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Musial: Becoming 'The Man'

Musial: Becoming 'The Man'

From the The life and times of Stan Musial series
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The 1940s were the most eventful years in the history of baseball, affected by dramatic cultural, social and political episodes.

The first half of the decade was scripted by what took place on Dec. 7, 1941, when a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor jolted the country into World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted baseball continue operating for the good of the country’s morale. At the same time, about 4,500 professional ballplayers traded in gloves and flannels for military uniforms.

During the war, the playing of the national anthem became part of the national pastime, and the ethnic face of baseball began to change. Major league teams dipped into Latin America to replenish rosters, and as the war ended, Jorge Pasquel and his brothers signed Negro League stars and enticed big leaguers to play in Mexico.

Jackie Robinson eventually pioneered a path for African-Americans in the major leagues, and players attempted to unionize. Amid these dynamic circumstances, baseball flourished in St. Louis like never before.

And in the center of it all was a soaring young star – Stan Musial.

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More than 500 major league players served in WWII, including many of the game’s biggest stars.

Draft boards in American cities were not all created equally. Deferments and classifications depended on a number of factors. Both of Musial’s parents suffered from black lung disease, the residue of their hard lives in and near the pollution-spewing steel plants of Donora, Pa. The Cardinals’ rising star had become the financial provider for his parents, as well as his wife and an infant son.

While Musial never sought special treatment, his circumstances marked him deferred, at least initially. He eventually entered the Navy in January 1945 and, at the robust age of 25, spent 14 months in the service. The one season he lost was relatively minimal. In the meantime, thanks in large part to his availability, the Cardinals thrived.

From 1941 – Musial’s major league debut – through 1949, the club captured four pennants, finished second on five other occasions and won three World Series championships. During the period, the “Swifties,” as they became popularly known, won 876 games – 35 more than the New York Yankees – and averaged better than 97 wins per season.

During this era, Stan Musial became the most feared hitter in the National League. He became Stan “The Man.”

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The bullet points of Musial’s performance in the 1940s could – and do – fill books. But his rookie season of 1942 was a compelling springboard. After his spectacular introduction the previous September, much was expected from the shy, unassuming Musial.

“In all my experience, I don’t think I’ve seen a better-looking ballplayer come up,” future Hall of Fame Cardinals manager Billy Southworth told reporters that spring.

Musial started the season slowly, but by the All-Star break, he was batting over .300, completing a speedy trio that included right fielder Enos Slaughter and center field wizard Terry Moore. Musial was the only one of the three not named to the NL All-Star squad. It would be the only full season in his career in which he did not participate in the Mid-Summer Classic.

Though there was no Rookie of the Year award at the time, Musial finished the season with a .315 average. He finished third in the league in hitting, added 10 home runs, 10 triples, 32 doubles, 87 runs and 72 runs batted in.

The Cardinals shocked the sports world by beating the mighty Yankees in five games in the World Series. Musial batted a modest .222 in the Series. After earning $4,200 for the regular season, the 21-year-old Musial took home a Series share of more than $6,000 to his young family.

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As the 1940s progressed, the war and the Cardinals remained prominent. By the end of the 1943 season, Musial was hitting .357, capturing his first batting title and first MVP Award. In 701 plate appearances, he struck out 18 times. He also played in his first All-Star Game.

Along the way, the player everyone called “Stash” had become a role model for the young Cardinals.

“Stan wasn’t one to say a whole lot,” said his longtime friend and former teammate Red Schoendienst. “But he would take the young guys out to dinner, or things like that. Everyone looked up to him because of the way he played and the way he treated everyone.”

The Cardinals met up with the Yankees once more in the World Series that year. Again, Musial’s impact was limited as he contributed five singles and the Yanks reversed the previous year’s outcome, beating the Cards in five games.

The Cardinals continued to roll the following season, advancing to their third consecutive Fall Classic in 1944. Musial (.347) led the league in hits (197), doubles (51), on-base percentage (.440) and slugging (.549).

The biggest surprise of 1944 was the St. Louis Browns, who finished first in the American League, setting up the “Trolley Series” at Sportsman’s Park. The city swelled with baseball enthusiasm – much of it favoring the underdog Browns.

“It was amazing,” Musial said. “I guess because we were winning all the time and the Browns had struggled for so many years, people were rooting for them.”

The Cardinals took the Series in six games. Musial enjoyed his best postseason, batting .304 with two doubles and a home run. Though Musial never excelled in a World Series, he said, “I’m just thankful I was never a Series bust, either.”

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The following January, the Donora draft board reclassified Musial, and he enlisted in the Navy. World War II officially ended on Sept. 2, 1945. Musial was honorably discharged in March 1946. Soon after, he joined the Cardinals in spring training.

