Stan Musial: An American life

A good hitter. May make an outfielder.
– Ollie Vanek, St. Louis Cardinals scout

Cardinals scout Ollie Vanek’s assessment of a prospect born Stanisław Franciszek (later renamed Stanley Frank) Musial is a strong candidate for the greatest understatement in 20th century baseball history. In his new, aptly named biography, Stan Musial: An American Life, veteran New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey provides a highly readable, thorough introduction to one of baseball’s greatest, but perhaps most under-appreciated, stars. To read An American Life is to journey along a path tread by many 20th century baseball players seeking to escape a hard life in their immigrant parents’ small working class town, through the minor leagues and finally to the majors.

Vecsey is nothing if not versatile. He has not only written books about baseball and other sports, but co-authored Loretta Lynn’s famous autobiography Coal Miner’s Daughter and other works by country music singers. In 2008, he returned to writing about baseball with a short historical overview of the game for the Modern Library’s Chronicles series, Baseball: A History of America’s Favorite Game. Now he’s back with the second book length treatment of Stan Musial’s life in as many years.

Perhaps “Stan the Man” was not what scouts rave about as a “five-tool” player. Once he fully developed his swing, he could hit home runs, but never led the league. In his 22 seasons he managed only 78 steals. The “Gold Glove” did not even exist until the twilight of his career, but it’s not likely he would have won one, especially given his throwing arm. But Musial won three Most Valuable Player awards and seven batting titles, leading the league in doubles eight times and triples three times along the way. His lifetime adjusted OPS+ of 159 places him 15th overall, above names like Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio and Tris Speaker. Had he retired after 17 seasons he would have been 11th, between Ty Cobb and Jimmie Foxx.

Yet, Musial’s reputation among today’s fans does not reflect these accomplishments. A recent discussion of the greatest living ball player I heard on ESPN failed to evoke even a mention of his name. Vecsey chooses to lead off his book with this conundrum. He recounts how Commissioner Bud Selig established a contest for fans to choose the game’s top 30 players of all time. Knowing there would be some questionable choices, making the endeavor look silly among knowledgeable observers, he wisely provided a mechanism whereby he would add five additional players to preserve the project’s integrity. Musial was one of the players whose name had to be added by the commissioner.

This is the focus of the first part of Vecsey’s treatment. He knows that Midwesterners will generally cite some form of New York bias—had Musial and DiMaggio switched places, they’ll argue, Musial would have gotten the extra publicity and be more highly regarded. Yet, Vecsey pleads “not guilty” on behalf of himself and his fellow New York-based colleagues.

In fact, the Yankees and Cardinals shared spring training facilities, and New York journalists took advantage of this to interview Musial, resulting in a number of high-profile pieces written about him by New York journalists during his career. Musial was even named as the “Player of the Decade” by Life magazine for the 1945-1955 decade. By going through the media coverage of Musial during his career, Vecsey does a good job of dispelling geographical bias as an explanation for Musial’s contemporary standing.

Another group he exonerates is sabrmetricians. He cites Bill James’ ranking of Musial as the 10th greatest player of all time (as of 2001). Both James’ “Black Ink” test and a similar “Gray Ink” test used at http://www.baseball-reference.com (both factor in seasonal statistical leadership) place him as the third-best hitter of all time, he notes. “The number crunchers, the baseball geeks, professional or amateur, put Musial much higher than the fans did,” concludes Vecsey.

Although Vecsey does a good job dispelling notions of “East Coast bias” and sabermetrics as the culprit for Musial’s relatively low reputation among baseball’s greats, he doesn’t really provide a satisfactory explanation for this phenomenon beyond saying that players such as Ted Williams and DiMaggio had more colorful, interesting public personas and lives. During the heart of Musial’s career, the Cardinals were never in serious contention. He played during what Roger Kahn has dubbed “The Era” when New York’s three teams, the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants, dominated in the standings, the press and baseball histories of the 1947-1957 period. The championships the Cardinals did win during Musial’s tenure were mostly during the neglected, under-appreciated years during World War II when many of the players were replacements for major leaguers in uniform.

At the end of the day, when a ball player hangs up his bat, glove and spikes, his reputation among those who didn’t see him play are preserved in books, and books aren’t written about the teams that didn’t win. This, I think, more than anything else, explains why Musial’s status is lower than it ought to be (much the same could be said of Ted Williams, though his historic 1941 season and Boston’s serving as a foil to the Yankees seems to have been enough to keep him in the spotlight, not to mention a lifetime adjusted OPS+ second only to the Babe’s).

