Obituary: Stan Musial / Donora, Pa., native won 7 batting titles

Nov. 21, 1920 - Jan. 19, 2013

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On this day, when baseball's perfect knight has fallen, it won't do to simply call him great.

Great is an adjective just so perfectly inadequate, because the subject was instead, by crucial distinction, firmly among the greatest, and the very greatest at that.

Stan "The Man" Musial, the Donora, Pa., native whose thumping baseball elegance and unfailing humanist poise adorned most of an American century, died Saturday in the St. Louis suburb of Ladue. He was 92.

The Hall of Famer won seven National League batting titles, was a three-time most valuable player and helped the Cardinals capture three World Series championships in the 1940s.

If, as has been attributed to baseball's cultural geography, Willie Mays' glove is the place where triples went to die, then Mr. Musial's bat is the long-shuttered factory that for decades pounded out doubles off the wall, and those were just a portion of the monstrous industrial production that carved the image of Stanley Frank Musial into the game's eternal pantheon.

Mr. Mays, whom many consider the game's enduring king of all skills, gave a speech about aspirations early in his career that ended, "But most of all, I'd like to hit like Stan Musial."

To get your baseball mind around the way Stan Musial hit, to embrace the utter relentlessness of his prowess, it's instructive to think of another Willie, of the late Wilver Dornell Stargell, the first-ballot Pirates Hall of Famer. Mr. Musial was the arithmetic mirror image of Stargell in that each hit exactly 475 home runs, except that Mr. Musial's batting average (.331) was some 50 points higher, with roughly twice the doubles and three times the triples.

Such are the differences between the truly great and those few who are assuredly among the greatest. Some 17,000 men have played Major League Baseball. Five drove in more runs than Stan Musial.

To hit like Mr. Musial was a goal achievable only by the game's greatest artists, as Stan The Man's bat was the instrument not so much of a calculating masher as an obsessively practiced virtuoso.

"He had little baby hands, and he used the thinnest bat handle you could get," said the now 81-year-old Dick Groat, the former Pirates MVP and a teammate of Mr. Musial's on the 1963 St. Louis Cardinals. "A normal player couldn't use a bat like that. It would break every time the ball hit it almost. But Stan rarely broke a bat. He always hit it right on the sweet spot.

"He was an absolute joy to play with. When I got traded in the fall of '62, I was heartbroken. I never wanted to leave Pittsburgh. But now looking back, 1963 was my best year, a better year than when I was MVP (1960). But when I think about it, no wonder I had a great year. I hit in front of Stan Musial. I saw great pitches all the time. Who's gonna walk me to get to Stan Musial?"

Before he was Stan The Man, the nicknamed affixed to him by adoring crowds in the otherwise hostile climate of Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, where Mr. Musial routinely tortured the Dodgers ("Here comes that man again!"), he was "The Donora Greyhound," as it was that very Mon Valley mill town where Mr. Musial's father, Lukasz, settled after leaving Poland in 1910.

"Donora had immigrants from all over the world," said native son Richard Lesnak, now 75, and still teaching college math. "People from Spain, Ireland, Germany, Poland. My grandparents, two were from Ukraine and two were from Italy. But there were no sections in Donora, no Irish section, Polish section. We all lived together."

Mr. Musial was a decorated athlete at Donora High School at the height of the Depression. History and even folklore are unsettled on the narrative of Stan being offered a basketball scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, and about which his parents argued for and against accepting, but instead the Cardinals thought enough of him as a pitcher that they signed him to a minor league contract before he could open a book or work a single factory shift.

"Stan was a pitcher who could hit, not a hitter who could pitch," said Mr. Lesnak, to this day a Musialphile of a singular order. "But in the Cardinals' minor league system, there weren't big rosters, so he played outfield when he wasn't pitching, and he just hit like crazy."

Mr. Musial made it to the big leagues in 1941, and the first impression of baseball's establishment was that this kid would never hit like crazy, and maybe not as all, not as long as he stood in the batters box like a kid peeking around the corner of a candy store to see if anyone was behind the counter.

Described 50 ways from Sunday, Mr. Musial's signature stance was still being urgently described by Paul Warburton in the Baseball Research Journal in 2001, 38 years after Stan The Man last appeared in a game.

"A lefty, he dug in with his left foot on the back line of the batter's box, and assumed a closed stance with his right foot about 12 inches in front of his left. He took three or four practice swings and followed up with a silly-looking hula wiggle to help him relax. He crouched, stirring his bat like a weapon in a low, slow-moving arc away from his body. As the pitcher let loose his fling, The Man would quick cock his bat in a steady position and twist his body away from the pitcher so that he was concentrating at his adversary's delivery out of the corner of his deadly keen eyes. He would then uncoil with an explosion of power. His line drives were bullets."

So the bullets started flying, and by December 1941, so did the real ones as World War II dawned and started pulling places like Donora out of the doldrums.

