Stan Musial (born 1920), one of baseball's greatest hitters, enjoyed an extraordinary career with the St. Louis Cardinals from 1941 through 1963. Called "Stan the Man" because of his intimidating presence at the plate, Musial won seven batting championships and three Most Valuable Player awards.
Accommodating to fans and the media both during and after his playing career, Musial was considered one of the game's most gentlemanly and down-to-earth ambassadors. He came from rural Pennsylvania, never graduated from high school, and sometimes stammered in public. His love for baseball overcame all obstacles, however, and he became known nationwide as a symbol of batting excellence. "I was a poor boy who struck it rich in many ways through the wonders of baseball," Musial said in his autobiography.
The Cardinals' greatest player was born Stanislaus Musial in Donora, a mill town in southwestern Pennsylvania's Monongahela Valley on December 21, 1920. His father, Lukasz Musial, was a shy Polish immigrant who worked in the shipping department of a local mill. The parents of his mother, Mary Lancos, had migrated from Czechoslovakia, and her father was a coal miner. Mary and Lukasz Musial had four girls before their son, Stanislaus, was born in 1920. Stan also had a younger brother, who played minor league baseball after World War II.
Musial, a bashful boy, became interested in baseball because he had a neighbor who played semi-pro ball. "I could always hit," Musial told the Sporting News. "I learned to hit with a broomstick and a ball of tape and I could always get that bat on the ball." Musial, who batted and threw left-handed, acquired the habit of hitting to the opposite field while playing for the Donora Zinc Works team in 1937. At the hometown field, trolley tracks shortened the distance to the left-field fence, so Musial tried to aim that way. The ability to go the opposite way became one of his greatest weapons.
Musial was 16 and a flame-throwing but erratic pitcher when he signed his first professional contract. Pittsburgh never courted him. Instead, he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, whose owner Branch Rickey was known for his scouting system. In the winter of 1937-1938, Musial starred on Donora High School's basketball team. The next two summers he pitched for Williamson, WV, in the Class D Mountain States League of the low minors. In 1939, the Williamson manager, Harrison Wickel, reported to the Cardinals that Musial, who had struck out 85 batters and walked 84 others in 91 innings, was the wildest pitcher he had ever seen. He recommended Musial be released. But an injury to an outfielder forced Musial into the lineup, and he batted .352.
After the 1939 season, Musial married his high school sweetheart, Lillian Labash. They would have an enduring marriage and four children: son Dick and daughters Gerry, Janet and Jeanie.
In 1940, playing for Class D Daytona Beach in the Florida State League, Musial hit .311, playing the outfield between pitching assignments. During one game he injured his shoulder trying to make a diving catch in center field. It ruined his pitching arm, and his career seemed in jeopardy. But the Cardinals organization had recognized his remarkable hitting ability.
In 1941, Musial went from being an unknown, minor league player to a hitter who won a regular job in the major leagues. He was quickly promoted from Class C Springfield (Missouri), where he hit .379 with 24 home runs in 87 games, to Class B Rochester (New York). After Rochester finished its season, Musial was called up to St. Louis. He had six hits in a doubleheader and hit .426 in 12 games. No one ever asked him to pitch again.
The Cardinals' Man
The next season, Musial was installed in left field for the Cardinals. At 21, he was the youngest player on a youthful, carefree squad. "There were more small-town and farm boys then and fewer college men," Musial recalled in his autobiography, Stan Musial: "The Man's" Own Story. "They horsed around more, cut up with hillbilly songs and musical instruments. … I never had the courage to try my harmonica outside my hotel room, but I could make my share of noise with that slide whistle and coat hanger. I always thought it helped to laugh it up before a game, not to become too tense."
Led by Musial's hot bat, the loose, inexperienced Cardinals surprised everyone by winning 106 games, including 43 of their last 52, to claim the National League pennant. Then St. Louis beat the favored Yankees in the World Series, and Musial was on a world championship team in his first full season.
Musial was disliked by Brooklyn Dodgers' fans, who bestowed his nickname. Groaning when he came up to bat in key situations, they would yell: "Oh no. Here comes that Man again." From then on, he was always "Stan the Man." Musial didn't find out till after he retired that Dodgers' shortstop, Pee Wee Reese, often used to steal his bat before games.
Musial had an unorthodox batting stance. He crouched down to make the strike zone smaller, held his hands back until the last possible instant, and punched many of his hits the opposite way. "A lot of guys saw my hitting style and said I'd never hit in the big leagues," Musial recalled. In fact, Musial feasted on all types of pitching. "I learned early to hit the curveball," Musial wrote in his autobiography. "From the beginning I was a natural fastball hitter, so they started throwing me curves, so many of them that I sharpened up against the breaking ball."