Vecsey discusses Musial’s late arrival in the war in some detail, apparently concerned some might consider him unpatriotic for not volunteering but rather availing himself of special privileges accorded generally to those with families to support. Musial praised those who volunteered for duty, but Vecsey doesn’t probe deeply into why Musial didn’t join those such as Bob Feller and Hank Greenberg who went into military service despite qualifying for exemptions.

Cardinals fans could have “smoked out a slacker” yet “didn’t complain,” is as strong a defense as we get. After all, President Roosevelt had requested that baseball continue play, and someone had to play, right? Vecsey has little to work with on this issue, but quotes an unnamed Musial intimate as saying it simply reflected his passive approach to life.

Ironically, his brief service in the Navy, which came about only after he was called up, proved to be a boon. Assigned essentially to entertain Navy personnel in Maryland by playing ball, he quickly realized that he was expected to hit home runs. He modified his swing to accommodate this expectation, and this modification proved useful when he returned to baseball. In 1948, he would hit 39 home runs, after having never hit more than 19 in any previous season. From 1949 to 1957 he would always hit between 26 and 37 with one exception.

Vecsey also spends considerable time analyzing how Musial and the other Cardinals responded to Jackie Robinson‘s elevation to the major leagues in 1947. Musial didn’t really have much to say either way apparently, having absolutely no animus against black players and refusing to have anything to do with the boycott being discussed by some of the Cardinals.

He did not make any particularly accommodating gestures either, although it’s difficult to see what he could have appropriately done given that he played for the Dodgers’ bitter rivals in an era when fraternizing with players on other teams, even off the field, was taboo. Vecsey portrays Musial as at least somewhat heroic, refusing to be “stampeded into a racially motivated walkout.”

Robinson’s own take, however, as related to Roger Kahn, is that Musial was passive, comparing him to Gil Hodges: “Neither one hurt me and neither one helped.” To be fair to Musial, though, the comparison is inapt. Hodges was Robinson’s teammate, and would have been expected to have been supportive of a new teammate. Musial was on a rival ball club and his treatment of Robinson as any other player would have been more appropriate. It was Hodges who treated Robinson differently, while Musial did not.

Card Corner Plus: Gene Michael and High Intelligence on 1972 Topps
Three smart players devoted their lives to baseball.

Robinson’s characterization of Musial as “passive,” though, is probably correct. He did not go beyond what he needed to do, but he certainly did not do anything regarding Robinson he has reason to regret. His course of conduct is somewhat analogous to his response to the draft—neither volunteering unnecessarily nor shirking duty when his number was called. “Passive” seems to be the right word in both cases.

One final example Vecsey offers of this trait is Musials’s failure to pursue options with the Pittsburgh Pirates after Cardinals manager Solly Heamus benched him in 1960. As unhappy as he was not playing, he decided against pursuing Pittsburgh’s interest because his status in St. Louis was rock solid and his basic instinct was “do not disturb.”

Vecsey weaves personal reminisces throughout his narrative, stopping every now and then to consider certain facets of and events in Musial’s life more deeply. Although Vecsey makes no attempt to hide his admiration of Musial, he strives to be even handed. Balancing personal reminisces with great baseball stories, An American Life conveys a strong sense of Musial’s persona without getting bogged down in the details of baseball minutiae as player biographies can sometimes do.

I wish Vecsey had spent some more time discussing where baseball was in its own history on the field during Musial’s career. The 1950s in particular were known for their “station to station” style play, emphasizing getting on base and waiting for a home run over speed, bunting, moving players along, etc. How Musial’s style of play was suited to the 1950s (well in some, not so in others perhaps) would make an interesting study.

Additional background on the time period is also helpful in explaining an individual life, but is somewhat lacking in this medium sized (330+ page) treatment. I also question whether an incident Vecsey describes as involving rookie Walker Cooper didn’t really involve veteran catcher Gus Mancuso, given his description of the rookie Cooper as a “crusty old catcher.”

Finally, the editing leaves a little to be desired. The latter part of the book covering Musial’s retirement comes off as a mishmash of entertaining stories rather than a coherent narrative. The order in which certain items appear can be confusing (e.g., quoting Bob Costas’ reference to Musial’s prostate cancer before actually revealing he had it).

