Sunday, January 20, 2013

Stan the Man

Maybe the greatest ballplayer to claim Western Pennsylvania as home, Stanislaw Franciszek Musial, better known as Stan the Man, passed away yesterday at the age of 92.

Musial was the son of an immigrant Polish millworker who raised his family in Donora. Stan was old school in every way; he married his high school sweetheart, Lillian Labash, from Donora HS (now Ringgold) and stayed married for almost 72 years until she passed on in May.

In 1936, at the age of 15, Musial played for the Donora Zincs, a local semi-pro team, advancing from batboy to starting pitcher. Musial lore has it that the multi-talented Dragon athlete (he was called "The Donora Greyhound ") turned down a basketball scholarship from Pitt, against his dad's wishes, to pursue his baseball career in 1938, beginning his trek at Class D Williamson, WV.

He started out pitching and a spare OF, but in 1940 landed on his shoulder diving after a ball (he was 18-5/2.32 before the injury, but couldn't find the strike zone very often) and was converted full-time to the outfield, finishing the season with a .311 BA.

In 1941, he hit .326 in Class C while learning to play the OF, was moved up to AA where he banged out a .326 average, and was called up to St. Louis in September, batting .426. He and his patented crouched lefty stance (White Sox HOF pitcher Ted Lyons described it as "a kid peeking around the corner to see if the cops were coming") were in the show to stay.

Before Stan the Man - he got his nickname in Brooklyn when the Dodger fans yelled out "here comes da man" - hung up his spikes 22 years later in 1963, he led the Cards to four World Series (and three titles), and collected seven NL batting titles, three MVPs, two MLB Player of the Year Awards and 24 All-Star appearances.

For modern stat heads, he put up a career WAR of 139.4 and won seven OPS titles. His lifetime OPS is .979, which converts to a 159 OPS+. And all that with a missing year during his prime - in 1945, he served in the Navy.

Carl Erskine, a Brooklyn pitcher, said he went after "...Stan by throwing him my best pitch ... and then backing up third." Preacher Roe, who tossed for both the Bucs and da Bums, had a different game plan against Musial. "I throw him four wide ones then try to pick him off first base."

Musial held 55 records when he retired. Elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility with over 93% of the vote, his HOF plaque simply says: "Holds many National League records ..." because the Hall couldn't fit all of his accomplishments on his bronze calling card. The Man was selected to the MLB All-Century Team in 1999.

His lifetime slash was .331/.417/.559. Musial never struck out more than 46 times in a season; in his career, he whiffed 696 times (5.5%) and walked 1,599 times (12.6%). The Man even laid down 35 successful sac bunts; imagine a middle-of-the-order guy with that number today.

He played for just one team, the Cards, in his 22 MLB years, and he and Red Schoendienst were said to have swayed Budweiser owner August Busch into buying the team in 1953, guaranteeing that the franchise stayed in Saint Louis.

The Man went 14 straight seasons playing 140+ games. In 1947, he was diagnosed with appendicitis and tonsillitis in May; he didn't have either removed until after the season, and hit .312 while playing 149 games. He had an 895 consecutive game streak until sidelined with a broken shoulder in 1957.

Musial was such a balanced ballplayer that he got 1,815 hits at home and 1,815 on the road, and finished with 1,951 RBI and scored 1,949 runs.

Not only did he leave a legacy of great baseball, but he was the epitome of a gentleman. He never turned down an autograph request, and in fact carried around pre-signed baseball cards to hand out, at the suggestion of his bud, John Wayne. There was no sniff of scandal or pretentiousness around the Man, and he was so beloved that Albert Pujols rejected the title of "El Hombre," saying only Musial deserved that title. It carried over on the field, too - he was never ejected from a game, and he played 3,026 of them.

President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Musial in 2011, the highest award a civilian can receive. Donora named a bridge after him. And St. Louis adored him so much that they put not one, but two statues of him around their park. One says "Here stands baseball's perfect knight." And that's just about right.

There are only two arguments he's part of - was he, Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio the best player of their era, and was Stan or Carnegie's Honus Wagner the best player from the area? Maybe they'll settle the debate on the Field of Dreams; it's for sure all four are playing there now.

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