If you lived in the decade following World War II in the American Southwest or a goodly portion of the South and were a baseball fan, there is a good chance you were a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. And if you were a Cardinals fan during this period, you almost certainly thought that Stan “the Man” Musial was the era’s greatest player—and you would have been right.
Musial, who died at the age of 92 on January 19, played all of his 22 years with the Cardinals. As virtually every obituary and tribute has noted: He was a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee, three-time National League Most Valuable Player, seven-time batting champ, and was selected to the National League All-Star team an astounding 24 times. When Musial retired in 1963, his hit total was second only to Ty Cobb’s. And for the baseball statistics geeks, Musial’s “wins above replacement” number—which tries to approximate how many wins a team owes to a particular player in its lineup as opposed to an average replacement—puts him behind only Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron among post-World War II position players. While Musial “only” hit 475 home runs, when he left the game, that made him the sixth greatest home-run hitter in major league history—a total made all the more remarkable by the fact that he never struck out more than 46 times in a season.
So you knew about Musial because Cardinals games were broadcast by dozens of radio stations throughout the greater Missouri River Valley and, most important, by KMOX, a St. Louis-based, 50,000-watt “clear channel” station. As a clear channel station, KMOX had exclusive broadcast rights after dark for a specific frequency throughout the whole of the United States, meaning nighttime games could be listened to over large swaths of the country with little or no trouble. (The Cardinals’ wide popularity thanks to radio presaged the Atlanta Braves’ exposure on WTBS cable TV nationwide in the 1980s.) Also, at the time, the National League in which the Cardinals played had only eight teams, with none in the South or the West. So the team from St. Louis still largely ruled the roost in vast sections of the country when it came to the National League.
But like St. Louis itself, which in 1900 was the fourth most populous city in the United States and by 2000 had slipped to forty-ninth, so too has Musial’s fame slipped from the country’s collective sports memory. Indeed, when professional baseball and Mastercard ran a vote for the All-Century squad of 25 players and pitchers in 1999, Musial failed to make the cut. He was only added to the full, 30-member list when a blue ribbon panel was tasked with adding five more players to the team.
This was perhaps predictable. If Musial had played in New York, with all of its networks and newspapers, he, not Joe DiMaggio, would have been the man who walked on water. However, just as it seems impossible that the haughty DiMaggio could have played anywhere but in New York, so it seems unthinkable that the ever-genial Musial could have played anywhere but in staid, pleasant, midwestern St. Louis. DiMaggio was famous for marrying and then divorcing Marilyn Monroe. Musial seemed boring by comparison. Having married his hometown sweetheart at the age of 19, he stayed with her for 70-plus years, was a faithful, mass-going Catholic, and raised a family of four normal kids in a largely middle-class neighborhood of St. Louis. And while DiMaggio toward the end of his life appeared in TV commercials selling Mr. Coffee machines to make ends meet, Musial had created a small empire of successful business endeavors.
But, in truth, Musial’s own story was not at all boring. The son of a barely literate Polish immigrant who worked in what today would be considered a toxic zinc factory along the banks of the Monongahela River in Pennsylvania, Musial first played the game with a broom handle and rags sewed together into a ball by his mother. Signed as a pitcher, Musial was on the verge of being let go from the Cardinals organization in 1941 after being shelled by hitters during spring training. But Branch Rickey, the team’s famous general manager, gave him one last chance to start his career over as an outfielder. By the end of 1941, Musial had rocketed up the minor-league system. Two months shy of his 21st birthday, he was called up to the big club for the last two weeks of the pennant race, hitting .426. Musial never saw a day in the minors after that, making, as the sportswriter George Vecsey has written, “one of the most incredible leaps any player has ever made in one season.”
The nickname “Stan the Man” was bestowed on him by fans in Brooklyn, where the Dodgers still played. As Musial was ringing up hit after hit—in 1948 and 1949, Musial would bat over .500 against the Dodgers—fans at old Ebbets Field were heard first to murmur, then chant, “here comes the man.”
Yet it can be argued that Musial stayed “the Man” not only for his skills at the plate and on the base paths but also for his comportment. He never showboated, was never tossed out of a game, and was famous for treating fans and opposing players with genial grace. No less important was the role he played as the game was being racially integrated with the likes of Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. As elsewhere, St. Louis was a place where race relations were not the best, and the Cardinals had a handful of players from the South who were not at all happy with baseball’s integration. But Musial, the team’s star, made it clear that he was perfectly okay with playing against the Dodger Robinson, and the potential for any real trouble faded away. And when the Cardinals finally integrated, Musial and his wife were key to making sure Bill White and Bob Gibson and the other black players and their families felt like they were part of the Cardinals “team.”
Never one to make speeches, Musial was distinguished by his basic decency. As Vecsey recounts in his biography of Musial, during a taxi ride in New York on the way to the Giants’ Polo Grounds, “One of his teammates noticed a Jewish name on the cabbie’s placard and started speaking in a crude version of a Jewish accent.” Musial told him to knock it off. “When they got to the ballpark, the teammate tried to pay for the ride, as if to make amends, but Musial insisted on paying.” Musial then told his teammate “to never get in a cab with him” again.
Americans like their heroes to be bigger than life but also to have enough flaws to keep them from being too out of the ordinary. Musial’s “problem” is that, while a truly exceptional player, he also led an exceptionally sane and happy life. There was no tragic demise or flaw that brought him low or made for an interesting movie or, for that matter, even a memorable line in a song. Maybe that’s why Stan Musial is arguably the most underrated baseball star of all time.
Gary Schmitt is director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.