I also find the choice of discussing and analyzing Musial’s contemporary standing up front rather than at the end to be a curious one. Lastly, while Vecsey analyzes Musial vis-à-vis contemporaries such as DiMaggio and Williams in depth, he never really provides a comprehensive view of Musial’s baseball career in a longer term, historical context.

None of these, however, detracts from Vecsey’s first-class treatment of Musial’s life and career. After reading Stan Musial: An American Life you feel a strong sense of having traveled from Donora, Pa., to St. Louis, from having escaped a life at the plant to one at the pinnacle of the sports world with Musial, and wind up with a strong sense of both his strengths and weaknesses as a man, if not the whole picture as a ball player. Anyone looking to “know” Musial as well as anyone can who was not a personal intimate will be well satisfied by An American Life.

Although ailing, Musial remains a fixture in St. Louis and at Busch Stadium, where he can be seen watching the action from a skybox. Recently, some in St. Louis tried to tag star first baseman Albert Pujols with the nickname “El Hombre” or The Man. Despite being the game’s premier player over the past decade, he declined the honorific.

Showing an understanding of the game’s history and an appreciation for those who came before him, all too lacking among today’s players, Pujols declared that there was room for only one ballplayer in St. Louis with that title, and it wasn’t him. Vecsey’s latest book does a good deal to help us understand why, decades after he last put on his Cardinals uniform, Stanley Frank Musial from Donora, PA is still “Stan the Man.”

Given that I didn’t even realize Musial was Polish, it’s easy to find 10 things I didn’t know about him in any book. Still, here are some of the most interesting:

(1) People in Musial’s family pronounced their name differently than we know it today—the pronunciation we use now was adopted by journalists only after he started playing baseball.

(2) “Stan the Man” was bestowed on him not by home town fans, but admiring Dodgers fans, who were classy enough to acknowledge his greatness despite the damage he did to Brooklyn pitching, not to mention the right field wall at Ebbets Field.

(3) Musial took gymnastics classes for three years as a boy, to which he credited his 22 years of largely injury-free baseball as well as his idiomatic swing.

(4) He was the child of an alcoholic.

(5) Flat land in Donora was scarce, and usually reserved for the mills. Musial and his friends played on a field that sloped toward the river, making right field “out of bounds” lest the ball roll down there. Consequently, he had to learn to hit to center and left field.

(6) Musial started his baseball career as a pitcher, but it became quickly obvious that hitting was his real strength. He could still pitch well enough to throw a four-hitter against an Army team for Navy in World War II.

(7) Don Drysdale‘s pitching can be linked to Christy Mathewson.

(8) Musial experienced a power burst starting with the 1948 season, hitting far more home runs in each year of the next decade than he ever did during his first six seasons.

(9) Musial enthusiastically campaigned with other celebrities for fellow Catholic John F. Kennedy in 1960.

(10) Stan the Man had a terrific sense of self-deprecating humor. When people observed he had two hits in both his first and last games, he’d reply that was evidence he hadn’t improved during his career. When asked how the Cardinals won the pennant the year after he retired, he’d joke, referring to the Cardinals’ midseason trade for Lou Brock, that “the Cardinals finally got a good left fielder.”


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Detroit Michael
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Detroit Michael

So is this the best biography of Stan Musial?  I haven’t yet the one by Wayne Stewart alluded to in the second paragraph of the article, nor any others yet.

AaronB
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AaronB
Very nice report Alec, I can’t wait to give it a read.  My thoughts on Musial: a big difference between Williams, DiMaggio, & others was that Musial didn’t really do self promotion.  He would make public appearances, but for the most part, seemed to stay out of the spotlight.  Most accounts talk of him desiring to be a good role model, to not let the kids down.  He wanted to stay neutral (it seemed) to the point of not disappointing anyone.  The best examples I can think of are Micheal Jordon & Tiger Woods – who have both come under… Read more »
Alec Rogers
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Alec Rogers

Detroit Michael,

I can’t say which is best as this is the only one I’ve read.  I did enjoy it thoroughly, though.  There are at least 2 others I know about, one being an academic title.  This one seems to do the best among Amazon reviewers.