"We didn't even have hot water in my house," said Mr. Lesnak, "but I was so into Stan Musial, I didn't know I was poor. I literally did not know how poor I was because I had Stan Musial. When I was 5 years old, I was only 35 inches tall, and people called me either 'Little Dicky' or 'That Little Musial Boy.' As I was growing up, people would stop me and street and go, 'Hits?' And I'd tell 'em how many hits Stan had the day before. Or they'd say, 'Homers?' or 'Average?' and I'd tell them the statistics. I always knew."

Years later, Mr. Lesnak would drive Stan's mother to games at Forbes Field when the Cardinals were in town, and every Cardinals visit practically set off a festival on the streets of Donora.

"Even though Forbes Field had lights, they still played a lot of day games," Mr. Lesnak said. "Stan would come home to see his mother on Friday night, and you couldn't walk downtown on a Friday night then. The sidewalks would be packed. And Stan, from Seventh Street to Fourth, he'd just start and hit every place. ... Signing every autograph."

Donora's oppressive atmospherics were so much a part of Mr. Musial's total physiology, the consistent working man's ethos and hometown humility, that it became almost ironic when baseball people would repeat the compliment paid him by legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully: "How great was Stan Musial? He could take your breath away."

Donora could do that, too, but in the very worst way imaginable: In October 948, it drew international infamy for it.

"The smog came on a Wednesday," Mr. Lesnak remembers. "Halloween was Friday; I remember Halloweening in a gas mask. We went within 30 feet of the train tracks, and you could hear the train but not see it. On Saturday, two unbeaten football teams met with Monongahela beating Donora. When they punted the ball, it disappeared into the smog.

"It wasn't until Sunday that people started to die."

That catastrophe was officially labeled an atmospheric inversion, in which the killer emissions from U.S. Steel's zinc works in Donora became trapped over the town of nearly 15,000. Thousands were sickened. Twenty people died. Mr. Musial's father, then 58 and already a stroke victim, never recovered. He moved to St. Louis to live with Stan and his wife, Lillian, but died that December.

All that happened in the months after Mr. Musial had not only hammered together his best season in baseball, but a season that some argue has never been duplicated.

Mr. Musial led the National League in runs, runs batted in, and on-base percentage, and led both leagues in hits, doubles, triples, batting average, slugging percentage, and, though the stat hadn't been invented yet, in OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging). He had five hits in a game four times that season.

Had he homered on the final day of the season, he would have won the Triple Crown. He finished with 39 homers, 131 RBI, and a batting average of .376.

He remained among the game's truly immutable forces throughout the 1940s and '50s.

For all Mr. Musial's capacious aptitudes, his baseball life was stationed in the shadow of other greats, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio in the early part of his career, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays in the later part. When George Vecsey thought about titles for his 2011 book about Mr. Musial it was clear those shadows hadn't faded.

"I was originally going to call the book 'The Forgotten Man: The Biography of Stan Musial,'" Mr. Vecsey said in a phone interview. "The publisher said no, that forgotten was a negative word, so it became 'Stan Musial: An American Life.' Who he was and what he did speaks for itself, but if people rediscover him in any way as a result of the book, all I can say is that he deserves to be rediscovered."

Mr. Vecsey illuminated Mr. Musial in ways others had only attempted, delivering a portrait of an essentially uncomplicated mill town character who grew to succeed at a wide variety of opportunities presented by his baseball excellence. Before he became ill near the time he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2011, Mr. Musial had enjoyed a long career as a successful restaurateur and businessman, had campaigned for John F. Kennedy ("My buddy") in 1960 along with Angie Dickinson, and rat packers Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Nearly two decades later, Mr. Musial, through business and political connections, made himself an eyewitness to the ascendancy of the first Polish pope, John Paul II.

He played a crucial role in the early career of Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color line in 1947. The Cardinals, some of whom had threatened to strike rather than play against Robinson, were eventually swayed in no small part because of Mr. Musial, who had played with African Americans back in Donora and would eventually lead a walkout from a Pittsburgh restaurant that would not serve a black teammate.

Two years after getting his 3,000th hit, Mr. Musial did the unthinkable in baseball, or probably in any other professional sport. He asked for a pay cut, from $100,000 to $80,000, because he did not think he performed that well in either 1958 or 1959. In '58, he hit .337. Though his average dipped to .255 in 1959, by 1962, he was hitting. 330 again.

One pitcher said: "I throw him my best stuff, then run over to back up third base."

Stan The Man had Alzheimer's disease in his final years.

"From all I hear, [his passing] was a good thing," Mr. Lesnak said late last night. "I thought I was prepared for this but I really find I am not. It was like I never had to worry about my own life ending so long as Stan was alive. Now I find myself not knowing how I feel. Just numb."

Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

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Gene Collier: First Published January 20, 2013 5:15 AM


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