Books: “Stan Musial: An American Life”

July 15, 2011

It might be significant that I couldn’t think of any way to begin this post about Stan Musial — any way but this, that is. The thesis of Stan Musial: An American Life is that, because Musial played his whole career with the St. Louis Cardinals, he has been perennially undervalued vis-a-vis his contemporaries who played in cities like Boston and New York. I grew up during his career, and it’s true that, living in the New York area — especially after the National League teams both slunk out of town — Musial was not the topic of everyday conversation.

He was, as New York Times columnist George Vecsey suggests in this book, just kind of there, and the next thing we knew he had accumulated more than 3,600 hits and had established himself as one of the best hitters of his era.

Musial came from Donora, Pa., which was a gritty industrial town where his dad worked in a steel mill whose management wasn’t concerned about the employees’ health. Vecsey draws a detailed picture of life in that town, and that may be the most worthwhile part of this book. Young Stan was a good athlete, but he got into the Cardinals’ organization as a pitcher — something he wasn’t suited for.

In 1941, he had a storybook season. He started out in the spring in the Cards’ baseball camp in Hollywood, Fla., where he was supposed to pitch batting practice, and by the end of the summer he had been converted into a hard-hitting outfielder and was called up by the parent team for the last week of a pennant race.

He played for the Cardinals until he retired in 1963, amassing one of the great personal records in the game plus a reputation for reliability, and for dignity on the field, and for a cheeful and hospitable approach to life. He was well liked in and out of the game.

While it is true, as Vecsey writes, that Musial’s extraordinary career has been overshadowed in the popular mind by the careers of contemporaries like Joe DiMaggio in New York and Ted Williams in Boston, his numbers are indelibly preserved in the record book where they put the accomplishments of other players in perspective, for better or for worse. Derek Jeter, for instance, has achieved what only 28 out of about 17,000 major league players have achieved, and yet he can’t escape the ink that says that Musial’s mark in total hits is out of reach.

But Vecsey, writing about “an American life,” does a little too much fawning over Musial and not enough exploring of aspects of the ballplayer that Vecsey himself brings up. He dwells on Jackie Robinson’s revolutionary appearance with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and he intimates that Musial was at most a passive participant in the breaking of the color line, but he does not deeply plumb Musial’s attitude on race.

Vecsey reports that Musial was spared military service during the heat of World War II on the grounds that he was a parent and the sole support of his mother and father – who, incidently, had several other children; that he declined to join an army unit when a baseball colleague urged him to do so, and that, when his number was up, as it were, he served at the tail end of the war by playing baseball in Hawaii and then by flying a stateside desk. The author writes, too, that Musial was not an activist when his fellow players  rebelled against the reserve-clause system that for a long time made players the property of their owners, the Fourteenth Amendment notwithstanding. In a broader way, Vecsey writes that Musial was a peacelover, meaning that he liked to avoid conflict. We are left to infer that Musial was happy in statu quo so long as things were going well for him — which they were for several decades.

Vecsey does at least let a voice other than his own — that of former Cardinals star Curt Flood — speak to the question of who Stan Musial really is. Flood unsuccessfully sued major league baseball after refusing to agree to a trade in 1969; his suit was the opening shot in a movement that ultimately changed labor relations in baseball.

In his autobiography, Flood wrote that he and other players respected Musial as a player and as a person; they thought of him as a man who would not consciously do harm. But, Flood continued, “He was just unfathomably naïve. After twenty years of baseball, his critical faculties were those of a schoolboy. After twenty years, he was still wagging his tail for the front office – not because he felt it politic to do so but because he believed every word he spoke.”


19 Responses to “Books: “Stan Musial: An American Life””

  1. That last quote doesn’t seem very complimentary to Musial, does it? They must have thought him to be quite simple, it sounds.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      Frankly, that’s exactly how he comes across in the book no matter how hard the writer tried to create a different impression.

  2. shanghaisam Says:

    I finished the book a couple of weeks ago. I generally like George Vecsey but I was quite disappointed in this book. The writing style reminded me of one of those Arthur Hano books you would buy from the bookmobile in the 6th grade. Had it not been for the subject I would have put it down after 100 pages or so. I kind of get the feeling that you also were disappointed in the book ?

