed his father, Lukasz, a zinc worker who died in 1948. Stan himself worked at the Zinc Works one summer—just long enough to know he never wanted to work there again. Our games overflow with athletes who feel lucky and blessed because they escaped the hard destiny that seemed inescapable when they were young. But it's as though Musial felt luckier and more blessed, as though he spent every waking moment fully aware of the good fortune in his life. Sometimes when he was out with his wife, Lil, people would ask for autographs at inopportune times, and Lil would suggest he politely decline. "These are my fans," Stan would say, lovingly but firmly, and sign them all. Teammates used to bet each other how often they would hear Musial use the word wonderful on any given day.
Robin Roberts, the late Hall of Fame pitcher, was once talking about a modern-day player he saw walk past a young boy who desperately wanted an autograph. Roberts was too polite to name the player, but he did not hide his contempt.
"Now, to me, that's one thing that really has changed," Roberts said. "There's so much money in the game now.... Players don't see themselves as part of the crowd now. They're separated. They're big stars. I know it's more of a business now. But I'll tell you this: In our day you didn't walk by a kid who wanted an autograph."
Then, Roberts shrugged: "I probably shouldn't be so hard on the guy. I'm sure over the years I probably missed a few kids. I don't remember doing it, but I'm sure I disappointed someone. None of us are perfect. We all disappointed someone from time to time. I guess. Well, all of us except one."
"Who was that?" I asked. Roberts looked at me with surprise, as if he thought the answer was obvious. Finally he answered.
"Musial," he said.
Stan Musial never led the league in home runs. He came close once—that was in his epic 1948 season, when he was one home run short of becoming the only man in baseball history to lead his league in batting, runs, hits, doubles, triples, homers and RBIs. To this day, Musial fans will tell you he lost that home run in an August rainout in Brooklyn, though nobody knows for sure.
Anyway, that's just legend. And Musial's career was so defiantly about what is real. He never led the league in home runs, but he led the league in doubles eight times and triples five. That was real. Musial broke hard out of the batter's box day after day, game after game. Dodgers pitcher Carl Erskine often said that his strategy for pitching Musial was to throw his best stuff and then back up third base.
Musial never struck out 50 times in a season. That was real. "I could have rolled the ball up there to Musial," another Dodgers great, Don Newcombe, says, "and he would have pulled out a golf club and hit it out."
The Brooklyn Dodgers pitchers tend to have special memories of Musial because he always seemed to hit his best in New York City. The numbers at the baseball database Retrosheet are not quite complete, but they show that Musial hit .359 with power for his career at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn (and a similar .343 with power at the Polo Grounds against the Giants). It was supposedly Brooklyn fans—based on their griping "Here comes the man again," when Musial would come to the plate—who created the nickname Stan the Man. They held a Stan Musial Day in New York at a Mets game once. Chicago Cubs fans once voted him their favorite player, ahead of all the hometown stars, including their own lovable Ernie Banks. That was real.
"All you have to do to understand what Stan Musial means is watch him around other Hall of Famers," La Russa says. "You can fool fans sometimes. You can fool the media sometimes. But you really can't fool other players. And when you see Musial in a group of Hall of Famers, they hold him in such high esteem.... It's like he's on another level."
La Russa then tells his own Musial story. He did not really get to know Musial until he became manager of the Cardinals in 1996. By then La Russa had won a World Series, two pennants and more than 1,000 games as a manager. But whenever he would find himself sitting in the office with Musial, he would call his father, Anthony, in Florida.
"Guess who I am in the office with, Pop," he would say.
And then Stan Musial would take the phone, and he would shout, "Whaddya say! Whaddya say! Whaddya say!" Then he would say, "Mr. La Russa, your son is doing a wonderful job here. Just wonderful."
And later in the day, almost without fail, Anthony would call his son and say, "Was that really Stan Musial?"
Anthony died in 2002. "I always had to tell him, 'Yeah, it was really Stan the Man,'" La Russa says, and, yes, there are tears in the eyes of the son.
