An American Life
Ballantine/ESPN Books: 397 pp., $26.00
Here is a theory I have: There are three kinds of baseball players — the Good, the Great and the Gods. In the first category is everybody who made it to the major leagues; no one less than good ever got that far. Category two is for the exceptional. Category three, well, that is the best of the best. A few are clear-cut; a few are close calls.
A hard-core hardball fan will often buzz a point-blank question by the ear of someone who has a say-so in baseball’s yearly election to its Hall of Fame. (It so happens that I do.) “So,” it typically will go, “you gonna vote for Mark McGwire?” To which a standard reply would be ".... um, well, let’s just say that were I texting it, I would type ‘LOL.’”
For all you stat sacks, let me give you a number: 1,626. This figure represents how many hits were accumulated by the mighty McGwire, last seen bulging Incredible Hulk-like out of the garb of the St. Louis Cardinals, during his entire career, a sum that seems Reese Witherspoon slim next to some. If I may illustrate my point, McGwire’s all-time hit count is lower than those of Eric Karros, Juan Pierre or Andruw Jones. So whether he was on a steady steroid diet or nothing stronger than a can of Red Bull, that is not a whole lot of hits.
Which brings me, ladies and gents of the box seats and upper decks, to a man — “Stan the Man,” his alias was — whose kisser belongs on a Mount Rushmore-style monument (with those of Hank Aaron and Willie Mays) in any depiction of the Greatest Baseball Player of All-Time Who Still Walks Among Us.
“Stan Musial: An American Life” is a biography of a worthy subject by a worthy author, George Vecsey, a dean of American sportswriting. It is presented as the gospel truth about a hallowed fellow who in St. Louis is more of a saint than Louis is. He played the outfield there — and quite a bit of first base, long before McGwire and young Albert Pujols came along — and I’ll hit you red-blooded Cardinals lovers with a few more stats right off the bat: Musial had more hits (3,630) than McGwire and Pujols do combined. Repeat, combined. (In fact, just for you true blue Dodger die-hards out there, Musial had almost as many hits as Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider combined.)
Yet is it conceivable that the unforgettable Stan the Man has been forgotten? Or shall we say neglected? Vecsey posits that it is so. That, in a vague, inexplicable way, Musial is not idealized in the same way as the game’s greatest greats. That, somehow, his stature has shrunk like St. Louis itself, a metropolis of more than 850,000 back in 1950 when fans flocked to see the Man but as of the 2010 census a city with a population smaller than that of California communities like Santa Ana, Bakersfield or Fresno.
Could this be so? If so, how? Is it because Musial didn’t marry a movie star like Joe DiMaggio did, fly heroic combat missions like Ted Williams did, colorfully carouse like Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle did, die dramatically like Lou Gehrig and Roberto Clemente did? That he didn’t change the face of an entire sport like Jackie Robinson did, mangle a language like Yogi Berra did, give his own horn a toot like Reggie Jackson did, go all but mute like Sandy Koufax did?
The lone flaw of Musial’s is the same one that keeps his life story from leaping off the page. Stan the Man has a heroic stat sheet and a heckuva nickname, but beyond that no myth, no mystery, no razzle-dazzle. His story begged to be told, just as that of John Adams was welcome after a glut of George Washington, Abe Lincoln and John F. Kennedy tell-alls left nothing more to be said. But it still lacks a certain snap, crackle and pop. A baseball crowd can’t tingle with excitement just because the organist plays “Charge!” It needs to happen naturally.
Stan Musial was a poor boy from a Pittsburgh suburb called Donora, best known for producing a murderer’s row of hitters — Ken Griffey Sr. and Jr. also were born there — and for a killer smog in 1948 caused by smoke trapped by an inversion layer that claimed dozens of lives. (And you thought L.A.'s air wasn;t fresh.) Using a unique batting stance that twisted his torso into a question mark, Musial got two hits in his first game, two in his last. He was so consistent, he got 1,815 hits on the road, 1,815 at home. He weighed 170 pounds, yet once walloped five home runs on the same day in a doubleheader. He struck out 696 times. (Reggie Jackson’s total was 2,597.) What a man the Man was.
What kind of man? “Think of all the good words in the English language,” his former manager Johnny Keane once said, “and they all fit Stan.” No scandals, no high-speed highway chases, no brawls over bad calls. (Musial was never ejected by an umpire in 22 years.) This guy’s idea of a good time was to play his harmonica. Or to climb onto his rooftop in December and hang the Christmas display lights. Stan Musial is about as complicated as a hula hoop. His biography is chock full of examples of his generosity to friends and fans.
Compared to his contemporaries, DiMaggio and Williams, a couple of California native sons who did not exactly radiate much warmth, Musial was an equal on the field and a sweeter human being. He is in his 90s now with an apparent touch of Alzheimer’s, so there was no opportunity for Vecsey to sit and chat with a gentleman who once loved to do just that. What a pity this book wasn’t begun sooner. We mustn’t forget any man who made it all the way around the horn from good to great to god.
Downey is a former Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune columnist.