The words echoed in the Brooklyn ballpark. Stan Musial walked to the plate. He would not remember hearing the chant, but he never did hear too much when he was hitting. He was just 25 then, back from the war, unsure about the future. Only a couple of weeks earlier, he had been offered a preposterous sum of money -- 10 times what the Cardinals were paying him -- to break his contract and go play baseball in Mexico. That was the year of the great Mexican baseball raid. Musial didn't exactly consider going, but he wasn't exactly thinking straight when a Mexican millionaire named Alfonso Pasquel showed up at the team hotel and spread five $10,000 cashier's checks on his bed.
"Consider it a bonus," Pasquel had said. Musial was making $13,500 for the Cardinals.
He turned it down, of course, Musial would remember his manager, Eddie Dyer, asking if he wanted people to see his two children and say, "There are the kids of a guy who broke his contract." But he didn't really need the caution. Musial belonged in St. Louis, and he knew it, and after turning down the money he started rocketing the ball. Two hits and a homer against Philadelphia. Three hits and a homer the next day. Three hits and three runs scored against the Dodgers. Three hits and a homer against the Giants. Four hits, a double and a homer against Boston.
By the time he got into Brooklyn, he was batting .346 and up to second in the league in hitting. When he left Brooklyn, three days later, he was hitting .363 and leading the league. He hit the ball all over Ebbets Field -- two singles, a double and a triple the first day, three singles the second -- and on the third day, when he walked up, the Brooklyn fans were chanting.
"Here … blur … the … blur. … Blur … comes … blur … blur."
"What the heck were they saying?" the St. Louis sportswriter Bob Broeg asked at dinner that night.
"Bob," the Cardinals traveling secretary Leo Ward said with wonder in his voice, because these were, after all, Brooklyn fans. "They chanted, 'Here comes the man! Here comes the man!"
"You mean 'that' man, don't you?" Broeg asked.
"No," Ward insisted. "The man."
Broeg wrote it like that. And that's how Stan Musial became known as "Stan the Man." After that, all he had to do was spend the next 67 or so years living up to the name.
* * *
Maybe it is right that Stan Musial, after a long and happy life, passed away while the sports news is so strange and disagreeable. Here, one of the most famous athletes in the world admits to Oprah that he cheated and bullied his way to the top. There, one of happiest college football stories of the year talks about being duped, and how the girlfriend who had inspired him to do great things never existed. The sports pages overflow with cynicism and bitterness and anger. Maybe it is an especially good time to look back and remember Stan Musial.
This is not to say that Musial should be deified or idealized … he was a man, flesh and blood, made his share of mistakes and hit into his share of double plays. But if there's one overriding theme of Stan Musial's life, it was how much he wanted to make people happy. This was true when he played ball, the way he would duck into his peek-a-boo batting stance -- "like a small boy looking around the corner to see if the cops were coming," the Hall of Famer pitcher Ted Lyons would say -- the way he would uncork on a pitch and then break out of the batter’s box, full of expectation, full of ambition; 725 times he would turn those hits into doubles, 177 more he would make them triples. No one in baseball history rounded first at full speed as many times as Stan Musial.
But this zeal to make people happy did not end when he stopped playing. Every single day, when Stan Musial left the house, he would tuck his harmonica into his pocket. Every single day, at some point, he would run into someone, and he would pull out that harmonica, and he would play "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Musial would say he learned to play the harmonica because he did not like speaking in public, did not feel comfortable doing it, and the harmonica gave him a voice. It made people smile.
Harry Caray, who knew Musial for more than a half century, often would tell the story of Musial wandering out after a steaming doubleheader, looking as if he'd been through 15 rounds, and every single thing in his body language said he just wanted to go home and lie down. Instead, when he got to his car, he found fans waiting for him.
"Watch this," Caray told a friend, and sure enough Musial's whole body straightened -- like Popeye after spinach -- and he shouted, "Whaddya say! Whaddya say!" and he signed every autograph. Caray loved telling that story not because it was unusual, but for the opposite reason: Because it was ordinary. Even in his time, when baseball players weren't paid as much and, so, were more a part of the community, Musial stood apart.
"We all disappointed someone from time to time," the Hall of Famer Robin Roberts said when we talked about kids and autographs. "Well, all of us but one."
"Who was that?" I asked.
"Musial," he said in a voice that indicated I should have already known.
* * *
The stories of the young Stan Musial crackle in the rich black and white of old Hollywood movies. He grew up in a big family in a Pennsylvania factory town called Donora. His father, Lukasz, had come to America when he was 19, and he worked in the zinc mines. Lukasz did not want Stan to play baseball. The story has been told many times … a man named Andy French, who managed the nearby team for Monessen and who was working as a scout for Branch Rickey's famed Cardinals farm system, wanted to get Musial signed up.
Again and again, French tried to get Lukasz to sign. Again and again, he was rebuffed. In the version Stan would tell, Lukasz wanted his son to go to college.
Finally, one day, Mary Musial went up to her husband and asked: "Why did you come to this country?"
