Sunday, January 20, 2013

St Louis Icon Stan Musial Passes Away at 92

Cardinal Legend's Unassuming Persona Belied Historic Career 

JAN 20th, 2013-In all honesty, I never met The Man.

Oh, I'll try my very best to describe him. I'll try to explain him as an individual, beyond the box scores and the cheering crowds and the 24 (!) All-Star selections and so on. But I will fail, miserably.

Nevertheless, I must try. I suppose this would be my "Ode to A Total Stranger", if I truly felt that he was a stranger. Somehow, he never struck me as such.

Still, how much can you say about a player you've never even seen in person? I suppose that depends on the player. In the case of Stan Musial, I think the answer would be "quite a lot that's already been said".

There's a reason for that. Musial, who has passed away at the age of 92, was known far and wide among baseball aficionados and casual followers of the game alike as a modest man who had an easy and almost retiring sense of the appreciation he was shown.

He was a great man, to be sure, but not so much for the outrageous numbers he put together while a member of the St Louis Cardinals as for the manner in which he lived his life off the field. There is, as it turns out, much more to be said about Stan the man than there is to say about "Stan The Man". For those of you familiar with Musial's HOF career, you may find this doubtful. For those who knew him, there is surely no doubt, whatsoever.

The story starts out as do so many others: from humble beginnings...

Stanisław Franciszek Musiał was born November 21st, 1920, in Donora, Pennsylvania. Donora was a bustling town of just over 14,000 at the time, when the local industrial and mining activity was the very essence of the town's identity. So it was with many other towns in this region, where a man and his son would often work the same coal mine for the better part of their lives. Lukasz Musial wanted better for his son.

Lukasz left his native Poland in 1910 for the mill town in the Mon Valley Region, 20 miles south of Pittsburgh. He married Mary Lancos, daughter to Czechoslovakian immigrants and a native-born Pennsylvanian, in Donora on April 14, 1913. At the time, he was nearly 23, while she was only 16. Mary, in contrast to her husband, was nearly 6 feet tall and strongly built. "Stasiu", a Polish nickname by which his father called him, was one of six children of Lukasz and Mary. He was also Lukasz's first son.

It wasn't long before the Donora locals had their own nickname for young Stanislaw: "The Donora Greyhound". Stanley (his name was Anglicized by the time he reached high school) soon demonstrated the athleticism by which he would come to be known, starring in basketball and as both a pitcher and outfielder in baseball. Stanley grew into a standout pitcher under the tutelage of Joe Barbao, himself a former minor league pitcher and manager of the Donora Zincs, a semi-pro team on which Musial played at the early age of 15.

Actually, Stan started with the team at age 14. As a batboy, no less. As the story goes, Barbao ran out of pitchers in a game in Stan's first year with the team and hit upon the idea of putting the adolescent Musial on the mound.

He did well enough, it seems. He pitched 6 innings, striking out 13. Thirteen. All of them adults. Signs of that which was to come, perhaps? Not exactly.

As a side note: baseball, for reasons I cannot fully explain or comprehend, is a game of interconnected relationships; player begets player, what's-his-name is cousin of so-and-so who played for the same team, etc. Musial's life is no less connected, being born in the same town and on the same day (though obviously not the same year) as another well-known star left fielder of our generation: Ken Griffey, Jr.

But the connection doesn't end there. Griffey Jr's grandfather, Buddy Griffey, played with Musial on Donora High's resurrected baseball team. Stan was present when Junior hit his 500th home run in June 2004. With that moment, a legend of the past became further intertwined with a star of the present generation. It can be easily argued that no other sport has such reverence for its history, as well as for the men who built it.

It wasn't long before the pro scouts were lurking about, and soon the Cardinals offered the teenager Musial a contract after a workout with their affiliate in the Class D Penn State (referred to in some sourcebooks as Mountain State) League: The Williamson Colts.

