Stan Musial got his nickname from Brooklyn Dodgers fans, who were in awe of his talent and his unerring ability to score against their team. “Here comes The Man again,” they would chant, whenever the St. Louis Cardinals slugger approached the plate. “I could have rolled the ball up there against Musial,” recalled Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe in 2010, “and he would have pulled out a golf club and hit it out.”
Musial was born and raised in Donora, Pa., said The Washington Post, where he learned to play baseball “with a broomstick and a ball of tape.” He turned down a basketball scholarship to pitch for a low-level minor league in Williamson, W.Va., in 1938. He failed to shine as a pitcher, and only saved himself from early release by hitting .352 as a replacement for an injured outfielder. By 1940 he had “earned a reputation as a fearsome batter,” and bat in hand, he “scampered up the ladder” in a single year from Class C ball to the majors.
Musial “became a Cardinal in 1941,” said the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “and always was a Cardinal.” He hit .426 in 47 at-bats in his first month on the team, and helped it win four out of the next five pennants. His average only dipped below .330 twice from 1943 to 1954—once in 1945, when he missed the entire season to serve in the U.S. Navy, and again in 1947, when a bout of appendicitis brought his average down to .312. He won seven National League batting titles, and ended his career in 1963 with 3,630 career hits—a record that would stand until 1981. This unparalleled record of success came despite an unorthodox batting stance that White Sox pitcher Ted Lyons said resembled “a kid peeking around the corner to see if the cops are coming.”
Musial was a quiet, unassuming man, said The New York Times, and after his retirement “his aura faded.” He preferred playing the harmonica at public events to carrying out interviews, and was content to drift into anonymity as he grew older. Fans failed to vote for him in a 1999 list of the 25 best players of the century, and ESPN once named him the No. 1 underrated player in history. But he received a standing ovation in 2009, at an All-Star Game in St. Louis, when he handed the ball to President Obama to throw out the first pitch. Two years later, Obama handed him a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
A genial character until the end, Musial was once asked what made him so cheerful. “If you had a .331 lifetime batting average,” he replied, “you’d be happy all the time, too.”