In St. Louis, one of the few places where they still treat their baseball like religion, a trip to the ballpark for Stan Musial was tantamount to a papal visit. Recently, only big occasions roused Stan the Man. He would slip on his Cardinals-red blazer – always Cardinals red – and a stadium of people would genuflect. Musial was their treasure, like one of those board games: For people ages 8 to 88. When Ford Frick called him "baseball's perfect warrior … baseball's perfect knight," he was exaggerating. Musial was never baseball's. He was forever St. Louis', forever the Midwest's.
Musial died Saturday evening. He was 92. Around the sport, they mourned the loss of a great player. Across the Heartland, they mourned something deeper, not just the passing of an icon but its perfect Midwesterner, from the seven decades of marriage to the earnest toot of his harmonica to the kindness that came naturally to the accomplishments being taken for granted because those East and West consider them fractional when achieved in flyover country.
Later in his life, part of Stan Musial's story became just how underappreciated he was. And while that was true, it only served to perpetuate this false ideal of coastal approval. Because the St. Louis Cardinals, as much as any, were America's team from 1941 to 1963, when Musial played. Until the A's moved in '55 and Dodgers followed in '57, no team was further west than the Cardinals. Before expansion, their legions stretched up to Canada and down to Mexico.
And the epicenter was St. Louis, the city that may well epitomize the Midwest, the Arch a towering monument to its middle-of-everythingness. At the same time, like so many other cities in its proximity, it struggles with reconciling its big-city aspirations with everything that makes it a place worth loving: its lack of pretense, its lack of traffic, its lack of self-importance – its lack of big-city trappings.
Never did that bother Musial. It suited him, actually, the humble boy from Donora, Pa., reared as a pitcher. His arm gave out, and after Branch Rickey saw him hit a long home run in spring training, he rebranded Musial as an outfielder. Six months later, he was in the major leagues at 20. Two years later, he won the first of three MVP awards. The second of those came after a year spent at Pearl Harbor fixing ships for World War II.
Musial's left-handed swing was more odd than sweet: feet inches apart, back corkscrewed toward the pitcher, unfurling with a whip-crack that launched 475 home runs and 3,630 hits – 1,815 at home and 1,815 on the road, because he was too polite to deprive those outside of St. Louis what those in St. Louis got to see. It's amazing still to look beyond those big-boy totals – those and the 24 All-Star Games and the seven batting titles and the three World Series rings – and not be awed by something as simple as strikeouts.
He loathed strikeouts. Not just your run-of-the-mill loathing for a player from an era where hitters considered strikeouts an odious breach of duty. Musial couldn't stand the idea of an at-bat where he missed either a good pitch to hit or a swing of the bat three times. The antidote, of course, was simple: don't strike out. And he didn't.
Musial's single-season high in strikeouts was 46. White Sox DH Adam Dunn struck out 48 times last May. In his seasons with 600 or more plate appearances, Musial's strikeout totals were: 40, 39, 39, 39, 38, 36, 34, 32, 31, 29, 28, 24 and 18. Musial finished his career with more doubles (725) than strikeouts (699).
Even at 37 years old, in a league with Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Eddie Mathews, all fearsome Hall of Famers, Musial led the NL in intentional walks. And it wasn't on account of no lineup protection, either. Ken Boyer hit behind him most of the season. Even if the world outside of the Cardinals' bubble couldn't appreciate what Musial did, the baseball world never took him for granted.
Nor did the Midwest. Harry Caray and Jack Buck told tales of his feats on KMOX for the region to hear. J.G. Taylor Spink and Bob Broeg, who coined his nickname, spun them in print. And generations of fans passed them down, every person who saw him with an unforgettable moment, every person regaled with the details wishing the privilege to have seen him in person.
Even those who were too young understood. Whenever people tried to compare Albert Pujols to Musial, he shushed them. Nobody is Stan Musial. Even if Pujols had stayed in St. Louis he wouldn't have been Stan Musial.
Baseball has grown, and while the Cardinals remain the Midwest's preferred team, the area is so segmented that it's impossible for anyone to be Stan Musial. He was a product of his production, yes, but of his time, too. And he personified it so well, all the way up until a few years ago, when Alzheimer's wrapped its awful tentacles around a mind so fertile.
His beloved wife, Lillian, died eight months ago. They were married for 72 years. Family surrounded Musial when he died Saturday at 5:45 p.m. It was a perfectly dignified end for the perfect warrior, the perfect knight, the perfect embodiment of the Midwest that will consider him The Man, forever.
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