Phenom...or Flash in the Pan? (Stan Musial)

(Note: The following is a Fanpost from DeebeeDub that he asked me to post for him. Enjoy! - JP Hill)

Perhaps you know the story: With Grapefruit League action fast approaching, Cardinals Nation is drooling over a twenty-one-year-old phenom blessed with blazing speed and the best hit tool since… fill in your favorite current or future Hall of Famer. He’s unpolished, hasn’t proven himself in the upper minors, and is learning a new position, but fans are already convinced that he’ll spend the next decade patrolling the Cardinals’ outfield.

es, expectations were sky high for the whiz kid of February 1942: Stanley Musial.

Today’s Cardinals fans are of course drooling over Jordan Walker, who won’t turn twenty-one until May but otherwise shares Musial’s resume. Whether their careers will continue to run parallel not even Dan Szymborski can say. But as we buckle in for six weeks of hyper-analysis – is Walker the best hitting prospect since Taveras? Pujols? Musial? – and debate about whether he should make the Opening Day roster, it’s worth looking back to see how the St. Louis media handled those same questions eighty-one years ago.

Stan Musial reported to his first major league training camp on February 27, 1942. Baseball’s impending return marked a bright spot of hope in a nation still reeling from Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The ensuing Japanese offensive overwhelmed American forces across the Pacific. For the moment, Americans’ most potent response was a wave of vicious propaganda songs such as "We’re Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap." Meanwhile, Hitler’s armies dominated the continent of Europe and seemed poised to take Moscow and the Soviet Union’s essential oil fields.

Musial had registered for the draft in January 1942. The war, however, was far from his mind as he approached the Cardinals’ training complex in St. Petersburg. On that unseasonably brisk morning, the Donora, Pennsylvania-born son of a Polish-American coal miner was focused entirely on baseball.

Musial had spent the 1940 season pitching for the Class D Daytona Beach Islanders. He supplemented his $100-a-month contract with a $25 a week gig in the Montgomery Ward sporting goods department. His baseball career seemed in peril when a shoulder injury ended his pitching career and forced him into the outfield. But just sixteen months later he was entering Cardinals camp with a real chance to become a regular with a World Series contender packed with stars like Mort and Walker Cooper, Marty Marion, Terry Moore, Enos Slaughter, and Lon Warneke.

Musial was not a complete unknown, having had a cup of coffee with the team the previous season. In 1941 Musial dismantled the Florida State League before jumping to Class C Springfield, where he smashed twenty-six homers in just eighty-seven games. He then signed with the Class AA (equivalent to today’s AAA) Rochester Red Wings and slashed .326/.369/.448 in fifty-four International League games. Musial’s brutal treatment of pitchers caught Branch Rickey’s attention. The Cardinals general manager had once dismissed Musial as a weak-armed non-prospect. But now, with the injury-plagued Redbirds battling the Brooklyn Dodgers for the pennant, Rickey needed reinforcements for the team’s final dozen games. He summoned Musial to St. Louis to ink a $400-a-month contract.

Musial’s signing made barely a ripple. Longtime VEB readers might remember the multiyear build ups of such fizzles as Terry Fuller, Jess ("The Destroyer") Todd and Shelby Miller, whose minor-league starts were celebrated with siren emojis and has been mentioned in <checks> 42,678 VEB comments. In contrast, sharp-eyed readers of St. Louis’s major newspapers – the Globe-Democrat, the Post-Dispatch, and the Star and Times – may have seen Musial mentioned one or two times within single-paragraph notices of player transfers.

The 1941 Cardinals were a close-knit bunch who spent off days picnicking together with their families on the banks of the Mississippi. They paid little attention when the oddly named rookie marched up to the batting-practice cage in his pristine uniform (clubhouse manager Butch Yatkeman assigned him the number "6" simply because it was available), then quickly turned away when veteran catcher Walker Cooper growled "get your ass out of there."

The following afternoon manager Billy Southworth put Musial’s ass in right field. Batting third, ahead of future Hall of Famer Johnny Mize, Musial notched the first hit of his career, a two-out, two-RBI double to right-center field. He rapped a single in his next at-bat and finished the day two for four. A paltry crowd of 2,500 diehards witnessed the historic debut. "Threatening weather" the Post-Dispatch explained, had kept the crowd small. This may have been true, as the team drew a total of 633,645 fans that season (8,021 per game), its highest attendance since 1928.

