Bob Lutz: In Musial, St. Louis found the perfect hero

01/20/2013 5:42 PM

01/22/2013 2:17 PM

Once in a while, somebody will say how Stan Musial would have been even more famous and more iconic as a baseball player if he had played his career in New York or a bigger market than St. Louis.

And I want to say: You just don’t get it, do you?

Musial in New York does not compute. He would have been a great player anywhere, of course, but he would have just been a man in New York.

In St. Louis, Stan was “The Man.” He put together one of the greatest, and most quiet, careers ever for a superstar. He won three World Series championships and three MVPs. He played for the Cardinals for 22 years, starting in 1941. His last hit, No. 3,630, was a groundball past a young Cincinnati Reds second baseman named Pete Rose.

Musial was St. Louis, the greatest Cardinal of them all. I think some Cardinals fans were relieved when Albert Pujols left as a free agent last year for the Los Angeles Angels so as not to have to ever have the inevitable debate about the finest player in St. Louis baseball history.

Musial batted .331 during his career, but for a 12-year span from 1943-54, he batted .346. He could hit home runs – 475 of them – but that wasn’t his game. He hit to all fields, made a living in the gaps and almost always put the ball in play.

He ranks fourth in hits, ninth in runs, second in total bases, third in doubles, third in extra-base hits and sixth in times on base.

And best of all, he was a saint. You never had to think about waking up one morning and finding out that Musial had done something stupid. He and his wife, Lil, were married for more than 70 years when she died last May.

Musial never left St. Louis and for years was a staple at the ballpark, where he allowed people from all walks of life to bask in his greatness, but never giving off any airs. He was a common man but an uncommon ballplayer.

I got to meet Musial almost two years ago, at the small office he kept in the suburbs. The meeting was arranged by a friend and by this time Musial was slowed by the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease. But he was gracious as he went about the business – and it was definitely a business – of signing pictures that were sent all over the country to his adoring fans.

I can’t think of another professional athlete who connected with a city the way Musial did with St. Louis. He was always on the minds of the home folks, and always in their prayers. After his death Saturday, hundreds of fans streamed to Busch Stadium to gather around the two statues that honor him.

Wichitan Daryl Spencer, who played with Musial and the Cardinals in 1960 and 1961, said it was special to be on the same team as “The Man.”

“I played with a lot of great players,’’ Spencer said. “Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Frank Robinson — but Stan was just a fantastic guy. Everybody on those teams was in awe of the things he did as a ballplayer.’’

Even though Musial was a salt-of-the-earth person, Spencer said, didn’t mean he was above having a little fun.

“Stan liked practical jokes,’’ said Spencer, who had a 10-year big league career. “In the spring, we always had a charcoal grill in the dugout because it was a little cold. One time before an inning started, I went to get my glove and the damn thing was laying on top of the grill. I asked who the hell had done that and the rest of the guys said, ‘Who do you think?’ ”

The Rawlings label on Spencer’s glove had been charred, he said, but he took that glove to his spot at shortstop.

I didn’t become a Cardinals fan until 1963, Musial’s last year. My memories of him are as charred as the label on Spencer’s glove. But my father, who was 30 when Musial broke in with St. Louis, was a Musial fan. Through my dad’s eyes, it was as if I had seen every one of Musial’s nearly 11,000 at-bats.

And every one of them was taken in a Cardinals uniform. St. Louis never entertained the notion of trading Musial. There was no free agency during his era, no $100 million contracts.

Musial played for a relative pittance before people he could identify with. And Cardinals fans identified with him.

Musial was never seen as a standoffish star in St. Louis. He was always one of the people, who happened to carry a harmonica that he loved to pull out of his pocket and play and meet with presidents.

He was as comfortable on a street corner as he was in a castle. He never stuck his nose in the air.

New York?

No, no, no. Musial was St. Louis.

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