Dick Zitzmann has been running Stan the Man Inc. for a long time now. He has seen the same scene again and again and again. Musial folds the dollar bill into a ring. Musial stops at a table in a restaurant and plays Happy Birthday on the harmonica. Musial reflexively hands out autographed cards to kids. Musial puts his hand on the shoulder of a teary-eyed fan and says, "No ... thank you!" He has seen it all so many times that he has to remind himself that this is not how superstars normally act.
"Stan loves people," Zitzmann says. "He wants you to be a friend. It really is amazing. When he signs an autograph, he is as happy as the person who is getting the autograph. That's the essence of Stan Musial. He is happy when he's around people."
Another Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher, Joe Black, told me a story once. We were sitting next to each other on a plane when, without provocation, he simply started telling the story, one he has told many times. He was pitching against the St. Louis Cardinals—this was 1952, his rookie year, his best year. Black had come out of the Negro leagues, and he was young, and he pitched fearlessly. He thought this happened the first time he faced the Cardinals; Black pitched three scoreless innings that day. But he wasn't entirely sure that was the day. What he remembered clearly, though, was the voice booming from the Cardinals' dugout while he was pitching to Musial.
"Don't worry, Stan," that someone from the Cardinals dugout had yelled. "With that dark background on the mound, you shouldn't haven't any problem hitting the ball."
Musial did not show any reaction at all. He never did when he hit. He simply spat on the ground and got into his famous peekaboo batting stance—the one that Hall of Fame pitcher Ted Lyons said "looked like a small boy looking around a corner to see if the cops are coming"—and he flied out. It was after the game, when Black was in the clubhouse, that he looked up and saw Stan Musial.
"I'm sorry that happened," Black remembered Musial whispering. "But don't you worry about it. You're a great pitcher. You will win a lot of games."
Yes, Joe Black told the story often—and it's a good story. But what I remember about the way he told it on the plane that day was how proud Black was to be connected to Musial. This is the common theme when people tell their Musial stories. No one tries to make Musial larger than life—he was only as large as life. He didn't make a show. He didn't make speeches. He didn't try to change the world. He just believed that every man had the right to be treated with dignity.
Musial believed in being a role model. He thought that was part of his job, part of why he was being paid so much money. He thought it was the least he could do. Musial smoked for a long time—he even advertised Chesterfields when he was young. But when he realized how he might be influencing kids, he quit the Chesterfield job and, shortly after that, quit smoking. In the interim he would smoke under stairwells so nobody would see him.
He would never allow photographers to snap him in the clubhouse without his shirt. Teammates and opponents say they would occasionally hear him swear, but certainly not where fans could hear him. The same goes with drinking—he might have had a couple here and there, but Stan Musial would never allow himself to be seen tipsy in public. He has been married to that high school sweetheart, Lil, for 70 years now.
In 1958 he became the first player in National League history to make $100,000 in a year. The next year he had his worst season—he hit only .255 and missed 40 games with nagging injuries. He went to Cardinals management and insisted they cut his salary by the maximum 20% (which the Cardinals did). Years later, when asked about that move, Musial said simply, "There wasn't anything noble about it. I had a lousy year. I didn't deserve the money."
Stan Musial and Albert Pujols were having their photo taken together to lead into the All-Star Game at Busch last year. It was a monumental moment for a couple of reasons. One was obvious: Here were two generations coming together, two of the best hitters in baseball history in the same place at the same time. They even shared a nickname. They called Albert Pujols El Hombre—Spanish for The Man. The other reason was something more poignant. Stan the Man doesn't get around much anymore.
The conversation was halting at first. The two men had spoken before, of course, but that was usually at a ballpark, where the sounds of batting practice or infield drills filled the silences. Here there was nothing but silence in the silences, and the two great hitters who tended to do their talking at the plate groped for words to express their feelings.
