An American Life
Format: Trade Paperback, 416 pages
ISBN: 978-0-345-51707-4 (0-345-51707-5)
Pub Date: May 1, 2012
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Bud selig could see it coming. He did not know exactly which great player was going to be overlooked by the capricious impulses of baseball fans, but he was certain it was going to be somebody he loved.
The commissioner had brought this agony on himself by approving a commercial gimmick he suspected might backfire. A credit card company, a major sponsor, would arrange for fans to select the top twenty-five players of the twentieth century, using computerized punch cards. The winners would be announced during the World Series of 1999.
The drawback, and Selig knew it right away, was that this election could produce an injustice for some great players who had concluded their careers before the current generation of fans, before cable television began displaying endless loops of home runs by sluggers who were mysteriously growing burlier by the hour.
In addition to being the commissioner, with all the crass business decisions that post entails, Selig is a legitimate fan who grew up in Milwaukee, whose mother took him to Chicago and New York, giving him a lifelong appreciation for the game.
Knowing, just knowing, that some great players would be left out by mathematical inevitability, Selig did the prudent, fretting, consensual, quintessential Bud Selig thing: he arranged for an oversight committee that would add five players, making it a top-thirty team. He just knew.
Selig’s premonition came true when voting closed on September 10, 1999. Pete Rose, who had been banned from baseball after blatantly denying he had gambled on games, was among the top nine outfielders on the all-century team; Stan Musial, with his perfect image, who ranked among the top ten hitters who ever played, was mired at eleventh. Stan the Man, an also-ran.
“Ughhhh,” Selig groaned, a decade later, from deep in his innards. “How could they vote Pete Rose on that team before the great Stan Musial? You look at Musial’s stats, oh, oh, I can’t emphasize enough to you my regard for him, not only as a player, but when I got to know him in later years, when he came to Cooperstown. I can’t begin to tell you what a wonderful human being he is.”
His voice rising to an aggrieved squeal, Selig continued: “Did he deserve to be there? Are you kidding me? That to me was the biggest shock of the whole thing. I felt an incredible sadness. I said, ‘This is impossible.’
“I love Stan Musial,” Selig added. “He was just awesome. I watched him eleven, twelve times a year. I saw him in Ebbets Field, where they called him Stan the Man, because that’s what he was.”
“I’m seventy-four years old and I still say, in a kidlike way, wow!” Selig said, gaining steam. “And if you were trying to win a game in the eighth or ninth inning, you didn’t want to see him up. In old Sportsman’s Park, with that screen, he would pepper it. He was the man in every way.”
It would have been easy enough for voters to look up Musial’s statistics. Even in 1999, everybody had access to instant electronic information. And this is what Stan Musial accomplished: twenty-two seasons, a career batting average of .331, with 725 doubles, 177 triples, 1,951 runs batted in. Three times the National League’s Most Valuable Player. Seven batting championships. He led the league in total bases and slugging percentage six times each, and he led the league in doubles eight times and triples five times.
Musial also hit 475 home runs and struck out only 696 times in his entire career, twenty-two seasons—an astounding ratio in contrast to the chemically enhanced worthies of recent vintage, who strike out 696 times per season, or so it seems.
Oh, yes, and Musial was also the most beloved great player of his time, was never thrown out of a game—and yet the fans of the Internet age, with all that information available to them, did not see fit to include him among the top twenty-five.
“He has not gotten the recognition he deserves,” Selig said. “He is truly one of the great hitters. And believe me, I have great admiration for Ted Williams, but if you look at the stats, Stan Musial is right there. As far as I’m concerned, he’s got to be on the all-time team. He’s that great.”
In the top twenty-five, the fans included not only Rose but four players active in 1999—Cal Ripken Jr., Ken Griffey Jr., Roger Clemens, and Mark McGwire.
Knowing what they know now—McGwire’s extremely belated admission that he indeed used steroids that were illegal under the law of the land, though he still maintained he used them only for physical healing and never to gain extra power—fans of today might not vote for him.
But in 1999, given the choice, the fans voted for Bluto and stiffed Popeye the Sailor Man.