"Because America is a free country," Lukasz said.
"That's right," Mary said. "Isn't your son free to not go to college? Isn't your son free to play baseball?"
In some versions of this story, Lukasz looked over at his son and saw tears, and his heart was melted. He then asked French how much money Stan would be paid, was told $65 a month, and he signed the contract.
The story, like so many, is almost certainly exaggerated and softened -- it's unlikely that Lukasz, in the late 1930s, with the Depression still weighing heavily on America, was especially interested in his son going to college. It's much more likely that he wanted his son to quit that baseball nonsense and go to work in the factory and make some money. It was Stan himself who sometimes looked back with regret that he did not go to college. In any event, Stan Musial unquestionably did go to play baseball against his father's will. Musial was going to become a great pitcher.
And it was while trying to become a great pitcher that he met the man who would change his life. Dickey Kerr was the honest White Sox pitcher during the thrown 1919 World Series. Kerr pitched a three-hit shutout in Game 3 and pitched 10 innings for the victory in Game 6. After a couple of years, he got into a big contract dispute with Charlie Comiskey and went to play semi-pro baseball. He was banned for violating the reserve clause. When he returned in 1925, he had little left. He became a college coach at Rice, then he coached in the minor leagues. He never made much money. But he was one of the baseball lifers who just loved being around the game.
Musial played for him in Daytona Beach, and they bonded. At one point, Musial and his wife Lil moved in with the Kerrs. It was a small house and a pretty big burden. But the Kerrs never complained. They talked a lot about baseball and life. And that season, 1940, Musial blew out his left shoulder diving for a ball while playing center field between starts. The pitching dream was over. For the next half century, people would write that Musial wanted to quit baseball and Dickey Kerr talked him out of it. It wasn't exactly like that. Musial was hungry to become a baseball star. If he couldn't pitch, then he wanted to become a big leaguer hitter -- he would say he never considered giving up -- and Kerr encouraged him. "You can be a hitting star," Kerr told Musial. For his kindness, Musial named his first son Richard -- after Dickey Kerr.
One year later, Musial was playing for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Eighteen years later, in 1958, Musial was an established star and a rich man, and he went to see Dickey Kerr, who was living in Houston. Musial told Kerr that he wanted to give him something to repay him for his love and encouragement. Kerr and his wife said they did not want anything, that Musial's friendship more than repaid them through the years. Musial bought them a house anyway.
* * *
Pitchers always had to reach for jokes and exaggerations to explain the hopelessness of pitching to Stan the Man Musial. Preacher Roe would say the only way to get him out was to throw him four wide ones and then try to pick him off first. Carl Erskine said it was to throw your best stuff and then back up third. Warren Spahn worried about the safety of his infielders.
Musial almost never struck out. In his long career, he never once struck out 50 times in a season … and until he was 40 years old, he only once struck out 40 times in a season. He only struck out three times in a game once -- against the Cubs’ Dick Ellsworth -- and that was in 1963 when he was 42 years old. Heck, he only struck out twice in a game one time in his magical season of 1948, and one time in his magical season of 1952, and one time in his magical season of 1958.
Well, they were ALL magical seasons; that was the point with Musial, every year he led the league in something. He led the league in everything but homers in 1948 -- there are Cardinals fans who still say the homer that would have won him the Triple Crown was washed away in a game postponed by rain -- and led the league in doubles and triples in 1949. He won the batting title in 1950, '51 and '52, led the league in doubles and walks in '53, in doubles and runs in '54, in games played in '55, in RBIs in '56, and he won another batting title in '57.
People had tried to talk him out of that peek-a-boo stance in the early years, thinking it looked unsteady and would be ineffective against good pitching. Musial was always an accommodating sort, but when it came to his stance he was as protective as those penguins in "March of the Penguins." He always said the stance helped him see the pitches and, even more than see them, it helped him SENSE the pitches. "I never guess what the pitch is going to be," he told the writer Roger Kahn. "I know what the pitch is going to be." He explained that he didn't recognize the spin and he didn't look for the laces of the ball. He somehow could tell the pitch by how fast it was coming at him.
Few people understood what he meant. Even now, few understand. Musial was always generous with hitting advice -- he once worked with Chuck Connors, even though Connors played for the Chicago Cubs at the time -- but few ever really knew what he was talking about. As Curt Flood would say after Musial had offered him a few hitting tips, Musial hit naturally. And he could not explain it anymore than a hawk could explain how it flies.
"You should change that batting stance of yours," Warren Spahn shouted at him during batting practice of the 1961 All-Star Game, when Musial was 41. "It'll never do you any good, son."
"Sorry," Musial said with this big grin. "It's too late to change."
* * *
Everyone was in awe of him -- teammates, opponents, fans. In Chicago one year, the fans actually voted Stan Musial their favorite player … over all of their own Cubs. In New York, one year, they had a Stan Musial Day. And the umpires … oh, the umpires loved him. He never got thrown out of a game. There are two umpire stories worth telling now, one true and the other probably an exaggeration that began in truth. The exaggeration goes like so: A rookie was pitching to Musial, and after working it to a 3-2 count, walked Musial on a borderline pitch.
