Jun 4, 2011 Ken Braiterman
Stan Musial played as well as Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio, and was a much nicer person. Why is he forgotten except by fans over 60, or in St. Louis?
Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio set single-season records in 1941 that will probably never be equaled: Williams had a batting average of .406, the last man to hit .400. DiMaggio got a hit in 56 consecutive games. All fans, and many non-fans, know those numbers.
Stan “The Man’s” Career Statistics
George Vecsey, in his new biography, Stan Musial: An American Life, says Musial compiled his eye-popping career statistics over 22 years. Only three Major Leaguers got more hits than he did: Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, and Henry Aaron. His lifetime batting average was .331, with 725 doubles, 177 triples, three Most Valuable Player awards, and seven batting championships, Vecsey says.
Musial finished in second place for the MVP award three times and finished in the top 10 in 14 different seasons. Musial’s best MVP year was 1948, when he hit .376 with 230 hits, 46 doubles, 18 triples and 39 home runs. Stan the Man also had 131 RBI, 135 runs scored and a sixth-best ever 429 total bases, one of the best single seasons in the modern, “lively ball” era, Vecsey says..
The statistic that amazes baseball people today is his 475 home runs with only 696 strikeouts, an astounding ratio compared to the home run hitters of today, who strike out hundreds of times every season.
“His amazing consistency – he got 1,815 hits on the road, and 1,815 at home – made him spectacularly unspectacular,” said George Will, political commentator and author of two well-regarded baseball books. “Although [Musial[ is universally regarded as one of baseball’s greatest players, he is nevertheless underrated,” Will said.
(The Brooklyn Dodgers started calling Musial “The Man” out of respect. He owned Brooklyn pitching all his life. Brooklyn fans elected him to the Dodger Hall of Fame as a great opponent, Vecsey said. “Stan the Man” became one of the. most famous nicknames in baseball.)
Williams and DiMaggio’s Career Statistics
The three best players in Musial’s generation, three of the best of all time, were Musial, Ted Williams, and Joe DiMaggio, Vecsey says.
Most baseball people agree that Williams was the best pure hitter who ever lived. His statistics bear that out, especially if you assume he would have equaled his average production in the five prime years he lost to military service.
In 19 seasons, Williams had a batting average of .344, with 521 home runs, 2,654 hits, and 709 strikeouts. His on-base percentage, which combines hits and walks per at-bat was .482. That means he made an out just 52 percent of the time. He could tell the difference between a good and bad pitch better than anyone, and had the discipline never to swing at a bad ball.
Musial’s OBP was a healthy .417. Anything over 400 is considered outstanding. Williams’s .482 for 19 years is stratospheric.
But Williams was not a complete ballplayer like Musial or DiMaggio. He was an adequate outfielder only because he played alongside two great defensive center fielders, Dominic DiMaggio and Jim Piersall, most of his career. Both covered half of Williams’s area in left field.
DiMaggio was one of the most complete players of all time. He could hit, hit for power, field, run, and throw.
Only Willie Mays, and possibly Henry Aaron, whose fielding was under-appreciated because he was not flashy, could do it all as well or better than DiMaggio.
Center and left-center field in DiMaggio’s Yankee Stadium were cavernous. According to his teammates, DiMaggio could tell, from the crack of the bat, where a fly ball would come down. He ran to that spot as fast and gracefully as a gazelle, and was usually waiting for it when it got to him.
As a hitter, his average over 13 years was .325, with an OBP of .398. He struck out 359 times, hit 361 home runs, with 2,214 hits.
Yogi Berra, who was DiMaggio’s teammate for many years, said he never saw DiMaggio make a mistake.
Statistically, the three giants are comparable, but DiMaggio and Williams kept getting more famous and idolized for the rest of their lives after baseball, and Musial has faded toward obscurity except among baseball fans over 60, and people in St. Louis, where he is still revered as a great player and great man.