On further review, fans might not vote for the two Juniors a decade down the line, while Clemens’s seedy image and rumors of his using illegal body-enhancing chemicals probably would keep him out of the top twenty-five just on general principle. But that was the way things looked to fans with a punch-out computer card in the summer of 1999, listening to the incessant now-now-now babble of the tube and the blare of the public-address system.
Fortunately, Bud Selig’s oversight committee kicked in—the same panel that had come up with the original computer-card list of one hundred: Paul Beeston and Richard Levin from Major League Baseball, Gene Orza from the Players Association, Bob Costas and Jaime Jarrin, two experienced broadcasters, and four respected writers, Jerome Holtzman, Larry Whiteside, John Thorn, and Claire Smith. They did their work via conference call.
“The first thing we said was, ‘We start here, we start with Musial,’ ” recalled Costas, the baseball buff who had lived much of his adult life in St. Louis. Costas loved Musial. Everybody in St. Louis loved Musial. Now it was time for Costas to do the right thing.
“We had to scurry to improvise a nudnik-cancelling measure,” Thorn recalled. As Orza remembered it, the committee first added Musial and Christy Mathewson, then swiftly went to Warren Spahn, Honus Wagner, and Lefty Grove.
Even at that, to Selig’s chagrin, Frank Robinson, one of the great clutch hitters of all time, was left off the top thirty, along with Roberto Clemente, the great right fielder who died in a humanitarian airlift mission. The top-thirty team did not include a single Latino star or Negro League star, not Satchel Paige, not Josh Gibson, which rendered the venture still something of a gimmick.
When you think about it, all lists are gimmicks. Top ten movies. Top hundred books. Five worst presidents. I once wrote a column saying I could pick a team of players who are not in the Hall of Fame and on any given day “my guys”—just off the top of my head, Roger Maris, Gil Hodges, Tony Oliva, Ron Santo, Maury Wills, Thurman Munson, Dick Allen, Jack Morris, Tommy John, Jim Kaat, Lee Smith (sure, I’d take Pete Rose the ballplayer on that team; I covered him from the day he was nicknamed Charlie Hustle, and I believe he was clean as a player)—could give the Cooperstown guys a heckuva game. Somebody is always left off every list.
“It broke my heart to leave them off,” Costas said of players like Robinson and Clemente. And he added, “There would have been hell to pay if Musial had been left off.”
other tomfoolery was taking place in the closing months of 1999. People were obsessing that the world was going to fly out of orbit as computers spun from one digital millennium to another. People were hoarding gold bullion and plastic jugs of water and tins of tuna fish in their basements, getting weird over all kinds of apocalyptic nonsense. Maybe that explains why fans voted for Pete Rose over Stan Musial.
Through it all, Stan the Man remained Stan the Mensch—a Yiddish word for a human being, someone of high integrity, a major compliment where I come from. He handled the oversight with the same grace he had shown throughout his public life.
In July of that year, Musial was content to be a side man in the band of superstars that traveled to Boston for the All-Star Game. Ancient Fenway Park was one site of the ineffective World Series mano a mano between Musial and Ted Williams back in 1946, when both of them were young. Now Williams was partially blind because of a stroke, unable to walk without a cane, no longer the postadolescent who could be goaded into a fury. The Kid was now the patron of the Jimmy Fund charity and a sage of hitting, probably the last .400 hitter ever, a charismatic storyteller, a beloved elder, dying in front of our eyes.
During the All-Star jamboree, the great players of past and present swarmed around Williams, giving him his due. This was his moment. The old storms were over, and the fans went crazy in their adoration for him; he had long since learned to accept this love. Henry Aaron and Junior Griffey helped him stand to throw out the first pitch, a haunting reminder for everybody hurtling toward old age and infirmity. Musial did not need the spotlight. In Ted’s town, Musial was content to be the nice old guy playing “The Wabash Cannonball” on his harmonica.
musial’s modest pose in 1999 raises the question: why did he not strike a chord with the voters in that poll? Some players grow in stature over time, the way Williams did, while others dwindle, as Musial seems to have done with the general public. We all know that new trumps old just about every time, but was some other factor working in the general overlooking of Stan Musial?
The answer may have been that, in the celebrity-driven sizzle of the turn of the century, Musial was just not sexy enough. Once upon a time he had been sort of the American ideal, at least the white mainstream version of it, the Life cover boy. Friends and strangers semi-adopted him as the smiling brother, the amiable cousin, the father figure of his time, while Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, his counterparts, became known for their broken marriages, their moods, their absences.