The Colts, who changed their name to the Red Birds in 1938 (Musial's second year with the team), worked him as a pitcher, in which position he produced mediocre results. Williamson's manager in 1939, Harrison Wickel, stated thusly: "The only place he can win is in Class D". Well, as a pitcher, Wickel may have been right on target. After Musial hurt his arm while playing the outfield in 1940 and attempting a rather acrobatic catch of a sinking liner, his pitching career came to a sudden halt.

No matter; his hitting prowess was becoming quickly apparent. In an outfield collision with Terry Moore, fellow future HOFer Enos Slaughter broke his shoulder and was lost to the team at a time when his bat and defense would be most sorely missed. Cards GM Branch Rickey made the decision to replace him, at least part-time, with the newly-promoted Musial.

What he accomplished in the majors, I cannot hope to illuminate in any way comparable to such outstanding writers as Peter Golenbock, Roger Angell and John Thorn. I will leave such matters to the true professionals.

Throughout his MLB career (indeed, throughout his life), Musial was never the sort of person who would ever give you the idea that he was even faintly aware of the mythic figure his play on the diamond had firmly ensconced in the minds and hearts of the American baseball fan. Always willing to sign an autograph, make an appearance for both MLB functions and charitable affairs, or simply chat about the game he loved, the true legacy he leaves behind cannot be measured in percentages and league standings.

A quote generally credited to magazine magnate Malcolm S. Forbes, "You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him", is in my estimation an exceptional way of assessing a man's legacy. In this regard alone, I believe it can be said that Stan Musial showed no variance in the way he treated the thousands who flocked to his side for a moment with a baseball god; indeed, he seemed to fully appreciate what he had accomplished as well as how it caused others to view him, without showing any outward signs of egoism or arrogance, neither did he ever seem to feel entitled to such treatment.

In short, he was the sort of person who, had you no prior knowledge of his chosen profession, would never lead you to believe he was anything more than an average man. He could have been the neighborhood milkman or the baker down the street; I imagine he would carry himself with the same humility for which he was known by family, friend, and stranger alike.

But it was even more than that. When LIFE Magazine covered Stan Musial Day in Oct 1963, Stan took the podium and gave careful thought to his words while fighting back tears, overwhelmed by the thought of a giant bronze statue dedicated to him by the team:

"I don't know how I'll feel when I first see the statue", he had said. "Down in Florida, at St. Petersburg Beach, there's this museum--a wax museum--and that was the first time I saw a statue of myself. It was kind of funny, looking at myself. I took a picture--you know, being there and taking a picture of yourself--it gives you a strange feeling".

I can easily imagine that had he been asked the same question while standing in front of his own likeness, immortalized in bronze for countless future fans, he would have been at an utter loss for words.

That, in my mind, is the measure of this man; THE Man. This was a man who, while seemingly comfortable with his fame, would have been just as well-respected even without all the hits and homers, without all the kids who grew up copying that "looking around the corner of a building", almost pigeon-toed stance which produced such prodigious power and EXACTLY the same number of hits at home as on the road (a fascinating stat, to be sure).

His legacy is that, while he knew him, he was what a man should be. And even if he hadn't been "The Man" to the people and fans of St Louis, he most certainly would have been to his children, grandchildren, friends and even minor acquaintances.

He was so much more than just a baseball star. Because if you take away all the accolades, awards and records, he was still The Man to the people who mattered most. As hokey as it sounds, it is nevertheless just as true.

Maybe this incident sums up that sentiment as well as any (from LIFE Magazine; Oct 11, 1963)

"Only once did they ever boo him in St Louis. On August 22nd 1956, against Brooklyn, he made two errors and wound up hitless for the second straight night. They booed him when he stepped to the plate in the eighth inning, but the boos were gradually drowned out by the cheers.

"'It was the worst game I ever played,'" he said later.

The next day, 10 fans bought space in the St Louis press and apologized."
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