Minus a temper like Reggie Jackson, a poker face like Joe DiMaggio and a whacky streak like Dizzy Dean, I can’t remember anybody ever saying anything bad about Hall of Famer Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals. His death on Saturday unlocked a lifetime of memories for baseball fans everywhere.
The way the left-handed Musial crouched at the plate, according to his rivals, made it appear that Stan was hitting at the pitcher from around corners. The mental book he had on opposing pitchers allowed him to wait on a pitch until it was almost in the catcher’s mitt.
Here was a man with such an acute sense of timing that he could either pull the ball to right field or go the other way with almost as much power. Overall he led St. Louis to three World Series championships.
Actually Stan, because of his odd stance at the plate, should have been a sucker for a breaking ball. Instead he compiled a lifetime batting average of .331, including 3,630 hits, 475 home runs and 1,951 runs-batted-in. His 725 career doubles, in two fewer years in the big leagues, was one more than Ty Cobb.
Even in Brooklyn, where Musial’s power often took advantage of the short right field wall at Ebbets Field, fans not only appreciated his talents but applauded them. In fact, it was Brooklyn’s bleacher crowd, because of his consistency at the plate, who gave him the nickname “Stan the Man.”
In what should have made the Guinness Book of World Records years ago, Musial logged an incredible 1,815 hits at home and 1,815 hits on the road!
Originally a pitcher, who several of his minor league managers often used in the outfield because of his bat, Musial almost never struck out. For example, back in 1943 in 617 at bats with the Cards, he struck out only 18 times. Years later, Musial would admit that he was more comfortable in the outfield (and later first base) than he was on the mound.
Even though he had a strong throwing arm, Musial starting out had trouble throwing strikes, particularly with runners on base. Later, a hard fall on his left shoulder while playing the outfield turned his rifle-like arm into a popgun.
It was only after months of rehabilitation that his throwing arm would regain its strength. In the meantime he was learning to play the outfield, including the big league way to throw to the cutoff man that would keep an opposing base runner from scoring.
Although Musial never received the kind of credit for knowing the mysteries of hitting given to Ted Williams, Hank Aaron and Joe DiMaggio, baseball’s insiders had no trouble making him an equal partner.
In an exclusive interview with Sports Illustrated in 1961, Musial told writer Tex Maule, “Lots of things make it tougher for a batter today than it was 20 years ago. The shape of the bat has changed because everyone swings for the fences now. The home run hitters draw the big money now.
“Used to be bats had thick handles and a big barrel," Musial continued. "Then they found it’s not the size of the bat that gets home runs – it’s the speed with which you can swing it. Now everyone uses a bat like this – a thin handle with a long taper, so that most of the wood’s in the end of the bat. You can whip this one around and get power in your swing.”
One of the things Cardinals general manager Branch Rickey did in 1940 was to promote 19-year-old Stan Musial to his Daytona Beach farm team in the Florida State League. A step up from where Musial had been playing and still a pitcher, Rickey felt that Dickie Kerr was the ideal minor league manager to put the finishing touches on Stan.
With Kerr picking his spots, Musial won 18 games. But even more impressive to Dickie was the way Stan hit when he played him in the outfield. It was the same year that Musial, diving for a fly ball, injured his throwing arm so badly that he would never pitch again.
Kerr not only softened things for Musial by telling him to forget about it – that he would someday be a big league outfielder – he also invited Stan and his wife to move in with him and his family. Musial, of course, never forgot Kerr’s kindness and years later, on Dickie’s 65th birthday, Stan and his wife presented him with the deed to a new house in Houston, Texas.
Here are two more things the reader ought to know: Musial won seven National League batting championships, and on his 60th birthday checked in at only three more pounds than he weighed at the height of his career!
Phil Elderkin carries Card No. 5 in the nearly 900 member Baseball Writers’ Association of America and is a former Monitor sports editor.