The 1941 Cardinals fell 2.5 games short of the pennant-winning Dodgers, who, as was their habit, fell to the Yankees in the World Series. Musial’s performance nevertheless thrilled his club. In the era before "small sample size" entered baseball’s lexicon, his .426/.449/.575 line in forty-nine plate appearance was enough to convince Post-Dispatch columnist W. J. McGoogan that the young outfielder would become "a real star."

Following the Cardinals’ season-ending loss to the Cubs, Musial left Wrigley Field for the anonymity of Donora. Between the end of the 1941 season and his arrival at the next season’s camp his name appeared in St. Louis newspapers a mere five times. Even a nascent Musial superfan who clipped every article about him would be able to answer exactly two very specific questions: Is he married? (Yes) Is there a chance he’ll start in the Cardinals’ outfield? (Yes). All other questions – Who was he as a person? How did he spend his offseason? Was he in the best shape of his life? remained unanswerable.

"The kid is an iceberg," Musial’s manager at Rochester, Tony Kaufman, had declared. "Yankee Stadium or a cow pasture – all parks are just another place to play ball to him." Kaufman and everyone else expected Musial to continue his torrid pace from 1941. Even before Musial had his first spring training showdown against "Mechanical Mike," the batting-practice machine the team deployed in cold weather rather than risk pitchers’ arms, Billy Southworth declared Musial the best left-handed rookie since future Hall of Famer Paul Waner. "I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better-looking young ball player," the manager explained. "He does everything well and looks like he’s been doing it for years."

Others offered similar comparisons. Cards coach Mike Gonzalez saw Musial as a young Joe Medwick, except the newcomer was not only a better fielder and baserunner than the perennial All-Star, but also displayed "a better disposition." Star and Times columnist George Kirksey wrote that Musial’s swing reminded him of Ted Williams. Left unsaid was that Musial had a better disposition than the grouchy Red Sox star.

This was the hype machine, 1942 style. "Can Musial Be That Good?" Kirksey asked in his March 10 column. His answer, of course, was yes. "If there’s anything the matter with Musial nobody has discovered it." The Post-Dispatch’s J. Roy Stockton raved. The rookie’s swing "reminds you of the drives of a golfer whose game is well grooved." Globe-Democrat writer Glen Wallar reported that Musial, a veteran of forty-nine Major League plate appearances, "is being heralded as a great hitter."

All this excitement had a limited impact on fans, most of whom had seen Musial only in black-and-white photographs. They had never seen him running the bases, never heard his voice, never gauged his personality beyond a few generic quotes. They could measure his performance using a box score or a game summary, but they had no idea who the man really was. Today Musial could have shaped his image through Instagram, Twitter, The Players’ Tribune, and other outlets. ESPN and MLB Network would have ranked him on top ten lists. Derrick Goold may have called him "fascinating" on an episode of The Best Podcast in Baseball. Perhaps VEB would have booked him for its own podcast. Musial would have been ubiquitous.

Instead, he remained a blank slate. Reporters hastened to scribble in a personality. Supposedly candid photos captured Musial as a regular guy who shaved before breakfast, wore a suit while strolling to work at Waterfront Park, and enjoyed tall glasses of delicious Florida orange juice. Central to their coverage was his rags to riches story. Musial’s humble upbringing in Donora, a town so obscure that the Post-Dispatch called it "Bondura," was pulling him toward a $50 a week job in a steel mill when, Horatio Alger style, he caught a lucky break in the form of a tryout with a semipro club across the Monongahela River in Monessen. From there, through hard work and unstinting individual effort, he was on the verge of summitting the pinnacle of his profession.

Such stories appealed to readers who had only recently escaped the Great Depression, an era when opportunity seemed a myth and hard work futile, and were now entrusting the fate of the world to young men of Musial’s age. "He’s still a boy – off the major league ball field," Star and Times columnist Sid Keener exclaimed. "Pink cheeks, sparkling eyes, and a spring in his heels as he steps along the avenues." And yet this fresh-faced boy seemed capable of carrying an entire team on his broad shoulders. Musial’s Polish heritage enhanced his appeal, as Poland had won great sympathy from Americans after the Nazis and Soviets overran the country in 1939.

It wasn’t long before the narrative hit a snag: Musial wasn’t hitting. The rookie did have a promising start. On March 6, when the Cardinals opened their Grapefruit League schedule against the defending World Champion Yankees, Southworth batted him third, bracketed in the lineup by Terry Moore and Enos Slaughter – an all-Cardinals Hall of Fame outfield. The Yankees won 8-7, but Musial impressed with a single, a double, a homer, and "two sparkling catches in left field."

