The Greatest Cardinal of Them All: Remembering Stan Musial (1920-2013)


Stan "The Man" Musial at the height of his playing days.

Stan “The Man” Musial at the height of his playing days.

If you are connected to anything at all you have heard that we lost a legend over the weekend, Stan “The Man” Musial. Both a great baseball player and true gentleman, a gentle man; he strode across the sports scene like a titan among mere mortals. He belonged to an earlier generation than mine, but when I became a cardinals fan as a boy in the middle 1960s his presence was still very much felt on that great team with the likes of Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Orlando Cepeda, Tim McCarver, and others that brought home three pennants and two world series championships between 1964 and 1968.

Stan Musial started as a pitcher but as a sore armed lefty he never made it to the major leagues on the mound. Instead the Cardinals farm system retreaded him into an outfielder, and that transformation proved perhaps the most fortunate for any player since Babe Ruth moved from the pitcher’s mound to leftfield for good in 1919. In a stunning 22-year career, The Man (and no other identification is necessary) wracked up a .331 career batting average and won the batting title seven times, hit 475 career home runs, hit safely 3,630 times, was named Most Valuable Player in the National League three times, enjoyed perennial all star game appearances, and upon retirement held 17 major league, 29 National League, and nine all-star game records.

His career represented the pinnacle of all the great players produced by the Cardinals farm system. Musial’s was also a career of great dignity and poetry both on and off the field, and he remained an icon in both St. Louis and beyond until his death this past weekend. He will be missed.

In the closing days of the 1941 season, the Cardinal farm system’s sent Musial to the big club and he demonstrated that he would be there to stay the next season. He was the last piece in a team ready to dominate the National League. The Cardinals finished with a 97-56 record in 1941, second the Brooklyn Dodgers, but clearly position to overtake them the next year.

In 1942—Musial’s first full season—the Cardinals enjoyed their winningest season ever with 106 victories. They needed them all, too, for the Brooklyn Dodgers won 104 games. Brooklyn, which had won the pennant a year earlier, had a 10 game lead in early August but St. Louis caught fire the last two months, winning 43 of their final 51 games—and 12 of their final 13—to catch and surpass the Dodgers. When the dust settled, the Cardinals were two games ahead.

St. Louis pitchers Mort Cooper and Johnny Beazley finished one-two in National League wins and ERA. Cooper, the league’s MVP, was 22-7 with a league best 1.77 ERA. Beazley finished 21-6 and had a 2.14 ERA. Stan Musial was then a 21 year old rookie, but he made an immediate impact with a .315 batting average. He joined Terry Moore and Enos Slaughter in the outfield. Slaughter batted .318, led the league in hits, and ranked among the league’s leaders in RBIs and runs scored. The club maintained its momentum through the World Series, taking the Yankees in five games. The last series of the pre-World War II era found St. Louis’ Johnny Beazley winning twice and Whitey Kurowski driving in five runs.

In the ensuing days, months, and years, players would begin serving in the armed forces in World War II. Although the United States had already entered World War II, its impact on baseball in 1942 had been minimal. Yet during the off season, a great number of ballplayers were called to service. Slaughter, Moore, and Beazley missed the next three years, and many others such as Musial missed at least one season.

The Cardinals won three more pennants, and two World Series championships in the 1940s, taking National League flags not only in 1942 but also in 1943, 1944, and 1946, and triumphing in the World Series in 1944 and 1946. In a rematch of the 1942 series, they lost the Fall Classic to the Yankees in 1943. After the series, most of the Yankees and Cardinals game caps were shipped to the South Pacific where Major “Pappy” Boyington promised one to any pilot in his group who shot down a Japanese Zero. Ten percent of the series proceeds given to the players were paid in War Bonds. In 1946, the Cards beat the Boston Red Sox, playing in their first World Series since 1918, four games to three.

The era of championship baseball ended in St. Louis in 1946, and Musial  never played in another post-season game. Although the Cardinals were consistently in the pennant race, they seemingly always lost to the New York Giants or the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The one constant that remained for the once-proud Cardinals in the latter 1940s and 1950s was Stan Musial, who led the league in hitting several times during this period, and he became the strongest draw for the team. In 1948 “The Man” won his third most valuable player award and led the league in almost every batting category, including a .376 batting average. In 1950, 1951, 1952, and 1957, he also led the league with .346, .351, .336, and .351 batting averages respectively. He became the only player in major league history to finish his career in the top 50 in all four major batting categories: singles, doubles, triples, and homers.

