Monday, January 21, 2013

Stan Musial, 1921-2013

Harry Caray who, along with Jack Buck and Joe Garagiola, was in the booth for the Cardinals in the fifties, spent a lot of time talking on the radio about Stan Musial's batting stance, and so by the time I was at last at a ball game in St. Louis ('57), I couldn't wait to see Musial bat and to see this stance I'd been hearing about.  I was in Little League, and we were all about having a distinctive batting stance.  It was a form of self-expression, nevermind that it needed to have some functionality.  We were eleven.

My recollection is that he was the Cards third place hitter, with Boyer hitting cleanup and Blasingame leading off.  I don't remember the batting order, but of course it can be readily looked up.  This was an MVP year for Musial, who would hit .351.  I believe the Cardinals finished second in the National League.  He was 36 and would play to the age of 42.

Anyway, the stance was very interesting and full of functionality.  The bat was held way back and pretty high, and he leaned over the plate with his head and shoulders.  The position of his feet was almost like dance, his front foot pointing toward the pitcher, the back foot at a right angle to the other.  He was a left-handed hitter, hitting for high average, hitting inside out to the opposite field (Keith Hernandez style) or pulling the ball violently down the right field line.  We always thought of him as a power hitter but in fact he wasn't Ted Williams.  He was a singles and doubles guy, but because he made great contact, it wasn't rare for the ball to leave the park.  He was clutch, too -- and thus a hero in many games with key hits year after year.  He never played for any other team but the Cardinals.  I saw him play right field, left field and first base.  I saw him steal bases.  I never saw him bunt.

The year he got his 3000th hit, we were in St. Louis for a Sunday game hoping to see him get it done.  He didn't get it done that day, but later in the week did it with a double into the ivy at Wrigley Field.  But the day I was there and he didn't get it, his teammates were on the steps of the dugout taking home movies of him each time he batted.  To me these guys were all great stars, and it really impressed me that he was so great in their eyes that many of them had their super-eight movie cameras with them at the ball park to try to catch the historic moment.

In these days with Lance Armstrong and others pulling sports down, it's good remembering Stan the Man.  Back in those days, I couldn't wait until he'd come to bat the next time, to listen to how the home crowd respected him.  Many times in those last years the crowd stood up when he was batting.  When you go to St. Louis to see a game, you'll see his statue outside the park.  I think Busch Stadium was the first to have such a statute, and now they are all over the league.  This one is big, however, and commemorates the eccentric batting stance that facilitated a mighty, level, smooth as silk rip at the ball.  At 92 he was a little guy, his playing days gone by several generations, his greatness all but invisible to the new fans, but when he showed up in Busch Stadium on special occasions, St. Louis stood up to see him.