"That was a strike," the rookie growled at the umpire.
"Young man," the umpire said. "Mr. Musial will be happy to let you know when you throw a strike."
Right, that probably didn't happen, not exactly like that … but this did happen. In 1954, Wrigley Field, Musial lashed a key double down the right field line with the Cardinals trying to come back. Only the umpire, Lee Ballanfant, mistakenly called it foul. Or, anyway, the Cardinals were sure he was mistaken, because they rushed out on the field, so full of fury that crew chief Augie Donatelli felt compelled to throw out shortstop Solly Hemus, then throw out manager Eddie Stanky, then threaten to throw out Peanuts Lowry.
"What happened, Augie?" asked Musial, who had been confused by the scene. "It didn't count, huh?" Donatelli explained -- in somewhat embarrassed tones -- that his double had been called foul. Musial shrugged and stepped back to the plate. He promptly hit a double to the same spot, this time keeping it clearly fair. The Cardinals came back to win.
So many stories. There was the ending of the 1955 All-Star Game, which was actually the first All-Star Game in eight years that Musial did not start. The game went into extra innings, and kept going, all the way to the 12th. Musial led off the bottom of the 12th. Yogi Berra was catching that day.
"Stan," Yogi said, "I'm beat."
"Well," Musial said, "maybe I can put you out of your misery."
And he hit the game-winning home run off Frank Sullivan.
There was the story that Robin Roberts told me about how one time he was so frustrated against Musial -- Stan hit .383 and slugged .679 against Roberts in more than 200 plate appearances -- that he actually threw Musial something resembling a knuckleball. "I just ran out of things to throw him," he explained.
"Did it work?" I asked.
"Nah," he said. "He lined it to right for a single."
There was the story of John Kennedy, who became Musial's friend. In 1962, at 41, Musial became a .330 hitter again, like he was reversing time. "They told me I was too young to be president and you were too old to be playing baseball," Kennedy said. "But we fooled them."
Well, there are so many stories. Many people will tell you that the defining statistic for Stan Musial -- and it is amazing -- is that he had 3,630 hits in his career (fourth all-time behind Pete Rose, Ty Cobb and Hank Aaron). He had 1,815 of them at home. He had 1,815 of them on the road.
"I wonder if he meant to do that," Albert Pujols said once. Pujols -- the greatest St. Louis player since Musial -- for a long time was known as "El Hombre." Spanish for "The Man." He politely asked for people to stop calling him that. He said there is only one Man.
* * *
One last story -- this one comes from someone who lives in St. Louis and had overheard that I was doing a story on Musial. I had been talking with Bob Gibson, who had agreed to talk to a reporter because of the respect he had for Musial. "The nicest man I ever met in baseball," Gibson said. Afterward, this man came up and told me this story.
He said he did not know Musial. I nodded … I had heard from so many people who did not know Musial but still had a story, almost all of them favorable and enthusiastic and loving, but a couple of them were about being spurned or ignored by Musial in some setting or another. I wasn't sure which way this man was going to go. He said he was in a restaurant with his wife and daughter. And he saw Musial across the way. He had wanted to go over and say something, but he decided against it. He was celebrating his daughter's birthday. Anyway, Musial looked like he was about to leave.
The man said that at some point, the waiter brought out a little cupcake with a candle in it. Other waiters and waitresses gathered around her.
And then, all of a sudden, Stan Musial was at the table. He brought out his harmonica. And he played "Happy Birthday." The girl had no idea who this man was, but she found herself utterly delighted. The father, of course, felt his eyes well up with tears. I know this because even as he told the story, tears welled up in the eyes of the father.
You could argue that Stan Musial should be better remembered as a ballplayer. You would be right. Only two men -- Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds -- created more runs than he did. Only Hank Aaron totaled more bases. Only Tris Speaker and Pete Rose hit more doubles. When the fans were picking the All-Century Team and left off Musial's name -- this despite getting to select TEN outfielders -- it did make you think that Musial's greatness was too subtle for some. He didn't play in New York. He didn't hit in 56 consecutive games. He didn't hit .400, and he didn't hit tape-measure home runs, and he didn't make impossible catches in center field. He wasn't a drunk, and he wasn't a jerk, and he wasn't especially quotable.
He was, instead, someone who enjoyed seeing people smile. It's not heroic. He never claimed to be heroic. He only claimed to be lucky. What a life. He married his high school sweetheart, Lillian, back in 1940. She died last May at 91. He died on Saturday at 92. Musial grew up an immigrant's son in a town where the sky was blackened by the zinc mill. He signed to play baseball. He became a star. He went to war. He hit the ball so hard that in Brooklyn they called him The Man. He raised a family. He got 1,815 hits at home, 1,815 on the road, became friends with the president, inspired Brooks Robinson and Bill Clinton and countless others. Also, it's true, he played "Happy Birthday" on the harmonica for a lot of kids and adults in a lot of restaurants. See, Stan Musial always carried his harmonica.