After that the highlights came few and far between. Musial’s speed and baserunning played, but he was sometimes tentative in the outfield and hitting less like Paul Waner than like Paul DeJong. Years later, in an interview with author Peter Golenbock, Musial blamed his woes on the stadium. "In those days we didn’t have a hitting background," he explained. "They had palm trees waving, and with my stance I couldn’t pick up the ball very well."

The press’ drumbeat of praise died down. Southworth dropped Musial to fifth in the lineup. When the would-be slugger continued to slump, the manager began reviewing his options. "Certainly there are jobs open," he replied to a reporter’s inquiry about the left field situation.

Musial found himself alternating starts with Harry Walker, younger brother of Dodgers outfielder Dixie Walker. Another left-handed bat with superstar potential, the twenty-two year old Mississippian was crafting a classic baseball redemption story. He had entered the previous year’s spring training as a highly touted prospect but scuffled so badly that the team stashed him in the minors for the 1941 season. Now he was hovering around .400. Musial was flirting with .200. "Walker seems to have found himself," Southworth said. "He has quit pressing and is just about a hundred per cent better ball player than he was last spring."

Walker ended spring training with a .393 batting average. Musial finished at .197, with a slugging percentage of .333. Southworth waffled for a while before announcing that both players had made the roster, for the moment. They would sort it out during the regular season. Terry Moore had already locked down centerfield and Enos Slaughter was a mainstay in right, so Musial and Walker, along with another impressive rookie, Erv Dusak, faced limited playing time and a short leash. Whoever performed, survived.

The team boarded a train for St. Louis. Musial, seemingly destined to become yesterday’s news, got the start in a final pre-season tune-up against the Browns. Only 4,962 fans elected to spend a chilly afternoon at Sportsman’s Park. Of those, a mere 3,555 had purchased a ticket; 1,182 boys and girls got in for free, as did 225 soldiers and sailors.

Stationed in left field and batting fifth, Musial rewarded the hardy fans by going three for four with a single, a bunt single, and a triple, and knocking in three RBIs to help the Cardinals to a 7-2 victory. "His performance was especially pleasing to Cardinal followers," the Post-Dispatch noted in its wrap-up, "indicating that despite his mild training camp slump, his remarkable battling of last fall was not a mere flash in the pan." Musial went two for five on Opening Day, then started the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that…. Harry Walker slid into a fourth outfielder role, beginning a productive eleven-year career interrupted by two years of service in World War II.

Musial finished the 1942 season with a .315/.397/.490 line, good for a 154 wRC+ and 5.6 fWAR. The Cardinals were a 108-win (in a 154-game season!) pennant-winning juggernaut. They dispatched the Yankees four games to one to claim the franchise’s fourth World Series victory. Musial finished twelfth in MVP voting, one of nine Cardinals among the top twenty-five vote getters (Mort Cooper and Enos Slaughter finished first and second, respectively).

Musial, having narrowly escaped demotion that spring, was on his way to becoming "The Man." Yet he remained as much of an enigma as when he was slugging in Monessen, Springfield, and Rochester. More than a decade later, in 1954, legendary Post-Dispatch columnist Bob Broeg penned a Saturday Evening Post profile entitled "The Mystery of Stan Musial." "He’s the greatest player of his era," Broeg wrote, "yet the fans know less about what he’s really like than they do about most colorful rookies."

For present-day fans, the satisfaction of being "in the know" about up-and-comers clashes with prospect fatigue when that twenty-two year old we’ve been watching for years still hasn’t made The Show. We’ll never again inhabit a world where our sporting heroes are empty vessels we can fill with a personality of our own choosing. A newcomer may unexpectedly make the team (Jordan Hicks) or surprise us with a breakout performance (Lars Nootbaar), but never again will someone appear from absolutely nowhere the way Stan Musial did.

We enter spring training of 2023 equipped with scouting reports, prospect-ranking lists, video clips, and all sorts of other data about even the most obscure non-roster invite, to say nothing of a potential star like Jordan Walker. We can "get to know" these players through their social media accounts and soft-focus news outlets. Seriously – feel free to wade into the human-interest pieces about pitching NRI Dalton Roach (heard of him?) getting bitten by a bear. This intense familiarity can deepen our sense of connection to our favorite club. It can make us feel like insiders. But it can also turn spring training into something resembling a Christmas where we already know what’s inside all our packages.

When viewed from our modern perspective, Stan Musial’s first spring training raises a question we tangle with in so many contexts but rarely answer to our satisfaction: How much do you want to know about what’s likely to happen?