It’s a truism that American men are first conscious of their own mortality when their fathers die, but I would argue that such consciousness is a process for the average American male that usually begins earlier, the men pictured on his baseball cards start dying.
When I was a kid in 1963, Stan Musial was in his final season but already regarded as one of baseball’s immortals–meaning that it was already assumed by people who followed baseball that he was a sure Hall of Famer. No question about that: there was no way that even a baseball novice could not be impressed by the statistics on the flip side of his card–a .331 lifetime batting average, 475 home runs, 7 batting crowns. Some baseball writers who I read said the was the equal of Ted Williams or even his superior. (Williams may have had a higher batting average, at .344, 13 points higher than Stan’s, but won only 6 batting titles.)
In recent years–well, no, actually, in the 49 years since his retirement, the memory of his magnificence was overshadowed by that of Williams and Joe DiMaggio. I’m not sure why; it’s to simple to just say it was because DiMaggio and Williams played in he eastern media centers. I think it had more to do with the absolute lack of scandal in Musial’s life, or the absence of a biography with any titillating information. Stan never married a movie star or had his head frozen.
I think it’s nonsense to argue, as Mike Lupica did in Sunday’s Daily News, that Musial was the hero of “the whole middle of the country…and in the Deep South.” The statues of Musial outside the Cardinals’ ball park “could just as easily be in Little Rock or Tulsa or even in New Orleans.”
I don’t think Lupica ever spent a minute in any of those cities except to change planes or to go to a Final Four or a Super Bowl. For one thing, in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, the major league baseball team followed by most fans in the South was the Brooklyn Dodgers, whose games were broadcast on the Armed Forces Network. (See Willie Morris’s great story from his Mississippi boyhood, “The Phantom of Yazoo County.”) And in the Plains country–in Arkansas, in Oklahoma, Texas and even in Kansas and Nebraska–and in most of the Deep South there were no major league teams in any sport, and college football was king.
None of this, of course, detracts from Stan’s greatness and the folk hero status he achieved in the Midwest from Missouri to Pennsylvania. I remember as a boy raveling with my father in the Midwest and hearing guys at truck stops argue Stan the Man vs. the Yankee Clipper or the Splendid Splinter. BTW, I also recall many calling him by a name that I fail to see in any of the obits, the Donora Greyhound, (for the Pennsylvania town he grew up in).
I’m going to tell a story here that is tangential to Musial; the reader who worships Musial’s memory may skip it, and anyone is free to take it for whatever it’s worth. In 1991 I had just finished working with the founder of the baseball players union, Marvin Miller, on his memoir, A Whole Different Ball Game, and Curt flood flew into New York for our book party at Mickey Mantle’s restaurant. Bill James and his young assistant, who would become a popular baseball writer, Rob Neyer, were in town for a SABR convention, and I thought it might be fun to bring them all together for an afternoon. Flood regaled us with stories about the trials of being a young black player in America during the nascent Civil Rights movement. Some were funny. Some were not. Among the latter were some tales of his problems dealing with Stan Musial when Stan was a Cardinals front office man.
At one point during salary negotiations, Curt said, Musial had cheerfully told him that he didn’t need as much road money as the white stars needed. “You know,” Musial said according to Flood, “that black guys can’t go to some of the better places that white guys go to.” Miller, James, Neyer and I were silent after hearing Flood’s stories. Finally I asked him, “Do you think Musial was a racist?” Flood dismissed the question: “Naw, he had a good heart, but it was stuck in the 1930s.”
A final note: when I came to the Village Voice in the early 1980s, the editor who helped me the most was a man named Ross Wetzston, who is largely established today but who established the Voice Obie awards and, as an ace theater critic, helped discover a young playwright from out West named Sam Shepard. Ross was also one hell of a softball player, and he recruited me for the then-prestigious Voice softball team. One day at a Central Park batting cage he showed me how he had modeled his batting stance after Stan Musial’s low, left-handed crouch that began as a corkscrew and exploded into a beautiful sweep.
A Voice photographer who was on the team was thought it would be a cool idea to snap pictures of Ross ‘s swing in stages and send the photos to Stan in St. Louis. We did, and Musial replied, signing one of them with “If I could have swung this good, I’d have hit .400 every year. All the best, Stan.” Ross died in 1998, and the photo was still in his cubicle a couple of years later when the Voice moved a couple of blocks to Cooper Square. I still regret not taking it home with me.