Waller: Childhood memories of St. Louis Cardinals baseball great Stan "The Man" Musial still vibrant after his death at age of 92

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Waller: Childhood memories of St. Louis Cardinals baseball great Stan "The Man" Musial still vibrant after his death at age of 92

Published Monday, January 21, 2013   |  951 Words  |  

Editor's note: Mike Waller, former editor of The Kansas City Star and Times and retired publisher of The Baltimore Sun, lives on Hilton Head Island.

Growing up in Northern Illinois in the 1940s and 1950s, my favorite baseball team was the Chicago White Sox of Luke Appling, Billy Pierce, Nellie Fox and Minnie Minoso. But my favorite ballplayer was a St. Louis Cardinal, Stan "The Man" Musial, the greatest gentleman the game had produced since the Yankees' Lou Gehrig.

A boyhood buddy and I argued throughout our adolescent years about who was the greatest hitter, Ted Williams or Stan Musial. In the end, I decided as great as Musial was, Williams was the better hitter, possibly greater than Babe Ruth. But Musial, who died Saturday at age 92, was the better ballplayer and person.

A legendary story repeated in many versions by Musial fans over the years demonstrates why. According to various accounts, it happened in Brooklyn or Philadelphia or Sportsman Park in St. Louis.

In many accounts, Musial hit a grand slam or a heroic home run after an umpire's bad call. But Joe Posnanski, formerly a Kansas City Star columnist writing for Sports Illlustrated at the time, says the real story is this:

The Cardinals trailed the Cubs 3-0 at Wrigley Field in the 7th inning on April 18, 1954. Wally Moon was on second base when Musial smashed a double down the right field line against lefty Paul Minner, scoring Moon. At least that's what the Cardinals thought until they realized that first base umpire Lee Ballanfant incorrectly called the ball foul.

The Cardinals went nuts in protest. Led by shortstop Solly Hemus, they raced out of the dugout toward Ballanfant. Home plate umpire and crew chief Augie Donatelli tossed Hemus out of the game.

Manager Eddie Stankey was right behind Hemus, and Donatelli threw him out, too. Then Donatelli warned the others to retreat or be tossed.

And then Musial, who in the confusion had not been told anything, walked over to Donatelli and asked: "What happened, Augie? It didn't count, huh?"

Donatelli, who apparently thought Ballanfant had blown the call, said the ball had been called foul. "Well Augie," Musial said, "there's nothing you can do about that."

Musial stepped back into the batter's box and promptly doubled to the same spot in right field. But this time it was called fair and the Cardinals rallied and won the game.

Today nearly a half-century after he retired, Musial continues to be the most underappreciated ballplayer in history. His is the seventh greatest hitter of all time, surpassed only by Williams, Ruth, Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Rogers Hornsby and Ty Cobb (Barry Bonds would be ahead of him except for his steroid-tainted record and former Cardinal colleague Albert Pujols may pass him by the time his career ends).

Musial's statistics are dazzling, though far too many to recount all of them here. But sample these few: He won seven National League batting titles, averaged .340 in his first 17 seasons, had a lifetime batting average of .331, was the league's Most Valuable Player three times and second in the MVP voting four times, had 3,630 hits (fourth all time), led the league in doubles eight times, had 1,377 extra base hits (only Hank Aaron and Bonds had more), scored 1,949 runs (ninth all time), drove in 1,951 runs (sixth all time) and played in a record 24 All-Star games.

Pitchers hated facing him and his menacing peek-a-boo cobra stance, coiled to strike at the next pitch.

The Dodgers' Preacher Roe had his favorite approach: "I throw him four wide ones and try to pick him off first base." Roe's teammate Don Newcombe said: "I could have rolled the ball up there to him, and he would have pulled out a golf club and hit it out."

Yet for years Musial was nearly a forgotten ballplayer outside of the Midwest. Voters left him off the All-Century team, forcing commisioner Bud Selig to appoint him and avoid embarrassment for Major League Baseball.

He didn't play on the East Coast, where the dominant newspapers covered mostly the New York teams and such stars as Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays (there was no ESPN, no cable TV, no Internet and only one Game of the Week on commercial television).

He was a model citizen, not controversial like Williams. He didn't hit in 56 straight games like DiMaggio.

He didn't break any home run record like Aaron (he hit 475 in his career but never led the league in any season). He wasn't banished from the game like Pete Rose, he wasn't fast and flamboyant like Mays and he didn't break any barriers like Jackie.

He simply played baseball quietly from 1941 until 1963 -- with a year out for service in World War II -- on a consistently high level like almost no one else in the history of the game. His 3,630 hits were evenly divided with 1,815 at home and 1,815 on the road.

He treated players and fans alike with the utmost respect and was beloved by them. In Chicago, he once finished first in a "favorite player" poll among Cub fans, edging out Mr. Cub, the great Ernie Banks. He played in 3,026 games and was never thrown out by an umpire. The legendary umpire Tom Gorman said Musial was in a class by himself.

"How good was Stan Musial?" the Hall of Fame Dodger broadcaster Vince Scully once asked. "He was good enough to take your breath away."