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Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011 03:38 pm

Baseball’s perfect warrior

Stan Musial: An American Life, by George Vecsey. Ballantine Books, 2011. 397 pages. $26.
Stan Musial: An American Life, by George Vecsey. Ballantine Books, 2011. 397 pages. $26.

If you are disturbed by multimillion-dollar athletes who seem less than grateful for their status, listen to this: In 1959, Stan Musial asked for a pay cut because he’d had a less-than-Musial type season.

After a scorching doubleheader in St. Louis in which Musial was hitless, a crowd of kids waited at his car for autographs. A rookie Cardinal who was there commented to Musial’s friend Red Schoendienst, “He won’t be signing today.” Red replied, “Just watch.” Musial appeared and signed autographs for 45 minutes.

Once, a minor leaguer who was called up to the Cardinals for a short stint marveled aloud about how Musial could hit so well with such a thin-handled bat. A week after the young player returned to the minors, he received an unsolicited package in the mail from Musial – with the bat enclosed.

He played 3,026 games and was never ejected from any of them. Not one. He asked about young opposing catchers so he could call them by name when he introduced himself the first time he came to bat. Of course, he needed no introduction. He played in 24 All-Star games and was one of the best hitters the game has ever seen. Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn, when asked how he handled Musial, said that he’d throw him his best pitch and then go back up third base.

These and other stories are legend to Cardinals fans. The Musial statue outside of Busch Stadium is inscribed, with good reason: “Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior,/ Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.”

The author of Stan Musial, An American Life, veteran New York Times sportswriter George Vecsey, was once a religion reporter for that paper. So it’s not surprising that the book focuses on Musial’s personality rather than on his baseball prowess. The statistics are amazing: 7 batting titles; 3,630 hits (1,815 at home and 1,815 on the road); 475 home runs; 724 doubles; 177 triples; 1,951 RBIs; only 696 strikeouts in 10,972 at-bats, a 6.3 percent ratio (Babe Ruth 15.8 percent, Reggie Jackson 26.3 percent); Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

Vecsey, instead, concentrates on Musial’s relentless optimism and almost childlike joy. When recognized in public, Musial loved to assume his trademark crouched batting stance, swing and call out “whaddayasay, whaddayasay.” At a dinner or speaking engagement, he would entertain with his harmonica or with magic tricks, laughing at himself all the while. Teammates shook their heads, once counting eight “wunnerfuls” in a hundred-word speech.

Vecsey calls him Lucky Stanley because of his success in everything he did, including hotels, restaurants and a bowling alley. Once, when Lucky Stanley was at fault in a fender-bender, the other driver, instead of calling the police or suing, asked Musial to autograph the dent.

Stories abound of Musial’s generosity toward young players (plane tickets home at Christmas), retired teammates (cash), and a coach who helped him on the way up (a house!).

On a local note, Vecsey writes that Musial smacked his 3,000th hit in 1958 in Wrigley Field. As the Cardinals returned to St. Louis by train, fans lined the tracks in Springfield and serenaded Stan with “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”

There are some literary distractions. Vecsey likes to tell varying versions of stories as if he’s searching for the historical truth in a Lincoln treatise. He frets too much about Musial’s fading legacy. But the stories are poignant and sweet, like Stan the Man himself.

Bob Hall of Springfield is a retired judge who volunteers for MERCY Communities. He grew up in St. Louis, where Musial was his idol. Hall met Musial about 20 years ago, picking him up to escort him to a speaking event, with Musial stopping several times in the airport to go into his “stance” for fans. After the event a package arrived with two autographed baseballs and a note from Musial saying, “I remember you said you had two sons . . . .”
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