Inside-out swing, corkscrew stance, and hitting the ball the wrong way.
While that could be the description of many little leaguers, it is also the best way to describe the late Stan Musial. A man, who by all counts, played baseball the right way – a way that would leave baseball fans and writers talking about him even after his final appearance on the field.
More than half a century after his retirement, Musial is still the face of the St. Louis franchise, a fan favorite and his statue can be found guarding Busch Stadium proudly. But before he became a legend dubbed Stan the Man in the game of baseball, he was just Stanley Musial, a kid from Donora.
The son of a Polish immigrant, Musial was born Stanisław Franciszek Musiał and the fifth of six children. Even as a child, he loved baseball – playing with his brother and the neighborhood children. By the time he was enrolled in school, his name was changed to Stanley Frank Musial.
No man has ever been a perfect ballplayer. Stan Musial, however, is the closest to being perfect in the game today.Ty Cobb
When Musial was 15-years-old, he joined a semi-professional baseball team managed by his neighbor and former minor league pitcher Joe Barbao. Musial pitched and in his debut, he went six innings and struck out 13. All of them were of adult age.
A teammate of his in high school was Buddy Griffey, father of Ken Griffey and grandfather of Ken Griffey Jr., who has been compared to Musial countless times. Including a quote from Bill James, “the second-best-left-handed hitting, left-handed throwing outfielder ever born in Donora, Pennsylvania on November 21.” Wildly, Musial and Griffey Jr. were both born on the same day, 49 years apart.
By 1937, the St. Louis Cardinals had scouted Musial and offered him a professional contract as a pitcher after working out with their Class D Penn State League affiliate. While this was a dream for him, his father initially rejected the idea of his son becoming a professional baseball player. The Cardinals did not filed the contract until June 1938 – preserving his amateur eligibility and allowed him to continue with high school sports and to report to the affiliate, the Williamson Red Birds.
During his rookie year, he experienced being homesick while having to learn how to live comfortably and independently. His salary at the time was $65-per-month which would add up to $970 in today’s time. He also went on and finished his high school education in the spring of 1939.
The 1940 season would be spent with the Daytona Beach Islanders, where he became lifelong friends with manager Dickie Kerr. It was Kerr who recognized that Musial’s offense was spectacular and would often have him in the outfield in between his pitching starts.
By late August of 1940, Musial had became a husband and father but it wouldn’t be his family life that made him consider leaving baseball entirely. An injury to his shoulder while playing in the outfield would change everything for him. He feared that he could not be able to support his family on only $16 a week. Kerr eventually talked him out of it, taking the Musial family in to help relieve any of the baseball player’s burden. (Musial would later repay Kerr by buying him a new home in 1958.)
Musial was later assigned to the Class C Springfield Cardinals as a full-time outfielder. In 87 games, he hit a league-leading .379. His unique batting stance, crouching to the point where his back was square to the pitcher. Ted Lyons once said, “Musial’s stance was like a kid peeking around the corner to see if the cops were coming.” He would be moved to the Rochester Red Wings and with two weeks of the 1941 season to go, Musial received the call that he had been waiting for his entire life.
His debut with the St. Louis Cardinals came during the second game of a doubleheader at Sportsman’s Park on September 17, 1941. In a total of 12 games, he collected 20 hits and earned a .426 batting average. While the Cardinals would finish two and one-half games behind the 100-game-winning Dodgers, Musial was already making a name for himself.
In the 1942 World Series, Musial grounded out with bases loaded in Game 1 despite representing the game winning run at home plate. While his ground out was a knock against him for spectators at Sportsman’s Park, he would go on to have .222 throughout the rest of the series.
He made the National League All-Star team for the first time in 1943 as a starting left fielder and hit a double in the game on July 13. He finished the season with a .357 batting average, 220 hits, 48 doubles, 20 triples, an on-base percentage of .425 and a slugging percentage of .562. His performance in 1943 earned him the NL Most Valuable Player Award.
With World War II happening around the world, Musial underwent a physical examination. He remained with his team for the entire season and posted a .347 batting average with 197 hits. In the 1944 World Series, the Cardinals went against the St. Louis Browns. Musial would break out in Game 4 with a two-run home run, a single, double, and a walk. The Cardinals went on to win the World Series and Musial earned a .304 batting average throughout the series.
Musial enlisted in the United States Navy on January 23, 1945 while World War II continued to rage on. In June 1945, he was assigned to Special Services in Hawaii and assigned to a ferry launch unit. He was still able to play baseball, joining in on the naval base eight-team league. By January 1946, he was granted emergency leave to see his ailing father. He would be honorably discharged in March 1946 as a Seaman Second Class.
Musial returned to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1946 and posted a .388 batting average by that May. During this time, Musial become close friends with Red Schoendienst who had joined while Musial was away. During this season, he acquired the nickname of Stan the Man. After the 1946 World Series win, Musial won his second NL MVP award after receiving 22 out of 24 first place votes.
During the 1947 season, Musial suffered setbacks. Diagnosed with appendicitis and reoccurring tonsillitis, he would receive treatment but did not have his appendix or tonsils surgical removed. Despite his health, he would still finish the season with a batting average of .312.
He finished his 1948 season by leading the major league with a .376 batting average, 230 hits, 46 doubles, 18 triples, 429 total bases, and a slugging percentage of .702. He won the National League batting title by a 43-point margin. He was also the the first player to win three NL MVP awards.
When baseball slowly became integrated, Musial along with Schoendienst would be praised by newcomers – including Dodgers’ pitcher Don Newcombe.
He (Musial) was trying to change the game and make it what it should been in the first place, a game for all people.Don Newcombe, Los Angeles Dodgers
Over the final 14 years of his career, Musial played in 18 more All-Star Games. His 24 All-Star selections are more than anyone in Major League Baseball except for Hank Aaron.
At the age of 41, he made another run for the batting title in 1962 and found himself in third place with a .330 batting average, missing out on what would have been his eighth batting title by only 16 points. He retired after the 1963 season and throughout his career, he recorded 3,630 hits, 1,815 of them were hit at home and 1,815 were hit on the road. His overall career batting average would settle at .331.
The St. Louis Cardinals retired the number “6” in 1963 after his last game on September 29, 1962. Like in his debut, during his final game Musial finished with two base hits. He would go on to be named Vice President of the St. Louis Cardinals and remained in the position until after the 1966 season.
Musial passed away at the age of 92 at his home in Ladue, Missouri on the same day as Earl Weaver. Upon hearing the news of his death, fans of Musial and the Cardinals gathered at his statue outside of Busch Stadium. There will never be another like him.
Photo Credit: Getty Images