'Stan Musial' excerpt: 'Stanley' hits

Updated: May 5, 2011, 5:06 PM ET
ESPN.com

Editor's note: This excerpt from "Stan Musial: An American Life," by George Vecsey, begins with a recollection from former major league manager Jim Frey about how Musial liked to refer to himself as "Stanley."

Copyright © 2011 by George Vecsey. Excerpted with permission by ESPN Books, an imprint of ESPN Inc., New York, and Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc., New York.

*****
[+] EnlargeStan Musial: An American Life
Courtesy Random House Books Click here to purchase a copy of the book on Amazon.com.

Jim Frey's big mistake in life was coming along in the Cardinals organization. Not much room for career advancement on a team that already had Stan Musial.

Finally invited to train with the Cardinals in 1958, Frey figured, what the heck, he might as well study the man who was keeping him out of the major leagues.

One sultry morning in St. Pete, hundreds of fans swarmed behind the dugout, squealing when they spotted the familiar No. 6. Musial responded with his regular nonsense mantra, "Hey-hey, whaddayasay-whaddayasay," causing the fans to squeal some more.

Making the most of his opportunity, Frey asked this most approachable of stars if he wanted to play a little pepper -- one man taps the ball with his bat and the others flip it around with their gloves until somebody flubs it.

Sure, Musial said.

Frey thought he might do the batting, but with a big grin on his face, Musial informed the farmhand: "When Stanley plays pepper, Stanley hits."

Stanley hits. Frey liked his style.

The fans cheered every time Musial tapped the ball. The public perception of Musial may have been of a humble superstar, but it was clear to Frey that Musial relished performing in front of the crowd.

"He's standing facing the stands, the crowd is going crazy," Frey recalled. "And he kind of ducks down into the dugout and he says, 'Lefty, they all come. They love to see Stanley hit.'

"It was so funny. When he talked about himself, it was almost like he was talking about somebody else."

Frey would never play a major-league game. Years later, as the manager of the Royals and Cubs, he loved talking about the man who called himself Stanley.

"There are a few people in the world who love being themselves," Frey said. "And I think Stan Musial is one of them."

Most of all, he loved being Stanley. It was his stage name, self-perpetuated. To others he was Stan or Stash or Stan the Man. (A woman of a certain age on the Main Line in Philadelphia told me recently that as a teen-ager she thought of him as Stanley the Manly; she liked his, um, batting stance, the way he wiggled.)

However, in his finest moments he referred to himself as Stanley.

Stanley the magician. Stanley the harmonica-playing virtuoso. Stanley the batting guru. ("Aw, hell, Curt, just hit the ball.") Stanley the restaurateur. Stanley the guild greeter, shocking some rookie on the other team by welcoming him to the big leagues.

He was also a superstar who would endure twenty-two seasons, produce a career batting average of .331, with 725 doubles, 177 triples, 1,951 runs batted in. Three times the National League Most Valuable Player. Seven batting championships.

Musial would also hit 475 home runs and strike out only 696 times in his entire career -- an astounding ratio in contrast to the chemically enhanced worthies of recent vintage, who strike out 696 times per season, or so it seems.

Later in life Musial would chat with a pope, refer to a president as "my buddy," travel overseas with a famous author. His nom de baseball allowed him to get past his modest beginnings, as the poorest kid in town. With a bat in his hands, he became Stanley.

*****

Thousands of people have their Stan Musial story, about his spontaneous generosity of heart and wallet. I call them Musial Sightings. He was a man of action rather than reflection, a man of anecdote rather than narrative. He had a way of appearing at some appropriate moment, making people laugh, followed by the clattering hooves as the Lone Ranger rode off into the sunset. Who was that masked man?

These sightings are not a string of miracles, to be used as documentation for canonization. He was not without ego. He smoked for a long time. He drank a bit. He could shatter pomposity with a timely obscenity. Late in life, he broke off at least one long friendship over a business disagreement.

He was no activist, no crusader, no saint, but twice, when baseball was being integrated, Musial was a benignly positive presence, a man who spoke little, but who was there.

For the postwar generation, when baseball was still America's favorite sport, Stan Musial was its happy face. He was picked by Life Magazine as the Player of the Decade from 1946 through 1955, ahead of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson. He exuded endless optimism, a one-man G.I. Bill, grateful to be working at his trade, which in his case was being one of the greatest hitters the game has ever known. And then, somehow, Stanley was obscured.

