Stan Musial: Stan The Sailor Man

 

The halfway point on the drive between New Jersey and Kentucky is Donora, Pennsylvania. Besides being my own personal milestone of almost being home or almost being to my Grandmother’s house, Donora is the birthplace of two Hall of Fame ballplayers. In over 40 years of watching baseball in person, Griffey was the absolute greatest ballplayer I had the pleasure of seeing in person. The other Hall of Famer who hailed from that town of Donora was a bit before my time, but as a kid I heard both my father and his father talk about: Stan Musial. Stashu. That Man. Stan The Man.

He was THE budding superstar of the early 1940’s. On a St. Louis Cardinals team that was loaded with talent, young Stan Musial stood out. Unlike tough and rough teammates like Whitey Kurowski or Enos Slaughter, Musial was a quiet, friendly fella. When radio announcers pronounced his Polish last name wrong, Stan was too nice of a guy to bring it to their attention. Thus, Musial (pronounced “Mu-show”) became Musial (pronounced “Mew-see-al”).

He seemed to have come out of nowhere – a converted pitcher from the sticks of Pennsylvania who hit .315 and quietly wedged his way into the starting lineup of the best team in the National League. It was while he was still relatively unknown that Stan got his famous nickname. The Brooklyn fans in the Ebbets Field stands didn’t know who this new Cardinal player was, but it seemed that every time “that man” came to the plate, he tore Dodger pitching apart. Eventually, as more and more singles, doubles and homers flew off the end of his bat, “that man” evolved into a more reverent “The Man” – the name Stan Musial was forever known by.

That 1942 rookie season was just a teaser – in ‘43 he led the league in hits, doubles, triples, batting average, slugging percentage – being named the National League MVP was just a formality. 1944 was pretty much a repeat of the previous year, and for the third year in a row the Cardinals went to the World Series. But there was that thing called World War II going on, and it was inevitable that The Man would have to take part. Brooklyn’s Pete Reiser pushed hard to get Stan to join the Army and play on his Fort Riley ball club, but Musial went Navy instead.

Seaman Stan Musial was posted to Bainbridge Naval Training Center in Maryland. During the war, all military bases had football, basketball and baseball teams to keep the servicemen occupied and out of trouble. Team sports helped build an esprit de corps among the recruits, and many of the larger bases fielded varsity teams loaded with former big leaguers. Teams like the Bainbridge Commodores, which Musial played on, would play exhibition games against major league teams and local semi-pro outfits for the benefit of the boys. Free admission to see Bainbridge take on the Philadelphia Athletics or Brooklyn Dodgers kept many a sailor out of trouble for the afternoon and helped take his mind off of what was to come when they inevitably shipped overseas.

While with Bainbridge, Musial played with Lum Harris (A’s), Dick Wakefield (Tigers), Thurman Tucker (White Sox), Stan Spence (Senators) and Dick Sisler (Cardinals). Not a bad variety of talent for a Navy base. Wearing the Navy-issued number 44 on his back instead of his familiar 6 and swinging a GI model Hanna Batrite instead of his Louisville Slugger, Musial and the Commodores opened the 1945 Service League season with a game against the New York Giants. The pros were winning going into the 9th when The Man tied it up, where it remained when the game was called after nine innings. Next, Musial and the Navy boys whipped the Phillies and then took a pair from the Washington Senators, The Man’s bat coming through in the clutch time after time. Though Musial was no doubt the star attraction of the Bainbridge team, Stan was astute enough to see that while the sailors appreciated the doubles and triples that sprung off the end of his bat, the swabbies REALLY loved the booming homers that Dick Sisler pounded out.

Ever the nice guy, The Man decided that he would try to give the Navy boys what they wanted: home runs. The Man began tinkering with his swing and changing his grip on the bat. By the time he shipped out to the Pacific in June, The Man had begun evolving from a great hitter into a power hitter.

As per the Navy’s orders, Musial continued to play ball when he was shipped out to Hawaii. In 1945 the islands were an arsenal of talent, and it can be argued that the level of ball being played on any given weekend in Hawaii was better than what was being offered by the Major League back in the States. Playing ball for a year and a half in the Navy gave Musial the edge when he rejoined the Cardinals for the 1946 season. He led the National League in all the same offensive categories that he did in 1943, and his new-found power led to more home runs than he’d hit before the war. While other players careers had suffered after several years away, The Man was even more dangerous than before. Led by the bat of “than man,” the Cardinals beat out the Brooklyn Dodgers for the pennant and then edged out Boston for the Word Championship. Stan Musial was, of course, handed the ’46 NL MVP Award before he went back to Donora for the winter.

The Man went on to have one of the best careers in baseball history. Besides being arguably the best hitter of all-time, Stan was also one of the most respected. His cheerful personality and fair sense of sportsmanship earned him the respect of millions of fans.

There’s a story from 1947 that sums up what The Man was all about. During a Dodger-Cardinals game, Jackie Robinson, playing first, was intentionally spiked by Enos Slaughter. This was Robinson’s first year, and he was under strict orders not to fight back. To do so would jeopardize the whole integration effort. Players from the other teams knew this as well and 1947 was open season on Robinson. Enos Slaughter took full advantage. Out by a mile, Slaughter leaped into the air and slid his spikes down Robinson’s calf as he stretched for the ball. Refusing to come out of the game, play was halted while Jackie had his wounds tended to. A few innings later, Robinson got himself on base where he stood, poised to spike the hell out of whoever was covering second. Stan was playing first for St. Louis, and he told Robinson that he saw what happened and wouldn’t blame him for spiking whoever was covering second. Musial’s sense of sportsmanship and empathy struck Robinson and made him realize that not everyone was against him. The Man’s words that day totally defused a situation that could have gotten out of control had Robinson intentionally hurt who ever had the misfortune to be covering second.

After he retired in ’63, The Man stayed close to the game, holding various front office jobs with the Cards and heading up Lyndon Johnson’s physical education taskforce in the late sixties. As a guy who married and stayed married to his high school sweetheart, Stan was the ultimate family man, and to help other players achieve what he held so dear, had the Cards organize a babysitting service so their wives could attend their husband’s games. An accomplished harmonica player, Musial’s rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” was a fixture at old-timers events and he even published a book about mastering the mouth organ. If one was to venture to the city of Kutno in the dead-center of Poland, you’ll find Stan Musial Field, part of a sprawling baseball complex that serves as HQ to European youth baseball.

Bob Costas has always possessed the talent of crafting the perfect one-paragraph synopsis that rides that fine line between sentimentality and true fact, and his summation of The Man is the perfect example with which to close this story:

“He didn’t hit a homer in his last at-bat; he hit a single. He didn’t hit in 56 straight games. He married his high school sweetheart and stayed married to her. … All Musial represents is more than two decades of sustained excellence and complete decency as a human being.”

When Stan passed away at the age of 91, baseball lost a great man. What more can I say except Do widzenia Stashu!

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