At one point in the 1950s Cardinals General Manager Frank Lane, known to all as “Trader Lane” because of his penchant for making deals, began wheeling and dealing like it was an addiction. And perhaps it was, for Lane could not contain himself from seeking the adrenaline that came from tinkering with the players on the roster. Among the most significant of his trades, in 1956 Lane traded the Hall of Fame second baseman Red Schoendienst, a cherished link to the glorious teams of the 1940s, to the Giants for Alvin Dark.

Lane then tried to deal St. Louis icon Stan Musial to the Philadelphia Phillies for pitcher Robin Roberts. Only when word of this proposed deal leaked to the public, and the reaction uniformly condemned the move, did the owner intervene to stop Lane’s trade. Owner August Busch, after a few too many drinks, then criticized Lane at a St. Louis sports dinner and the two entered extended warfare. When Lane demanded a three-year extension on his contract, Busch sent him a telegram saying, “KISS MY ASS.”

From that point forward, Lane’s days with the Cardinals were numbered. In 1957 Busch replaced Lane with Bing Devine. Musial was never traded and finished his star-studded career with the Cardinals.

Until his retirement in 1963, Stan Musial demonstrated more than anyone the virtues of hard work, good manners, and honorable actions. His streak of 895 consecutive games played stood as a National League record until broken by Billy Williams of the Cubs in 1970 and was one record that Musial especially prized, for it demonstrated his commitment to working-class values in the everyday task of playing the game of baseball.

Musial at his retirement ceremony at Busch Stadium

Musial at his retirement ceremony at Busch Stadium

Although Musial left the Cardinals at the end of the 1963 season, and the team won it all again in 1964, he recognized that his time as a player was gone. At a Cardinals team picnic at August Busch’s mansion during an off day in August 1963, Musial admitted that this would be his last year. “I can’t do enough defensively on the bases any more,” he said, “and hitting, I can’t concentrate well enough. I’m doing what I never did—taking called third strikes.” Musial added, “I’d like to go out once more with a winner. Our 1942 team was further behind. We still have a chance.” They didn’t. not in 1963

The most significant event taking place at Busch Stadium at the end of the 1963 season was Stan Musial’s retirement ceremony. The Cardinals great went to home plate wearing his uniform for one last time, and sporting a Boy Scout neckerchief. Indeed, Musial was the quintessential Boy Scout throughout his career. There Ford Frick, commissioner of the National League, suggested that when Musial entered the Hall of Fame the master of ceremonies should “list no records, but merely state, ‘Here stands baseball’s greatest warrior, here stands baseball’s greatest knight.’”

The citizens of St. Louis would have agreed, both then and now. Musial remained in St. Louis thereafter, essentially as its first citizen. His annual visits to the Cardinals clubhouse became famed for the heartwarming manner in which he greeted each edition of the team.

An exhibit resided in the Cardinals Museum for several years titled simply, “Me and Stan,” and consisted of photos of nearly every celebrity imaginable standing with “The Man.” A running joke at the museum is that while many people cannot identify all of the famous people in the photos, everyone knows Stan. Musial remained in St. Louis the rest of his life. His passing this past weekend at the age of 92 is a difficult loss. All I can say is, “Godspeed Stan Musial.”

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4 Responses to The Greatest Cardinal of Them All: Remembering Stan Musial (1920-2013)

  1. mike shupp says:

    Lovely tribute, well deserved. When I grew up, everyone in the country, even folks who didn’t like baseball, knew of Stan the Man. He had such respect! Hard to imagine that today.

    And baseball has also lost Earl Weaver, long-time manager of the Baltimore Orioles. I used to really loathe Weaver, back in the 1960′s. when I was a student in Boston and his teams were routinely knocking the Red Sox out of championship contention — with just about nothing on the roster except Cal Ripkin and Boog Powell, it always seemed. But as time goes by, memories mellow. Maybe knocking off the Red Sox with the likes of Ripkin and Powell actually was an accomplishment worth remembering.

    Like

    • launiusr says:

      Thank Mike. I have been a Cardinals fan my entire life and Stan Musial is a legend. Earl Weaver is one as well, and I fully recognize his genius as a manager, but I’m not as tied to the Orioles as to the Cards.

      Like

  2. Richard says:

    Musial is near the top of my list of players I wish I had seen. One way I’ve tried to gauge his greatness is to compare him with Tony Gwynn. Looking at the numbers, it seems he was like a Gwynn with more power, more walks, and fewer strikeouts, which is downright amazing. And like Gwynn, he played his entire career with same team and remained devoted to that team in retirement. He, perhaps more than any other single player, is the reason so many fans who aren’t Cardinal fans nonetheless have great respect for the Cardinals. Rest in peace, Stan.

    Like

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