Alec

Alec Rogers
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Alec Rogers
Re: the Coopers – you are right that I confused Mort and Walker.  Vecsey references Walker Cooper, who was only in his second season, not Mort, who had been with the team for some time when Musial came up.  I’ll see if I can get that corrected.  These names are easy to confuse, so I certainly don’t fault Vecsey if he DID mean to refer to Mancuso, a veteran catcher who certainly might have told the newbie Musial to get away from the batting cage. All your other comments re: Musial and his style are very consistent with Vecsey’s portrayal… Read more »
gdc
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gdc
“The “Gold Glove” did not even exist until the twilight of his career, but it’s not likely he would have won one, especially given his throwing arm” My understanding is that he had a good arm and injuring it early took him off the mound more than his hitting.  He started out as a RF and routinely racked up double-digit assist numbers before moving to LF, with a few years at 1B both early and late in his career.  In 1952 the 31 YO Musial played more in CF than anywhere else, and the “Donora Greyhound” nickname indicated his contemporaries… Read more »
Alec Rogers
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Alec Rogers
GDC, You’re correct that Musial suffered a shoulder injury.  That injury, however, left him with a weaker arm than he would have liked.  Vecsey quotes Musial at p.101 as saying “I didn’t have a good arm” as a result of the injury.  Fortunately, Musial had Terry Moore in center, and Musial and Enos Slaughter yielding everything possible to Moore. That’s about all Vecsey has to say about Musial’s fielding.  As for being awarded a GG anyway, well, stranger things have happened. Musial really moved around quite a bit in the field.  In 1942 he played almost exclusively in left.  He… Read more »
Steve Treder
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Steve Treder

Well-written review!  I haven’t read the book, but I plan to.

One question:

“Musials’s failure to pursue options with the Pittsburgh Pirates after Cardinals manager Solly Heamus benched him in 1960. As unhappy as he was not playing, he decided against pursuing Pittsburgh’s interest”

I’m curious about this … 1960 was long before free agency.  Just what could Musial have done to “pursue options with the Pittsburgh Pirates”?

Mike
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Mike

The topic of Musial moving from position to position has come up before.  The question is that if he was good enough to play CF, why was he ever a regular at 1B, and if he was only good enough to play 1B, why was he ever a regular in CF.  I am not sure if anyone has ever been able to explain this.

Alec Rogers
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Alec Rogers
Hi Steve, Musial’s skills were in decline in 1959, and he hit only .255 in 115 games.  As Musial spent more and more time on the bench, there was tension and Cardinals’ manager Solly Hemus denied he was benching Musial, but rather giving younger players more playing time. By 1960, though, the jig was up.  Musial was having trouble seeing the ball, and the Cardinals gave up any pretense of not benching him after spring training.  Musial’s friends floated the idea that he might be willing to go to Pittsburgh, his boyhood team.  Pirates management sent word back that if… Read more »
Steve Treder
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Steve Treder

OK, thanks, Alec.

Alec Rogers
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Alec Rogers

Mike,

That’s a good question and not one that Vecsey pursues. 

Perhaps an analysis of the Cards’ roster and their other options would help explain these moves.  There’s little about Musial’s fielding in the book beyond what I’ve mentioned, and its unanswered questions like yours that prompted my comment regarding additional background being helpful. 

Vecsey’s book goes lighter on the baseball analysis than some may wish, focusing more on Musial himself than the team and the game.

Alec Rogers
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Alec Rogers

I should probably also mention here in way of full disclosure that my review was based on an advanced uncorrect proof sent to me through the Amazon Vine program.

Detroit Michael
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Detroit Michael

Thanks, Alec.  I thought maybe you had read the 2010 Musial biography.

Alec Rogers
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Alec Rogers

Steve,

I’ll caveat this review by noting that it’s lighter reading than Lowenfish on Rickey for instance. 

Much more of a traditional player bio than the doorstop books on Rickey, Ed Barrow, et al. we’ve seen from SABR members.

Alec

Nick Wilson from Jacksonville
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Nick Wilson from Jacksonville

Stan the Man was my hero in the 50’s We drove by his home at that time…3-bed, 2-car garage, just like the suburbs. Nothing fancy back then. Anyway, Musial played LF, RF and 1b, all over the field in a sense. If some one did that today, they would flounder at the plate from all that movement. Stan did not. He hit and hit. And wehre eer they put him, he plaed well.
Word had it in St. Louis that he never argued with a plate umpire. Stan the Man to the end.

