The view on Musial: good look at one of the game's true greats

June 10, 1991|By Bob Ryan | Bob Ryan,Boston Globe

BOSTON -- The middle part of this century produced three baseball players who stood above all others. Two were larger than life. The third merely reflected it -- the good parts.

Joe DiMaggio (1936-51) came first. No serious baseball follower ever doubted his ability, but one must ask if there would ever have been a DiMaggio mystique had he played out his career in, say, Cincinnati. It doesn't hurt your chances of attaining celebrity if you're drinking with Jimmy Cannon at Toots Shor's every other night and giving daily quotes to Red Smith. (Not to mention: How much time do you suppose Marilyn ever spent in Cincinnati?)

Next came Ted Williams (1939-60). "The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived"? Well, it's either Ted or The Babe, and it's a no-lose argument. Then there was The Big War and The Shift and The Korean War and a tirade here and a tirade there, all the opinions you'd ever want to print and, basically, endless pathos. When Williams said, "All this league has is me and the Yankees, and when I leave it's going to be pretty damn dull," he spoke the truth.

The third demigod played in the heartland, where the press was gentle and never probed his psyche. He never threw a bat in the stands, spit at anyone or engaged in spirited debates with writers or photographers. His career was never spiced with gossip, tainted by scandal or controversial in any way. It just was, and it was glorious. It had a happy beginning, a long, productive middle and a dignified conclusion. Indeed, his nickname says it all. He was Stan "The Man" Musial (1941-63).

In the mood for an old-fashioned, heartwarming sports story? Like to celebrate a true American hero, a Hall of Famer who has been married to the same woman for 52 years and is so beloved that there is a statue of him in front of the ballpark where his old team now plays? Then head to your video store and ask for "The Legend of Stan The Man Musial" (TMM Inc., New York). With Father's Day on the horizon, it's a perfect gift for that baseball-loving dad, grandpop or uncle in your life.

This is a straight-ahead "good news" story, the tone being set in novelist James Michener's introduction. "He is," Michener says, "an almost epic case; I can assure you of this -- that what you see is what you get."

And what you see is a Depression-bred youngster growing up in Donora, Pa., seizing baseball as a pathway out of the zinc mines. There were six children in the Lukasz Musial household, and there was little money. "But I never felt like I wanted for anything," he tells us, "because I had a baseball."

His original expertise came in pitching it, not hitting it. The St. Louis Cardinals signed him as a left-handed pitcher; it wasn't until he landed on his left shoulder while diving for a ball during a moonlighting expedition in the outfield that he was taken off the mound. Thus was a .331 hitter born.

The only thing remotely flamboyant about Stan Musial was the famous coiled stance. Described by someone or other as looking like "a man peeking around the corner," Musial addressed the pitcher diagonally, in a pronounced crouch. Yet from that awkward position he exploded with a sweet swing that produced 3,630 base hits and 475 home runs.

His first key admirer was the legendary Branch Rickey. And what a thrill it is to see and hear the vaunted Mahatma talk about Musial, to see those bushy eyebrows bouncing to and fro and to hear the rich eloquence of that magnificent voice. "I was kind of intrigued with the fella," purrs Rickey. "He had those kaleidoscopic at-bats, and startlingly so."

Imagine the number of kaleidoscopic Musial at-bats in 1948, when he led the National League in batting (.376), hits (230) runs batted in (131), slugging (.702), total bases (429), doubles (46), triples (18) and runs (135). The only major category in which he did not lead the league was home runs, in which his 39 was second to the 40 of Ralph Kiner and Johnny Mize (he also had one rained out). This was the year of The Nickname, which he acquired during an 11-for-15 series in Ebbets Field. "Here comes The Man again," a Dodger sighed aloud.

You'll hear Kiner repeat something he claims Musial once said about hitting: "He said, 'If you want to hit ground balls, hit the top third of the ball. If you want to hit line drives, hit the center. If you want home runs, hit the bottom third of the ball. It's simple.'"

Even simpler was Musial's pleasant and compassionate approach to life. Without a shred of sanctimony, he impressed teammates and rivals alike as a legitimately decent man who was not impressed with himself. Curt Flood is almost misty as he tells Musial how badly he wanted to win the 1963 pennant as a fitting farewell present for The Man. Former Cardinals general manager Bing Devine claims that Musial was such a respected presence that the team seldom had any sort of discipline problems. "They knew Stan was in the clubhouse and did not want to look bad in front of him," Devine says.

Oh, sure, Stan Musial laughs and bleeds like everyone else. "He's not an icon or a saint or anything out of human experience," Michener cautions. "Actually, he's a rowdy guy."

Rowdy might be a stretch, but fun-loving sure isn't. The highlight of this video may very well be the sight and sound of Stan Musial playing a harmonica version of "Golden Slippers" on "Hee Haw."

If not a saint nor an icon, Stan Musial is nevertheless a special human being. Check out the inscription on the statue in front of Busch Stadium:

"Here Stands Baseball's Perfect Warrior . . . Here Stands Baseball's Perfect Knight."

Those who saw him play say it is no exaggeration.

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