It is a lucky thing for Cardinals writers that Stan Musial's birthday falls in the offseason; in July it would be a blip on the radar while complaining about relief pitching remained in fashion, but in November there is simply nothing else to talk about. As The Man gets older and his first plausible heir nears 30 it makes sense to begin wondering where each will fall on the list of all-time greatest Cardinals, even if the resulting P-D article was less than satisfying in some ways.
But it's simply too soon; Albert Pujols has played nine seasons, while Musial went an astonishing sixteen before his skills finally dropped below a Hall of Fame level. Even in a comparison of their careers to this point there's a lot to confound; Musial began his career during World War II, amid a serious drop in competition, which makes it seem like he arrived at 21 fully formed instead of maturing into someone who put up the same stats against better players at 25.
It's hard to compare players across eras; it's easier in baseball, which has stayed comparatively stable since the live ball era, when the jump shot was a gleam in Hank Luisetti's eye and the forward pass was 20 years old, but even then we must deal with integration, with expansion, with timeline adjustment (I'm not for it, for what it's worth) and the changing utilization of pitchers. When Albert Pujols finally retires—at fifty, having won, as the saying goes, fifteen straight MVP awards and then six straight Albert Pujols awards—it will be time to wade into the murk that comes with adjusting for World War II and the really-live-ball era into which Bobby Bonilla allowed Albert Pujols. Until then we can only say that Albert Pujols is the best Cardinal of this era, and Stan Musial the best of his own. Until then the interesting question is this: Who's the best Cardinal of each time?
The American Association Browns: 1882-1891
If you've been in the Cardinals' team store you already know that these guys, the rough-and-tumble Browns of the American Association, created a World Series to earn some extra money, and once put himself in as manager, are not officially recognized by the St. Louis Cardinals as... Cardinals, est. 1892. But prior to joining the National League the Browns were among the best teams in base ball, winning four consecutive pennants and taking a proto-World Series championship in 1886.
Baseball in the 1880s was moving in the direction of the sport we know now. Gloves were being adopted; there were two leagues that occasionally played each other; the number of balls to a walk and where a pitcher ought to stand varied across the decade. By the end of the period the Browns were playing about 140 games a year, give or take a few. But careers were short and effective careers even shorter. Here's every hitter who accrued 1000 plate appearances for these Browns:
That's it. Only Charlie Comiskey, first baseman-manager, suited up every season (except for 1890, when both the AA and the NL came under attack by the Players' League), but he can be pretty easily removed from consideration; at the time first base was considered significantly more defensively important than it is now, and he was certainly an excellent one—although probably not, as he'd later claim, the first man to play off the bag—but his .273 batting average was empty even in an age of empty batting averages, and his player-managing is a skill extremely specific to this era.
Tip O'Neill, on the other hand, was among the best hitters in the American Association's brief history, winning two consecutive batting titles for the Browns and, in 1887, having the best season of the decade. That year he actually hit .435/.490/.691, leading the league in all three slash stats, runs (167 in 124 games), hits, doubles triples, home runs, and RBI, but thanks to a brief scorekeeping experiment it originally went into the record-books even better than that. In 1887, perhaps in the throes of its first sabermetric revolution, baseball decided a walk counted, for record-keeping purposes, as a hit. This was the only season it was true, and it coincided with Tip O'Neill's career year, the end result being that, depending on whom you ask, he still holds the all-time single season batting average record at .492.
Among position players, O'Neill is basically unchallenged for Browns supremacy; Arlie Latham is another honorable mention, thanks to his baserunning, his shaky play at third base (at the time nearer shortstop, as a defensive position, than center field), and the good fortune of being nicknamed "The Freshest Man on Earth", but he doesn't have the hitting chops, either.
But in the 1880s the question of greatness is a discussion that must necessarily include pitchers. These teams used no more than three pitchers in a season, if they could help it, and they almost always finished games. Careers win totals ended up basically within historical norms, Cy Young aside, but it was because a great pitcher's career was compressed into the brief and wonderful moments before his arm became completely useless to him for the rest of his life. Hoss Radbourn, for instance, newly minted Twitter star and one of the greats of the 1880s, won 309 games and lost 195, which is remarkably close to Tom Glavine's career record of 305-203. But Glavine did it in exactly twice as many seasons as Radbourn did—22 to 11.
So in a few years a great pitcher could be extremely valuable. Here are the Browns who managed to pitch 1000 innings before it became necessary for someone else to comb their hair:
You'll remember "Parisian" Bob Caruthers from the first list, and that's why he's one of my favorite Cardinals of all time. If O'Neill is the easy choice, Caruthers, who would be a shoo-in if he hadn't been dispatched to Brooklyn following the 1887 season, is the Fun Choice. In MVP discussions the Fun Choice can be terrifying; it leads to people making straight-faced proclamations about Shannon Stewart being the AL MVP, or Ryan Howard being more valuable because he sucked at the beginning of the season. But here I can empathize with it.
Bob Caruthers was one of the best hitters in baseball and one of the best pitchers in baseball at the same time; in 1885 he led the AA in ERA+, and in 1886 he led it in OPS+. That 1886 season is one of the coolest of early baseball's freakshow years; he went 30-14 with a 2.32 ERA, second in the league, and also hit .334/.448/.527 in a league that hit .243/.305/.323. ERA+: 148; OPS+: 200. On days he didn't pitch he stood in right field, where his arm was presumably more than accurate.
Silver King is probably also worth a mention; owner of a famous "crossfire" pitching delivery that resembles Mark Worrell's wind-up a little more than is comfortable, King, who stepped into the void left by Caruthers as a 19 year-old, went 45-21 with a 1.64 ERA in his second of three seasons with the hometown Browns. His is maybe the prototypical 19th century pitcher's career: 142-75 as a 22 year-old, he would finish his career, after a brief and somewhat successful comeback in the late 1890s, at 203-154. Those three seasons with the Browns were great, as is his Arthurian name, but unfortunately for the guy who followed Parisian Bob he just couldn't hit.
This early in history, even our methods for determing the most valuable player aren't extremely useful. By WAR, Caruthers is the winner; he was worth 30.6 wins above a replacement pitcher alone, without even taking his hitting (+9.6) into account. But Caruthers played in an era where one good pitcher was simply more valuable than he is now, since he pitched such an extreme proportion of his team's games. O'Neill, only a position player, spread those same 30 wins out over seven years, but it was through no fault of his own.