Almost as if by will, DiMaggio and Williams became distant towering legends, the stormy Himalayas, whereas Stan the Man endured as the weathered old Appalachians, like the coal-laden hill behind his boyhood home in Donora, Pennsylvania.
DiMaggio would be remembered for the rose on Marilyn Monroe’s grave.
Williams would be remembered for crash-landing his burning jet on an airfield in South Korea.
But Musial, a diligent businessman with a successful marriage, would be the nice old guy who mimicked his own batting stance in public. Was this a flaw on Musial’s part—or ours?
Today, in Musial’s chosen home of St. Louis, with its fine neighborhoods and hospitals and universities and industry, people refer to Musial as being forgotten or overlooked by coastal America.
“St. Louis thinks of itself as the best baseball town and resents both coasts,” says Rick Wilber, a writer and journalism professor who grew up in the area and whose father, Del Wilber, was a friend and teammate of Musial’s.
It is not hard to pick up on a form of blue-state/red-state resentment toward the two coasts. The issue surfaces on nearly a generational basis, going back to Musial’s arrival late in 1941, when his predecessors, the Gashouse Gang, were regarded as Huns and Vandals let loose in the big eastern cities. The terrific Cardinal teams of the 1980s were easily annoyed by swarms of chattering New York media plus the celebrity of the underachieving Mets players. And the flyover-neglect theory continues into the age of Albert Pujols.
Ladies and gentlemen, on the right side of our airplane, you will see the famed St. Louis Gateway Arch alongside the Mississippi River. And ladies and gentlemen, a few blocks inland you may glimpse a large statue of Stan Musial, a local baseball player who used to be a big deal.
The statue is just about the only lingering controversy in the generally tranquil public life of Stan Musial. Ever since it was unveiled in August 1968, Musial disliked it because it was too bulky and did not capture his coiled stance. Of course, the statue has been a landmark ever since, along with the Arch and the psychic presence of the man himself. As controversies go, the statue issue is pretty tame, as befitting the accepting mid-America region where it is based.
St. Louis is the Mound City, nicknamed for Native American burial mounds in the region, whereas New York is the Media Capital of the World and California is the Dream Capital of the World. New York is where Ruth and DiMaggio and Robinson and Mantle and Mays all gained sporting immortality, and the brainy harbor city of Boston is where Williams gained his twitchy fame, if not always adoration.
“May I tell you this?” said Marty Marion, known as Mr. Shortstop when the Cardinals won four pennants in the forties. Marion observed Musial as a weak-armed minor-league pitcher in spring training of 1941 and a few months later encountered him as the kid from nowhere who hit .426 in the last two weeks of a failed pennant drive—one of the most incredible leaps any player has ever made in one season.
“We always say, in baseball, if you play in New York, you get twice as much publicity, you become more popular,” Marion said in 2000.
“It’s just a known fact that everybody who plays in New York gets all the credit for being the best players or best whatever. Do you believe that? Well, I tell you, it’s a fact. If Stan Musial played in New York City and was a member of the Giants or the Dodgers, he’d have gotten more publicity than he’s gotten so far.”
In that same end-of-millennium rush to quantify, ESPN came up with a series listing the top one hundred North American athletes of the twentieth century (Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and so on). Stan Musial finished sixty-first. Marion insisted that if Musial had played in New York, he would have been among the top twenty-five.
Musial did not complain publicly, but when ESPN began accumulating interviews with famous athletes, Musial would not cooperate, an act of quiet pique. He had his pride, and he had a long memory, as people would discover over the years. Musial let his friends do the speaking for him, and they did. Asked about Joe DiMaggio, Marion said, “I didn’t see him make all these fantastic catches,” meaning the regular season over the years. “I’ve seen guys catch as many things as he catches, but he wasn’t the hitter that Stan was. Joe wasn’t.”
Marion added: “If Joe DiMaggio had of played in St. Louis and Stan Musial had of played with the Yankees, you’d see the difference in their ratings. I’m telling you. It’s a fact. Either you can believe me or not. That’s how ballplayers think.”
From the Hardcover edition.
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