“Nice” may be one of the most overused words in the English language — except, that is, for its intended purpose: to convey the appeal (and warmth) of a human’s personality.
Thus, to call Stanley Frank Musial a “nice” man is to describe him to a tee — and yet at the same time, given the adjective’s current overuse and misuse, to minimize him.
But “nice” the everlasting star of the St. Louis Cardinals was. It seemed he knew how to be nothing else. He didn’t revel in who he was; he just was — the man who, deep into his ninth decade, still delighted in demonstrating his trademark corkscrew swing, or in performing magic tricks, or in whipping out his harmonica to play “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for legions of fans. He was the grand old game’s version of “Ol’ Man River.”
But if Mr. Musial, who died Saturday at the age of 92, was baseball’s most unassuming superstar, he may also have been its most under-appreciated. Not in St. Louis, mind you, where he is still revered; or in Brooklyn, whose diehards christened him “The Man”; or even in Chicago, whose Cub pitching staffs he tormented, uncoiling from his “peek-a-boo” stance to pound line drives to all points on (and out of) the greensward.
You see, at a time when the roguish and rascally were in the infant stages of being celebrated, Mr. Musial simply played the game. He was not as magnificently understated or as cool as the Great DiMaggio, or as raucously flamboyant as Teddy Ballgame, his outfield contemporaries in baseball’s Second Golden Age. And he lacked the flair of the next generation’s ultimate stars, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, otherwise known as Th eCommerce Comet.
But Stan Musial was as steady and sure as the heartland he — a steel worker’s kid from Pennsylvania’s Mon Valley south of Pittsburgh — so ably represented in the West’s gateway city. His three MVP awards, seven batting titles, and .331 lifetime average certainly stand out, but, for us, two other statistics showcase him as a model of consistency. For 16 straight years, he batted .300 or better and, of his 3,630 career hits, exactly the same amount — 1,815 — were collected on the road as at home in St. Louis. Amazing.
Statues of the game’s immortals are commonplace today outside the ballparks in their home cities. One of the first such memorials erected was in St. Louis and on it were inscribed words uttered by the sport’s commissioner, Ford Frick, on the late-September day in 1963 when Mr. Musial retired from baseball: “Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.”
Now Mr. Frick, as a former sportswriter, did have a flair for the written word. But no better, nor more apt, tribute can be given a man — or rather “The Man.”