Musial contended that the most important aspects of hitting were relaxation and concentration. "It's necessary to have mental tenacity at the plate, but to avoid physical tension," he wrote. "If I freed my mind of all distracting thoughts, I could tell what a pitch was going to be when it got about halfway to the plate." In a later interview, Musial told the Sporting News he could always tell when a pitcher was going to throw him a fastball, his favorite pitch to hit: "I had a sixth sense. I don't know what else you call it, but it never deceived me."
The Cardinals had been a decent team, but with Musial batting third in the lineup they became a perennial power-house. Led by Musial's league-leading .357 average in 1943 and his .347 mark in 1944, the Cardinals won two more pennants during years when baseball's player ranks were being depleted by World War II. The Cardinals lost the World Series to the Yankees in 1943 and to their cross-town rivals, the St. Louis Browns, in 1944.
Musial was drafted in 1945, joined the Navy, and served on a ship repair unit in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He played baseball every afternoon on a base team to entertain service personnel. Without Musial, the Cardinals faltered in 1945. Musial returned in 1946 and resumed his incredible hitting, leading the league with a .365 mark and taking St. Louis to the World Series again. The Cardinals defeated Boston in a thrilling seven-game series billed as a showdown between Musial and Red Sox slugger, Ted Williams, to whom Musial was often compared. The Cardinals would never win another pennant during Musial's long tenure, though they came close several times.
In 1948, Musial had his best year, batting .376 with 39 home runs and 131 runs batted in and a league-leading .702 slugging percentage. That year, he became the first National League player to win the Most Valuable Player award three times. Musial was a hitting machine-dependable and productive. He excelled at the two most important aspects of batting-getting on base and driving in runners. He liked light, thin-handled bats that he could whip around quickly. He would scrape the handles all season to thin the bats even more. Players around the league feared his screaming line drives.
Quiet and shy, Musial kept his opinions to himself. He generally stayed away from controversy. But when the Cardinals took advantage of his easygoing demeanor to hold down his salary, he staged several holdouts. Baseball experts agreed he and Williams were the best hitters of their era, and two of the best in baseball history. However, compared to later players like Mickey Mantle, who spent their careers in the New York limelight, Musial was relatively underpaid and under-recognized by the public.
Enjoyed the Game
Playing outside a major media market throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, Musial symbolized the workaday ballplayer who loved baseball and delighted loyal fans with his steady play. He became an institution in St. Louis, opening a restaurant in 1949 and remaining in the public eye throughout his career and after his retirement.
In May 1954, Musial hit five home runs in a doubleheader at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. About that time, Musial, never blessed with great speed, began playing more games at first base than in the outfield. He was never known as an outstanding fielder, but he worked hard to become an adequate one. His hitting, however, overshadowed all else. For 16 consecutive seasons, Musial batted over .300. Only Ty Cobb had more years in a row hitting .300. Musial led the National League in hitting seven times, and only Cobb and Honus Wagner won more batting titles.
After he failed to hit .300 in 1959, Musial considered retirement. However, to the surprise of many, he played four more seasons, getting frequent rests to nurse a myriad of injuries. He returned to the outfield to make room for first baseman Bill White. In 1962, at the age of 41, Musial played left field and hit .330. "I was having too much fun hitting to want to quit," Musial recalled.
In 1963, his last season, Musial contributed as the Cardinals mounted a furious drive at the end of the season. He hit his last major league home run to tie the score in a key game against the Dodgers, but the Cardinals' pennant bid fell short. In his last day as a Cardinals player, Musial had two hits after being honored in pre-game ceremonies. "My heart is filled with thanks for so many who made these 22 years possible," he told the crowd.
Musial finished with 1,951 runs batted in, fourth on the all-time list, and with 6,134 total bases, second-highest in history. He also ranked in the Top Ten in career hits (3,630), runs scored (1,949), doubles (725), walks (1,599), and games (3,026). Though not a bona fide power hitter, he finished with 475 home runs. He led the league in hits six times, in doubles eight times, in triples five times, in runs five times, and in runs batted in twice.
After his retirement, "Stan the Man" remained a popular figure in St. Louis, running his restaurant and speaking frequently. When the Cardinals opened a new stadium, local baseball writers staged a testimonial dinner and raised $40,000 to erect a statue of Musial at the ballpark. In 1969, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. His career had spanned the era from before World War II to the 1960s. "I believe I played in the most exciting era of baseball," Musial recalled in his autobiography. "I saw the game change from day to night, from regional to national, from long train trips to short plane flights, from cabbage leaves under the cap in hot weather to air-conditioned dugouts….
"I say baseball was a great game, is a great game, and will be a great game. I'm extremely grateful for what it has given me-in recognition and records, thrills and satisfaction, money and memories. I hope I've given nearly as much as I've gotten from it."
Further Reading on Stan Musial
Broeg, Bob, and Stan Musial, Stan Musial: "The Man's" Own Story, as told to Bob Broeg, Doubleday, 1964.
American Heritage, October 1992.
Sporting News, July 28, 1997.