Donora's Stan the Man Musial receives an overdue tribute

Book review: 'Stan Musial: An American Life,' by George Vecsey. ESPN Books, $26.

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Men of a certain age, or at least the baseball-afflicted among them, somehow still feel as though they have not sufficiently deified Stan Musial.

Happily enough, they're probably right, and thus the recent compensatory flash of Musial-revisited literature has been little short of delightful.

It started last summer with Joe Posnanski's out-of-nowhere and apropos-of-nothing feature article on Stan the Man in Sports Illustrated, perhaps the best profile in the magazine since Frank Deford's iconic portrait of the late Billy Conn.

Now it has crescendoed to The Man-in-full volume with George Vecsey's 416-page biography.

A senior writer for The New York Times, Mr. Vecsey's reliably clinical prose has always had tremendous range from interviewing the Dalai Lama to profiling country music legend Loretta Lynn in "Coal Miner's Daughter."

He brings a fan's reverence and a skilled journalist's love of incisive research to this book, and the result is a sumptuous trip though a mid-20th century when baseball really was the National Pastime.

More importantly though, Mr. Vecsey succeeds in making Mr. Musial, the humble Donora native, more consistently interesting than the ballplayer was ever capable of making himself, at least to the national audience.

He spent his entire 22-season career playing in the middle-of-the-map, media backwater of St. Louis, which loved him deeply but certainly not loudly, and took tremendous pride as much in his excellent consistency as in his consistent excellence.

Oh yeah, there's a difference.

You have to be consistently excellent to hit .331 for a career, but you have to have excellent consistency to have struck 1,815 of your base hits at home and 1,815 of them on the road.

In 1981, with Pete Rose closing in on his National League record for hits, Stan spent a couple of weeks around the Philadelphia Phillies awaiting the big splash of ceremony Mr. Rose was planning to enjoy immensely.

Mr. Rose even had expensive neckties made with his name and the magic number, 3,631, stitched onto them, which he passed out to anyone who could further publicize the eclipsing of Mr. Musial's record.

Mr. Rose, whose first National League season was Stan's last (1963), tied the record just in time for a two-month players strike, but Mr. Musial cheerfully returned in August. To the people around the Phillies in that era, including this writer, the most striking thing about Stan the Man was just how nice he was, how gracious, how engaging, how reliably cheerful.

It was evident how a guy like that could be underrated. Nice, after all -- even this kind of legendary nice -- was not news, and mostly not noticeable by a mass audience.

Even within the Cardinal clubhouse, Mr. Musial was occasionally considered almost too nice to be believed. As former teammate Curt Flood wrote in his autobiography, too nice by any test, particularly during the game's troubled labor politics.

"We admired Musial as an athlete," Mr. Flood wrote. "We liked him as a man. There was no conscious harm to him. He was just unfathomably naive. After twenty years of baseball, his critical faculties were those of a schoolboy. After twenty years, he was still wagging his tail for the front office -- not because he felt it politic to do so but because he believed every word he spoke.

" 'My biggest thrill is just wearing this major-league uniform,' Stan used to say. 'It's wunnerful being here with all these wunnerful fellas.'

"[Bob] Gibson and I once clocked eight 'wunnerfuls' in a Musial speech that could not have been more than a hundred words."

Normally a book like Mr. Vecsey's shouldn't be necessary. Mr. Musial retired nearly 50 years ago. He was immortalized by former Commissioner Ford Frick, who called him baseball's perfect warrior, baseball's perfect knight.

He's been given the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. He will be 91 in November, and his slow drift into Alzheimer's left him unable to cooperate with Mr. Vecsey on this project.

But this volume is nonetheless completely appropriate, completely worthwhile. It's not just that Mr. Musial's status as one of history's great batsmen is somehow forgettable -- think of Willie Stargell (they both hit 475 homers), but with a batting average 50 percentage points higher and an additional 411 runs batted in -- and you'll have some sense of it.

Moreover, his biographer puts the ballplayer at places you wouldn't necessarily imagine him:

A bank of progressive wisdom during the Cardinals' truculent reaction to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947; as a campaigner with Angie Dickinson for John F. Kennedy (whom he called "my buddy) in the 1960 presidential race; and even an advocate for Poland and his ancestry, an unofficial American ambassador who witnessed firsthand the political ascendancy of Karol Jozef Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II in 1978.

When I was 6, 7, 8 years old, my uncle and his buddies would put a case of beer in the car and drive to Phillies games just to see Stan play when St. Louis came to Philadelphia.

They took bets against each other on which sorry-hitting Phillie might, on that night, get more hits than Mr. Musial. He was their gold standard, as well as just about everyone's.

Against that standard, Mr. Vecsey had delivered everything you'd want, like a long majestic homer into a summer night.

Gene Collier: .


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