Monday, February 4, 2013

142. Stan Musial: Do widzenia Stashu!

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 2 Hall of Fame ballplayers. I say 2, but it's actually just 1 at the moment - Ken Griffey, Jr. hasn't gone through the formalities of being inducted, but he will. In 35 years of watching baseball in person, Griffey was the absolute greatest ballplayer I had the pleasure of seeing in person. So I call him a Hall of Famer. The other Hall of Famer who hailed from that town of Donora was 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. So nice was he that 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-shill") became Musial (pronounced "Mu-see-al"). He seemed to have come out of nowhere - a converted pitcher from the sticks of Pennsylvania who hit .315 and quietly forced 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. Dodger fans at Ebbets Field began referring to the new ballplayer as "that man", as in "oh shit, it's that man again" when he came to bat against Brooklyn. It seemed that every time "that man" came to bat he tore Brooklyn pitching apart. Eventually it evolved to "The Man", the name he was forever known by. That rookie season was just a teaser - in 1943 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 wanted 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 troops. Free admission to see Bainbridge take on the Philadelphia Athletics or Brooklyn Dodgers kept many a sailor out of trouble for the afternoon and take his mind off of what was to come when they 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. It was while stationed there that Musial decided to tinker with his batting mechanics enabling him to pull the ball. Pulling the ball allowed him to hit more home runs to entertain the sailors. Besides making the white hats happy, the adjustment turned a great hitter into a power hitter.

Musial continued to play ball when he was shipped out to Hawaii. In 1945 the island was 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 the entire two years 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 of course was again given the MVP Award as the Cardinals won the World Series over Boston. 

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 Stan Musial 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 jeperdise the whole integration effort. Players from the other teams knew this as well and it was open season on Robinson. Enos Slaughter took full advantage. Out by a mile, Slaughter leaped into the air and slid his spikes down the defenseless Robinson's calf as he stretched for the ball. When Robinson got himself on base a few innings later, he stood on first, poised to spike the hell out of whoever was covering second. Stan was playing first for St. Louis and told Robinson that saw what happened and he wouldn't blame him for spiking whoever was covering second. Musial's sense of sportsmanship and empathy struck Robinson and made him realise that not everyone was against him. Stan's words that day totally defused a situation  that could have gotten totally out of control had Robinson intentionally hurt who ever happened to be covering second.

When Stan passed away last week at the age of 92, baseball lost a great man. What more can I say except Do widzenia Stashu!