    • charlespaolino Says:

      Yes, I was disappointed. It’s too bad, too, because Musial’s life is a good story. Vecsey seemed to think Musial needs an apologist, which isn’t true. For instance, the attempt to make Musial’s connection with John F. Kennedy into more than it was is amateurish and actually embarrasses Musial. Among the careless things that bothered me was the fact that Vecsey mentions several times that Musial is a practicing Catholic, but he never explores what that means in Musial’s life. Vecsey brings up the issue of race, but he never thoroughly unearths Musial’s true feelings about it. It was pretty bad reporting for such a highly-placed journalist.

  3. My family moved to the SF bay area in ’59, a year after the giants. I was in grade school, and a group of kids and fathers drove up to Candlestick one Saturday in 1963, when the Giants were playing the Cards. In an unforgettable baseball moments, we got to see Stan hit a ball *out* of the park – not just over the fence, but over the bleachers and out of the park entirely. I remember knowing then that I’d just seen a legend in action.

    Thanks for the review and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

  4. gaycarboys Says:

    Great post. I’m not a sportsman nor do I play baseball nor am I American, But I can appreciate passion and drive. Great post, and thanks for the pics.

  5. ournote2self Says:

    Great post. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  6. I saw Stan once when I was a child. That was before the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee. Growing up in Boston it was “Teddy Ball” and you could never take anything away from the accomplishments of a man like Ted Williams.

    Musial and also Williams played at a time when ballplayers had not achieved celebrity status. They were instead deities and as such deities were expected to exercise wisdom and discretion in their actions. So, it would not be unusual for a man like Stan Musial to be in the background of baseball life, particularly when playing in a relatively small mid-western city.

    Players in those days were essentially non-controversial excepting of course “The Babe” who was a celebrity and was larger than life. Musial was hired to play baseball rather than to become a commentator on the insides of the game, the clubs, the personalities, and the breaking of the color barrier. He did his job not just well, but in a capacity that few players will ever reach. I do not long for those days, but I do long for men like Musial who had a quiet dignity in their life and fierce strength on the field.

  7. jamieahughes Says:

    I want to read a book about Musial, but thanks to reading this post, I might go for one a little more well-rounded and a little less critical. My grandfather taught me all about “The Man” when I was little and watching Whiteyball with him in the 80s. My hero was Ozzie Smith, but being a Cards fan means you grow up appreciating players who graced the stage long before you were born. Musial is a class act who saw baseball for what it was, a game grown men were privileged to play for a living. Thanks for the great review and for earning the FP badge of honor!

    • charlespaolino Says:

      Well, there’s nothing critical about this book. As I said in the post, Vecsey fawns over Musial. He left the criticism to Curt Flood. As for the Cards, the team has quite a galaxy of stars in its history, including Enos Slaughter who came to the Yankees after 19 years in St Louis and was still hitting .300 at the age of 43.

  8. Love this! Thanks for sharing!

  9. well woopity do! i was hoping for something great but what i found instead is some generic joe shmo ballplayer’s life. way to go mr. politically correct author.

  10. mkeeffer Says:

    I love baseball stories and the fact that he played for one team is very special. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention. He really was one of the greats!

  11. good post keep posting frnd thanks 4 sharing

  12. admin Says:

    I enjoyed reading this post… Great report.

  13. Ron Says:

    I’m currently reading the Willie Mays book by James S. Hirsch. Sometimes modern baseball books try to do too much. Yes baseball doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but too many authors try to fit in the entire cultural history of the era the ballplayer played in. Some of us want a baseball book to stick to baseball. Certainly the bench-jockeying of the Cards when they played against Jackie Robinson in 1947 is relevant, but it’s the actual game of baseball that was Stan Musial’s thing.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      Agreed. I read a very nice book many years ago called Babe Ruth’s America. The author was telling the story of American culture at that time while showing how Ruth fit into the larger picture. What the author didn’t do was try to tell the story of American culture and write Babe Ruth’s biography both at the same time. By the way, if you like books about baseball, have you read The Pitch that Killed? It’s about the death of Ray Chapman.

  14. Ron Says:

    No I haven’t Charles. I should look that one up. As for the cultural backdrop in these baseball biographies, I just find that athletes aren’t exactly on the cutting edge of social change and trends, the 60’s in baseball for example were men in brush cuts, you didn’t see so much as a pair of sideburns until about 1970.

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