Vecsey’s New Biography Asks Why
Why Musial’s star faded after he stopped playing is the focus of Vecsey’s new biography. Here are some possible reasons Vecsey suggests:
1. Musial played in St. Louis, far from the media cauldrons of Boston and New York.
2. Musial had a very happy life, married to one woman, with four well-adjusted children who loved him, and grandchildren he doted on. He, his wife, and his children never got into a controversy or a scandal. His daughter Gerry had an amicable divorce from a man who loved the Musial family. How do you write about a blissful marriage?
DiMaggio had Marilyn Monroe, and Williams had a couple of divorces. DiMaggio created mystery around himself by being aloof and haughty.
Williams had erratic moods and stormy relationships with Red Sox fans and media. He raged and sulked, occasionally spitting at the spectators. A few years after he stopped playing, Williams began to mellow. He became a beloved uncle-figure in Red Sox Nation, and a kindly, wise elder statesman in baseball.
3. By comparison, Musial was boring, and he liked it that way. He hated confrontation, Vecsey says. He never said a bad word about anyone, and nobody said a bad word about him. Vecsey says he interviewed dozens of people who knew Stan as a child in Pennsylvania, his mother, brother, and sisters, former teammates and opponents, baseball commissioners, business associates, his wife and children, and his many friends. Nobody said a bad word about Stan, Vecsey says,
On the other hand, author Richard Ben Cramer filled a whole book with bad things about DiMaggio.
Before Williams morphed into a beloved uncle, the people he called “the knights of the keyboard” and Red Sox fans accused him of being lazy, selfish, not a team player, and one-dimensional. He would not swing at a bad ball to protect a baserunner, and he did not always run out easy ground balls and pop-ups. In the outfield during games, he often took practice swings instead of focusing on the game. Most of these assertions were unfair, and made Williams even more moody and hostile.
The closest thing to a controversy Vecsey found was that Musial went into business with his friend and teammate Joe Garagiola. After a few years, Garagiola got dissatisfied and sued Stan. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, but Stan stayed angry and hurt.
Cardinal staff were instructed to keep them apart when old-timers got together for an event, and Musial did not attend the ceremony when Garagiola was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a broadcaster. This incident only rates a mention because it was totally uncharacteristic of Stan.
Vecsey says Stan was happy and sweet-natured almost all the time. His wife and daughter said the same thing., He was gracious when people asked for autographs, especially children. He loved being Stan Musial, his family and many other people told Vecsey.
When someone recognized him and called his name, he automatically went into his unconventional batting stance, known as “The Crouch.” The Crouch became his trademark all his life, wherever he went. He bent deeply at the knees and waist, twisted his body like a corkscrew, looked at the pitcher over his right shoulder, and wiggled his backside several times waiting for the pitch. Nobody could figure out how he hit from that position.
Stan loved being the son of a Polish immigrant who worked in a zinc mill near Pittsburgh. An excellent businessman, Stan made more money from restaurants and hotels than he did from baseball. (There was no free agency, and his highest baseball salary was $100,000.) He actively operated those businesses with a partner; he did not just lend his name, Vecsey says.
He associated with movie stars, John F. Kennedy, and Pope John Paul II. He was a close friend of author James Michener. In retirement, he made many trips to Poland, and started a Little League there, Vecsey says.
Vecsey tells dozens of stories about Stan’s generosity, his quiet support of the first black players in the Major Leagues, his friendliness toward rookies. He was always the same down-to-earth guy, Vecsey says, but he knew how far he had come and how to enjoy it.
How do you write about a guy who hated and avoided controversy and conflict, who enjoyed being fussed over, but did not seek or demand it? And whose achievements are mostly in the form of statistics compiled one day at a time, consistently, for 22 years?
It isn’t easy, but Vecsey, who has been writing columns for the NY Times, biographies, book-length non-fiction, and baseball since 1960, does a fine job.
Vecsey, George, Stan Musial, An American Life, Ballentine Books, 2011, ISBN 978-0-345-52644-1, 398 pp.
Will, George, Bunts
Cramer, Richard Ben, Joe DiMaggio:A Hero’s Life
Copyright Ken Braiterman. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.