In time, though, spurred by St. Louis Post-Dispatch baseball bard Rick Hummel, the conversation blossomed. Pujols and Musial talked about the weight of their bats, their golf games, umpiring and so on. Pujols asked Musial for his secret to hitting with two strikes. "Know the strike zone," Musial said.
And then Pujols was told about one of Musial's most amazing baseball feats. Musial has so many feats: At different points in his career he led the National League in batting, on-base percentage, slugging, hits, doubles, triples, runs, RBIs, walks, intentional walks and total bases. But if you had to define Musial with one number—the way 755 describes Aaron and .406 gets at Williams and 56 helps explain DiMaggio—then that number is probably 1,815. That is the number of hits that Musial had at home and on the road.
Pujols—who prides himself on consistency—was incredulous.
"I wonder if he meant to do that," Pujols said.
Not long after that, Pujols politely asked people to stop calling him El Hombre. He understood that his own nickname was an homage to Musial. But he still asked people to stop it. "There's only one Man," he said.
Speaking of Hummel—he has been covering sports for the Post-Dispatch since 1971 and has been covering baseball for almost 30 years. In baseball writing circles he is known simply as Commish. No the in front of Commish. That would be too formal.
Over that time he has grown close to Musial. Certainly no writer in America knows The Man better. Hummel has heard Musial play the harmonica enough times to know his entire repertoire. ("Four songs," Hummel says with a big smile. "He says he knows 50, but I've only heard four. The Wabash Cannonball. Take Me Out to the Ballgame. Happy Birthday. And the national anthem.") Hummel has heard all of Musial's jokes—he thinks there might be fewer than four. Hummel remembers well the first time Stan Musial called him by name and how good it made him feel.
One day during spring training last year Hummel was sitting in La Russa's office with the Cardinals manager, Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst and Musial, and he was listening to the stories when suddenly Musial did the oddest thing. He reached into a bucket next to La Russa's desk. And he pulled out a baseball. He wrote on it, TO RICK. STAN MUSIAL. And he handed the ball to Hummel.
"I didn't ask him for it or anything," Hummel says. "I just took the ball and looked at him and thanked him. And he went on like nothing happened."
Hummel smiles like a little kid. "I know exactly where that baseball is," he says.
In St. Louis they remember Musial daily. There probably is not an athlete in America more closely tied to a city than Musial is to St. Louis. And it isn't all nostalgia. He's still a very real part of Cardinals baseball. "In this modern era of baseball we emulate Stan's values and loyalty, not only to the Cardinals but also to our city and region," Cardinals general manager John Mozellak says, and player after player, fan after fan, reiterates the thought. St. Louis parents—themselves too young to remember Musial as a player—pass along the stories.
Musial still goes to the Stan the Man Inc. office daily to sign a few autographs. He doesn't show up in public much, though. "Stan is slowing down," a close friend says. He spends his time now helping Lil and having quiet lunches with his best friends. Nobody denies that he is not always himself, but they all say that when the baseball talk starts, the years will melt away, and Musial will look and sound like the old days.
He doesn't come around the ballpark much. He was there for Opening Day, of course—Musial will not miss Opening Day—and the hope around here is that the Cardinals will make the playoffs so that Musial might come around again. "I never worry about Stan when he's around baseball," Hummel says. "It's the off-season that makes me worry."
Even now, when a bit of his youth comes blowing through, Musial will pull out the harmonica and play one of his songs. He can still pull out one of his favorite jokes—like the one he told Pujols about how he has a three-handicap in golf, the three handicaps being his driving, his irons and his putting. He can still fold a dollar bill into a ring. What does it say about Stan Musial that he learned that particular trick, worked on it, perfected it?
"He loves making people happy," Zitzmann says. Yes. That's what it says. Maybe there have been a handful of better ballplayers. Maybe there have been a handful of more important baseball players. Maybe there have even been a handful of more memorable players. But no baseball player, none, worked so hard to make people happy. He hit the ball hard into the gaps, ran hard out of the box, signed every autograph, shook every hand and turned dollar bills into memories. And, all the while, he kept telling us that he was the lucky one. Whaddya say!