The Star Who Stood Out By Not Standing Out

The New York Times

January 20, 2013

It needs to be said, over and over again, that Stan the Man was voted by The Sporting News as the best baseball player of the postwar decade, from 1946 through 1955. These were the late years of DiMaggio and Feller, the time of Williams and Robinson, the early years of Mays and Aaron. Stan the Man was considered the best, a potent mix of power and consistency.
In the rabid heart of Brooklyn, Dodgers fans called him “that man,” endowing him with a nickname that outlasts his passing Saturday at 92.
How likable was he? In the fall of 1960, Musial was recruited by John F. Kennedy to join a campaign in the Midwest. Nobody called them “red states” back then, but there was considerable disdain for the Democrats who came spilling off the chartered plane — James A. Michener, Arthur Schlesinger, Byron (Whizzer) White, a couple of Kennedy wives, Jeff Chandler and Angie Dickinson.
“We were well aware they were against us,” the thoughtful Dickinson said a few years ago. “That’s why they booed us and threw things at us. That’s why we went to those states.”
The celebrities were stunned to watch the baseball player get up front and remind the crowd how he once struck out in that state; Republicans cheered him.
Stan the Man was loved in clubhouses, too. When I was working on the unauthorized biography “Stan Musial: An American Life,” which came out in 2011, old opponents recalled how Musial knew their names after they had been in the majors only a few days.
He was a lodge member, who acknowledged black players. At All-Star Games, he would see Aaron, Mays, Banks, et al, sitting in a corner, maybe playing a hand or two of cards before batting practice. Deal me in, Musial would say. His place was with the hitters, and they loved him for that.
He had played on a mixed basketball team back in Donora, Pa. Once in Pittsburgh, the hotel put up a screen between the players and other diners. The boys — eight white, two black, including Buddy Griffey of the Donora Griffeys — walked out. In 1947, he declined to strike when some teammates babbled about not taking the field against Jackie Robinson.
Revisionist thought is that Musial did not do enough to force the Cardinals to hire a black player before 1954. He was not Martin Luther King Jr., let’s put it that way. He saw Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe and told people close to him that the Cardinals were done. They would not win a pennant from 1947 until 1964, the year after he retired.
“We finally got a left fielder,” he said with his giggle. The left fielder was Lou Brock.
In those days before cable and the Internet, Musial was an icon because of clear-channel radio, from the Midwest to the South to the Southwest. His aura faded over the years, partly because of the inevitability of time, and partly because he lacked some kind of sizzle.
He was a family man who put up his own Christmas lights on his ranch house in a modest neighborhood. A friend of mine recalled going to a department store and seeing Stan and his wife, Lil, testing the mattresses, bouncing up and down.
They were regular citizens in a town that prized approachability.
Around the country, people forgot. The DiMaggio legend included roses on Marilyn Monroe’s grave. The Williams saga included the crash landing of a burning jet during the Korean conflict. Those men were moody, mysterious, sexy.
In 1999, baseball held a gimmick computer-printout vote for the top 25 players of the century. The fans du jour voted for Mark McGwire, for goodness’ sakes, and forgot Stan the Man, with his .331 batting average, 475 home runs, speed and consistency. Fortunately, Commissioner Bud Selig had mandated a 30-player squad, including five committee choices for just such oversights. Musial was the first person included. He never griped.
In flyover country, people entertain the theory that news media strongholds on the coasts are turned off by solid Middle America family guys. Musial drew his strength from his childhood in Donora, home of the murderous smog on Halloween 1948 that killed dozens immediately and hastened the death of Musial’s father.
Lukasz Musial, a Polish immigrant who worked in the zinc mills, was never comfortable in this new land, but his son, sweet and athletic, found mentors, men who taught him how to dress and shake hands and look people in the eye. He wanted to have a good life. In later years, he wore suits and ties and read The Wall Street Journal in his office at Stan Musial & Biggie’s Restaurant. Musial wanted to be a businessman, not a figurehead.
He knew the cuts of meat the way he knew the repertory of Robin Roberts (against whom he had 10 home runs), Newcombe (11) and Warren Spahn (17, the most). Those pitchers loved him, by the way.
In recent years, Musial was visibly slipping, no longer able to gab or play “Happy Birthday” on his ever-present harmonica for the ladies who lunch.
“I anticipated this, and we were fortunate to have him around for 92 years,” James J. Hackett, the former chief of detectives in St. Louis, who lunched regularly with Musial, said Sunday. “But then you think, we’d like to have him around for another eight.”
Hackett said his pal was deceptively astute about people and business, behind the aw-shucks laughter.
Lil Musial, in a wheelchair for 10 years, was still running the household until her death last May 3. They were well cared for by their four children and many grandchildren.
St. Louis will know how to say farewell to its most popular citizen, ever. We will be reminded why he was so loved and so respected, the player of a baseball decade, Stan the Man.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 22, 2013
An earlier version of this article misidentified the magazine that named Stan Musial the best player of the postwar decade. It was The Sporting News, not Life.