David P Stokes
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David P Stokes
I think that you might be underestimating the “colorful, interesting public lives” explanation as to why Musial isn’t held as high in public regard as he should be.  I was born in 1962, so I didn’t really become aware of MLB until after Musial’s career was over.  But until his death, a guy like William was on TV a lot.  Heck, I saw Casey Stengal interviewed on TV a lot in the early 70’s.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen Musial interviewed. Something else that a lot of people probably don’t know about Musial (which I would assume is… Read more »
Alec Rogers
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Alec Rogers
David, Many thanks for your insights.  The book DOES mention that both Ken Griffey Sr and Jr grew up in Donora, along with some lesser known professional athletes (I don’t recall the book mentioning KG Sr.‘s father offhand, though) and that segregation wasn’t a way of life there, hence Musial’s comfort playing with and around African-American players.  Vecsey traveled to Donora and spoke with several of Musial’s contemporaries, giving us a nice picture of how his upbringing there shaped him going forward – it really was tremendous research. As for the explanation as to why Musial isn’t better known, I… Read more »
Jim C
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Jim C

I’ve read Bob Gibson’s and Curt Flood’s books, and both of them go out of their way to talk about Musial being one of the only white players on the Cardinals to make them feel welcome on the team. Other writers have also suggested that Musial was the one who cut off the Cardinals’ potential boycott of Jackie Robinson, though apparently there is no proof of that.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider
Regarding Musial’s WW II service, I think it’s unfair to criticize Musial for not having volunteered.  Most American men didn’t volunteer; that why there was a draft.  How many people would really be eager to go get killed regardless of how patriotic they were?  Lots of guys looked for ways to get out of fighting.  It’s just human nature.  Kudos to guys like Greenberg and Feller but they were more the exception than the rule and I don’t think you should hold Musial’s “passivity” against him—he went when he was called, which was true of most men during WW II. … Read more »
Alec Rogers
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Alec Rogers

Marc,

I don’t believe I criticized Musial for not volunteering. Rather, and I tried to summarize Vecsey’s analysis.

DFC,

I think you’ll be pleased with the book’s discussion of life in Donors and its impact on Musial. It is a particular strength.

db
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db

I think as to appreciation of Musial, he suffers from being not quite as good as Ted Williams, so he wasn’t even the best leftfielder of his generation.  I think its kind of similar to comparing Rickey Henderson to Tim Raines, as good as Raines was, there is really no argument as to the better leadoff hitter/outfielder/basestealer.  So too in comparing Musial and Williams.

Heck, Musial is probably not even the best left handed hitting outfielder from Donora, PA.

dfc
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dfc
I am intrigued to read the book after reading your recap.  My mom was from Donora, PA, and that little borough and surrounding area is steeped in history and rich with athletic achievements (Joe Montana grew up in nearby Monongahela).  One thing to keep in mind that may help explain Stan Musial’s personality is Donora and that whole geographic area ingrained a sense of humility and work ethic in everyone.  Donora was a typical steel town full of hard working individuals that took nothing for granted, traits that can’t always be seen in many of today’s players.  I hope Vecsey… Read more »
Alec Rogers
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Alec Rogers

One final note re Musial’s standing today: he just wasn’t part of “the story” in the late 40s and 1950s.  Integration, Jackie Robinson, the “Boys of Summer,” etc. are the most important and interesting topics of the National League from the post war through the mid 50s, when Stan was at his peak.  For better or worse, Musial was peripheral to the bigger narrative.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Alec,

I didn’t mean to imply that you were crticizing Musial, just pointing out some issues involving what Vecsey had said. Musial seemed to avoid any criticism but Ted Williams had been heavily criticized earlier in the war for having taken advantage of a deferment (for being the support of his mother)although he later enlisted.  In fact, my father once told me he tried to enlist after Pearl Harbor but was not allowed to do so due to having to support his mother.  This policy was later changed and he was eventually drafted.

Alec Rogers
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Alec Rogers

Thanks Marc.

The two biggest “controversies” in the book concern Musial’s draft status and his response to Jackie Robinson. 

Additional information on the draft, how Americans responded to Pearl Harbor, etc., I think, would have shed additional light on Musial’s decision making.  It’s stuff like this I would like to have seen more of to get a better understanding of Musial’s reaction.

KJOK
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KJOK

Musial’s draft status seemed to be a non-issue back in the war days.  About 25% of all ballplayers were being initially rejected.  That changed as the war progressed, and the March 23, 1944 Sporting News noted Musial had been classified 1-A:

“We expected that,” said Breadon.  “With the draft boards taking all young fathers, we hardly expected to keep Musial, age 23, indefinitely.”  However, Stan advised Sam that he has a high draft number,  and thinks it will be several months before he is called.

Matt
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Matt

Thanks for this.  My father-in-law is from Donora, I just picked up a copy of the book thanks to this review.

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