Shortly after the season began, Musial was courted by Pasquel and his associates, who hoped to lure him to Mexico. How close Musial came to defecting depends on which source you reference.

According to some accounts, Musial verbally committed to defect, and his impending arrival in Mexico was trumpeted by a public address announcer at a Puebla-Veracruz game in late May. In his autobiography, “The Man Stan Musial ... Then and Now,” Musial acknowledged he was tempted.

He recalls Alfonso Pasquel – Jorge’s brother – and former major leaguer Mickey Owen coming to his hotel room on June 6, 1945, laying down five bonus checks of $10,000 each and promising a contract that would pay him $125,000 for five years. At the time, the Cardinals were paying Musial $13,500.

“My eyes bugged out at the sight of so much money,” Musial said.

A number of factors likely swayed Musial to turn down the offer, not the least of which was a five-year ban commissioner Happy Chandler announced for players who made the jump.

With rumors swirling and the press buzzing, Musial recalled a talk from then-Cardinals manager Eddie Dyer, a man he much admired. “Stan, you’ve got two children,” Dyer said. “Do you want them to hear someone say, ‘There are the kids of a guy who broke his contract?’ ”

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The ’46 season proved to be a memorable one, as Musial and the Cardinals again butted heads with Brooklyn’s “Bums” for a pennant. Musial proved his emerging star was legitimate by carrying his team like never before. Musial was at his best against the Cardinals’ chief nemesis.

During one midseason sweep of Brooklyn, Musial went nine for 18 in four games. At one point during the series, Post-Dispatch sportswriter Bob Broeg thought he overheard Brooklyn fans saying “Here comes that man” as Musial strode to the plate. When Broeg asked Cardinals traveling secretary Leo Ward about it, Ward explained the Brooklyn fans were referring to Musial as “the man.” Broeg used it in his account, and the name stuck.

Musial’s league-leading batting average of .365 was 32 points higher than his closest rival. He also led the NL in total bases (366), doubles (50), triples (20), hits (228) and slugging (.587), while capturing his second MVP award.

The World Series matched Musial against his American League MVP counterpart, Boston outfielder Ted Williams. Neither Musial nor Williams was especially prominent. Pitcher Harry Brecheen won three games, and Enos Slaughter made his “mad dash” as the Cardinals won in seven games.

At that point, playing in the World Series seemed like a God-given right to Musial. Each of his first four full seasons had led to baseball’s championship theater. As it turned out, the ’46 Series was his last opportunity.

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The overriding headline of the ’47 season was the arrival of Dodgers infielder Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in the majors post-1900.

The southern-most city in the major leagues, St. Louis, was among the ballparks where Robinson’s presence caused the most disturbance. In “The Boys of Summer,” a chronicle of the Dodgers through the late 1940s and early ’50s, Robinson told author Roger Kahn that he and other black players were derided everywhere in the league, but nowhere worse than St. Louis.

Through history, some have been slightly critical of Musial for not taking a more demonstrative stand in support of Robinson and integration. That seems unfair in the context of Musial’s personality. Yes, he was a high-profile player at the time, but he was not outspoken by nature, not one to wave a banner or champion causes.

On the contrary, there is overwhelming testimony to suggest Musial was among the most accepting of black players.

For everyone who might question Musial’s stance, there are many more who sing his praises, such as Cardinals Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson. In his book, “Stranger To The Game,” Gibson credits Musial for helping establish a camaraderie among the Cardinals in the late 1950s that cut across racial lines. “Musial, for starters,” Gibson wrote, “never met a fellar (as he would say) he couldn’t get along with.”

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Musial’s performance in 1948 remains one of the singular best in baseball history. His .376 average that season was 43 points better than his closest rival in the NL. His 230 hits, 46 doubles, 18 triples, 131 RBIs and 135 runs were all league-leading numbers. Having adjusted his stance to move closer to the plate, and lowering his hands closer to the bat knob to hit for more power, Musial pounded 39 home runs, 20 more than his previous best.

If not for a rain-canceled game that washed out a home run, Musial would have tied Johnny Mize and Ralph Kiner for the league lead in homers and captured the Triple Crown. As it was, Musial took home another MVP award and became the first player in NL history to win the award three times.

In 1949, the Cardinals once again locked horns with the Dodgers while contending for a pennant. Despite a sizzling stretch performance by Musial, the Dodgers overtook the Cardinals and clinched the pennant on the final day of the season.

Musial’s .338 average didn’t approach his mark of ’48, but he led the league in hits (207), doubles (41), triples (13) and on-base percentage (.438). He also had 36 home runs and 123 RBIs.

The near miss in 1949 brought an end to a glorious baseball decade for St. Louis, pennant-chasing excitement it would not experience again for many years.

But Musial was just getting started.

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Dan O'Neill is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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