DiMaggio would be remembered for the rose on Marilyn Monroe's grave.

Williams would be remembered for crash-landing the burning jet on an airfield in South Korea.

And Musial, a successful businessman with a successful marriage, would be the nice old guy who mimicked his own batting stance in public. Was this a flaw on Musial's part -- or ours?

*****

Considerable tomfoolery was taking place in the closing months of 1999. People were obsessing that the world was going to fly out of orbit as computers spun from one digital millennium to another. People were hoarding gold bullion bars and plastic jugs of water and tins of tuna fish in their basements, getting weird over all kinds of apocalyptic nonsense.

[+] EnlargeStan Musial
Mark Rucker/Getty ImagesStan Musial hit .331 over 22 seasons and has the fourth-most hits all time (3,630).

Maybe that explains why fans voted for Pete Rose over Stan Musial in a gimmicky poll for the greatest players of the Twentieth Century, which consisted of putting computerized voting cards in the hands of younger fans who apparently had been born at the tail end of that century.

"Ughhhh," Bud Selig groaned, a decade later, from deep in his innards. Selig was, of course, the commissioner who had approved that popularity contest.

"How could they vote Pete Rose on that team before the great Stan Musial?" Selig squawked. "You look at Musial's stats, oh, oh, I can't emphasize enough to you my regards for him, not only as a player, but when I got to know him in later years, when he came to Cooperstown. I can't begin to tell you what a wonderful human being he is."

Knowing, just knowing, that some great players would be left out by mathematical inevitability, Selig had done the prudent, fretting, consensual, quintessential Bud Selig thing: he had arranged for an oversight committee that would add five players, making it a top-thirty team. He just knew.

Selig's oversight committee kicked in -- the same panel which had come up with the original computer-card list of one hundred.

"The first thing we said was, 'We start here, we start with Musial,'" recalled Bob Costas, the baseball buff who had lived much of his adult life in St. Louis. Costas loved Musial. Everybody in St. Louis loved Musial. Now it was time for Costas and the committee to do the right thing, adding Musial, Christy Mathewson, Warren Spahn, Honus Wagner and Lefty Grove.

Baseball unveiled its all-century team during the 1999 World Series in Atlanta. Some of the top thirty, including Rose and Musial, had been at a collectors' show in Atlantic City. Banned from baseball, Pete now made his living signing autographs for money, showing up in Cooperstown during the Hall of Fame weekend and selling his signature out of a storefront. It's a free country.

Inevitably, Pete's presence became the central story. He had been a terrific player, the all-time hit leader, surely worthy of the Hall if he had not been caught lying about his gambling. Musial had always praised Pete, even when Pete chipped away at some of his records, but now he understood that Pete had cheapened their sport, so Stan backed off a bit. Perhaps Pete's election to the top-thirty team had been an instinctive anti-establishment gesture by the fans, to express their view that gambling was not so bad, not in a society that encourages lotteries and casinos. Certainly, fans could remember Rose diving headfirst into a base, his Prince Valiant haircut flopping as his helmet flew off. In a new age of reality shows and talk-show screamers, Pete fit right in.

Rose showed up in Atlanta, unrepentant, giving a bravura performance on national television, sticking out his jaw, asking, what, was he some kind of mass murderer, like Charles Manson?

While Rose strutted and preened, Stan the Man remained Stan the Mensch -- a Yiddish word for human being, a high compliment where I come from.

Musial had his agendas; he knew what he wanted to show and what he wanted to keep private. Being the gracious old man came naturally to him, and served him well on that October day when reporters asked him about having been an afterthought by committee.

"I'm happy to be on their team - added on, voted on, what's the other word?" Musial said. "It's good to be with this club. I competed against about ten of these guys - Ted Williams, Mays, Henry Aaron, DiMaggio, Warren Spahn, Koufax. I played in the '40s but I competed against guys who played in the '30s and I played in the '60s and competed against guys who played in the '70s."

Reminded of the method by which he was included, Musial said: "I wasn't upset. Not really. There are 100-million fans, and only 3-million of them voted.

"It's what the fans wanted, and I'm happy to be here. It's human nature to look at your own generation. It's hard to analyze what happened fifty, sixty years ago."

Fans would recognize Musial, would call out "Stan the Man." He was home, where he belonged, among his peers. He did not need to create a fuss. He would go into his crouch, wiggle his hips, waggle an imaginary bat. Stanley hits.