Stan “The Man” Musial was unquestionably the greatest player to ever wear a St. Louis Cardinals uniform, but he was also one of the greatest people to wear any kind of sports uniform.
Musial died Saturday at age 92, and for the next several days many tributes will highlight his work on and off the field. He deserves every single one of them.
Musial was a great baseball player, no doubt, but he was also a unique person in the world of sports.
Sometimes that word is used to describe interesting personalities who do things that aren’t normal. For example, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych would talk to the baseball while pitching for the Detroit Tigers in the late 1970s.
Fidrych, and the many characters who speckle the sports landscape are unique in that sense, but Musial was unique because he was just good — at everything.
Musial had a career .331 batting average, he hit a franchise-record 475 homeruns, he was named to 24 All-Star teams, he won three Most Valuable Player awards and three world championships, and he set the National League record for hits at the time with 3,630. Remarkably, he got exactly 1,315 of those hits during home games and 1,315 on the road.
That symmetry is fitting for Musial because he never seemed to do anything wrong on or off the field.
He did, of course. He’s only human. But he was never involved in a scandal, he served his country as a member of the Navy during World War II, he was unquestionably loyal to his team and family, and he didn’t get caught in the trappings of fame that entangle so many athletes. That’s partly why he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, the highest honor for an American civilian.
It would be easy to use examples of Musial’s life as an opportunity to take shots at current athletes who have over-inflated egos and get into all sorts of trouble, but Musial’s greatness stands above celebrity athletes past and present.
Nobody has ever talked about how Musial was a tough son-of-a-gun who would run someone over regardless of circumstances, as Ty Cobb or Pete Rose might. People also don’t talk about Musial as someone who had a need to say something outrageous to the media just so his name would be in the newspaper the next day.
No one ever said those things about Musial because he simply didn’t do them, and that largely explains why Cardinals fans adored him so much. He combined greatness on the field with greatness off of it.
It’s been a rough year in sports heroes. JoePaterno, who had a reputation nearly as clean as Musial, died in January 2012, but not before his reputation was destroyed when reports said he didn’t pursue allegations of sexual misconduct by his defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky.
Cardinals fans know how it feels to have a revered sports figure’s reputation go from nearly perfect to uncaring, at best. Albert Pujols,perhaps the best Cardinals player since Musial, left the franchise last year after 11 seasons to sign a megadeal with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Musial’s life stands in stark contrast to all of those other famous figures. He had the chance to leave the Cardinals after the 1946 season. At that point in his career, Musial had spent five seasons with the Cardinals and had already been named to three All-Star teams and won two MVP awards.
A Mexican professional baseball league offered him $125,000 for five years, but Musial didn’t leave to take the money. He was only making $13,500 with the Cardinals, but he stayed and played the remainder of his 22-year career in St. Louis.
The inscription on Musial’s statue outside Busch Stadium says, in the words of former commissioner Ford C. Frick, “Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.”
No human is actually perfect, much less baseball players, but Musial might be have been as close as anyone who ever put on a baseball uniform.