Stan Musial made his major-league debut on September 17, 1941, at the age of 20. He stroked a base hit in his first at-bat.
Dizzy Dean was on the radio call that September day in St. Louis. Even though the rookie went 2 for 4 with a double and drove in a pair of runs, it's likely neither Ol' Diz nor any of his listening audience had any idea that the kid with the funky peek-a-boo batting stance had just started what would be the greatest career in the Cardinals history.
In 1942, his first full season, Musial hit .315/.397/.490 and placed 12th in the Most Valuable Player voting. It was the first of 18 times he received MVP votes. In 1943, Musial was named to the first of 20 All-Star teams. He was just 22 that season and won the first of his eventual three MVP awards. Musial led the National League with 157 games played, 700 plate appearances, 220 hits, 48 doubles, 20 triples, a .357 average, a .425 on-base percentage, a .562 slugging percentage, a .988 OPS, a 177 OPS+, and 347 total bases. A star was born that would burn brightly for two decades.
Musial led the league in hits six times. He hit more doubles than anyone in the NL eight times. In five seasons, he topped the leader board in triples. Twice he drove in the most runs in his league.
The Man won seven batting titles. The first time he did so he was 22 years old; the final time, he 36. Musial led the league in OBP six times. Musial never hit more than 39 homers, but posted the highest SLG in the NL in six seasons. In three of those six times, Musial hit more triples than homers. Musial posted the highest OPS in his league on seven occasions. In six of those seasons, he also posted the highest OPS+. During six campaigns, he accrued the most total bases in the NL.
Given his offensive feats, it's little surprise that The Greatest Cardinal Of Them All holds the St. Louis franchise record in virtually every counting stat. His 3,026 games in The Birds On The Bat is over 700 more than second place Lou Brock and over 1,000 more than third place Ozzie Smith. Musial's 12,712 plate appearances place him over 2,000 ahead of Brock. The only Cardinal ever to notch 3,000 with the franchise, Musial's 3,630 are over 900 more than second place Brock's 2,713. Albert Pujols's decision to sign to Los Angeles of Anaheim leaves Musial 30 homers ahead of Pujols on the Cardinals leader board; The Man's 475 are 220 more than third place Ken Boyer. Musial also leads in runs scored (1,949) and RBI (1,949). His skill and longevity are such that he is head and shoulders above even second place in these categories and those behind him are all Hall-of-Famers.
Advanced stats further establish Musial's greatness. Musial had nine seasons in which he posted a Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) total of 8.5 or higher. His 139.4 career fWAR is by far the highest in franchise history. Second place Rogers Hornsby's 95.7 fWAR total is nearly 42 fWAR less than Musial's career fWAR, which is also over twice as high as Ozzie Smith's 61 career fWAR. His 139.4 fWAR total ranks eleventh in baseball history.
Musial took his final major league at-bat on September 29, 1963, at the age of 42. He grounded through the infield's left side for a base hit. It's poetic that the gods of baseball saw fit to bookend Musial's career with base hits over 22 years apart.
"Stan died," my friend's text message read this evening. That a Cardinals fan tells another Cardinals fan that the franchise's greatest player has passed away by referring to that player by his first name shows the familiarity and love we have for Musial. Indeed, it's taken a lot of discipline for me to refer to Stan as "Musial" throughout this post. I've only ever met The Man once, but to me and so many St. Louis fans he is simply Stan. He is a part of the Cardinals family and our love of him has been passed down through our own families the same as our love of baseball and the Cardinals. Musial was the ideal. He was everything we hope a Cardinal can be. And now The Greatest Cardinal Of Them All is no longer with us. I cried.
Tears didn't come to my eyes upon learning of Musial's passing because of his accomplishments between the lines. His nickname of "The Man" is poetic not just because it rhymes with Stan, but because it so perfectly reflects why Cardinals fans so adore him. We don't love the player, we love the man.
Musial's final game as a player in 1963 was the end of but a chapter in his lifetime as a Cardinal. After retiring, Musial didn't move back home to Pennsylvania or south for warmer weather. He kept his home in St. Louis and remained a consistent presence with the franchise into his 90s. Contrary to the old saying, in the case of Cardinals fans and Musial, familiarity only bred a stronger reverence. Ironically, The Man morphed into our very own living legend, enshrined in bronze outside Busch Stadium in a form of tribute that can be traced back to the characters of Greek myths.
Musial's legend was built on anecdotes told amongst Cardinals fans. I knew of Musial's accomplishments on the field and his gentlemanliness off it through my grandpa and dad. In 2011, Joe Posnanski wrote a cover story on Musial for Sports Illustrated that brought tears to my eyes in a good way. Finally, someone had shared with the world what Cardinals fans all knew by heart. In the article, Posnanski quotes Bob Gibson saying that Musial was the nicest man he ever met in baseball. Indeed, Musial's kindness was his hallmark. The article contains perhaps my favorite Musial story, one that shows his greatness as a player and kindness as a person:
It was April 18, 1954, in Chicago. The Cardinals trailed 3--0 in the seventh, and lefty Paul Minner was on the mound for the Cubs. There was a man on first, one out, when Musial smacked a double down the rightfield line. Or, anyway, the Cardinals thought it was a double. Wally Moon, the man on first, ran around the bases to score. Musial stood happily at second. The Cardinals' bench cheered. And apparently nobody noticed that first base umpire Lee Ballanfant had called the ball foul.
No footage of the play remains, of course, so we only get what we can read in the newspaper reports: Apparently the ball was definitively fair. Cardinals players came racing out of the dugout to go after Ballanfant, starting with shortstop Solly Hemus. Donatelli, the crew chief, who was behind home plate (and who apparently realized that Ballanfant had blown the call), threw Hemus out of the game. Cardinals manager Eddie Stanky was right behind. Donatelli threw him out of the game too. Peanuts Lowrey rushed out, and Donatelli was telling him to get back or he would get tossed as well. And it was about then that Musial, who apparently was not entirely sure why there was so much commotion, wandered over to Donatelli.
"What happened, Augie?" Musial asked. "It didn't count, huh?" Donatelli nodded and said the ball had been called foul.
"Well," Musial said, "there's nothing you can do about it."
And without saying another word, Musial stepped back into the batter's box and doubled to the same spot in rightfield. This time it was called fair. The Cardinals rallied and won the game.
I remember listening to the radio broadcast of the Cardinals game in 2008 that served as Stan Musial Day. I remember the ovation the crowd gave him. I remember Musial deadpanning an apology for taking so long to walk to the microphone. The apology was just the set up for him to deliver a line with expert comedic timing that he was having some troubles with his leg because he hit too many triples. Since then, Musial's role at Busch Stadium was reduced as his health declined.
At the home opener last year, I was sitting in the bleachers, waiting out the rain. I was there as much for the pre-game festivities as the game. Specifically, I wanted to see the parade of Hall-of-Famers. Most of all, I wanted to see Musial. When his name was announced over the loud speakers, the crowd applauded. The lady sitting in front of me turned to her friend and said, "This will probably be the last home opener Stan is at." Her statement saddened me because I knew it could very well be true and, as Musial's vehicle made it to our section of bleachers, I got a little misty-eyed. Cardinals baseball just won't be the same without Stan.