Friday, May 13, 2011

Book Reviews - 'Stan Musial: An American Life'

Taking a Swing at Restoring a Legend

The Wall Street Journal
May 7, 2011

Over the past decade, Albert Pujols's hitting feats have earned him the admiration of St. Louis Cardinals fans. But what permanently endeared him to many in the city was his reaction a few years ago to a nickname that well-meaning supporters began applying to him: El Hombre. The first-baseman politely discouraged fans from calling him "the man" in Spanish. The message from Mr. Pujols went out: There is only one "man" in St. Louis, and that is Stan.

Stan Musial was dubbed Stan the Man by Brooklyn Dodgers fans, who couldn't help but marvel at the way he feasted on their team at Ebbets Field in the 1940s and '50s. As a transplanted St. Louisan living in New York, I can attest that even today the sight of a Cardinals cap will prompt old Dodgers fans to stop the wearer for a chat about Stan the Man. On one such occasion, a shopkeeper, wistfully recalling going to see a Dodgers-Cardinals double-header as a child with his father, came out from behind the counter to demonstrate Mr. Musial's unusual left-handed batting stance: body coiled, head peeking over his right shoulder, hips wiggling before the swing. "If he had played in New York, forget about it," the shopkeeper said, going back to the cash register. "He would have been a god."

Another son of Brooklyn who was watching those long-ago boys of summer went on to become a sportswriter—one who never lost his youthful affection for the Cardinals star. In "Stan Musial: An American Life," George Vecsey immediately addresses the he-would-have-been-a-god problem, namely: Why isn't Stan Musial regarded as every bit the equal—if not the better—of those kings of mid-century baseball, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams? Mr. Vecsey is right when he says that Cardinals fans have long felt that the East Coast sportswriting cartel unfairly lavished its mythmaking attention on DiMaggio in New York and Williams in Boston, neglecting the achievements of a Midwestern star who retired in 1963 after 22 seasons with a .331 lifetime batting average, 3,630 career hits (fourth all-time) and 475 home runs. In two complex formulas used by baseball stats-obsessives for measuring a hitter's prowess, Mr. Vecsey notes, Stan the Man ranked behind only Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb in one, and behind Cobb and Hank Aaron in the other. Not a DiMaggio or Williams in the bunch.

Mr. Vecsey, who started his career just as Mr. Musial's was winding down, cites a handful of complimentary articles published in New York in the 1940s and '50s as evidence that the Cardinals star received his due in the sports pages. "Don't blame us," the sportswriter pleads. But he is clearly appalled that Mr. Musial is not better known and better loved outside St. Louis. Mr. Vecsey recounts a commercial promotion for the 1999 World Series that asked fans to vote for the top 25 ballplayers of the 20th century. Pete Rose made the cut but not Mr. Musial. "Stan the Man, an also-ran," Mr. Vecsey laments. Luckily, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig had foreseen just such an egregious omission and insisted on establishing a committee charged with adding five players to the list. "The first thing we said was, 'We start here, we start with Musial,' " broadcaster Bob Costas, a panel member, tells Mr. Vecsey.

Does the faded luster of the Musial legend suggest some flaw on the player's part, the author asks, "or ours?" The trouble with Stan Musial is that he didn't make good copy. Joe DiMaggio married and divorced Marilyn Monroe and carried himself with an aloofness that added to his mystique. Ted Williams battled with Boston fans and press; as a Marine pilot in the Korean War he landed a flak-damaged jet at 200 mph and escaped before it exploded. The two men were marvelous ballplayers, but they also provided grade-A fodder for the press—and why wouldn't East Coast writers concentrate on their hometown stars?

Stan the Man, by contrast, played a thousand miles away in the American heartland, married his high-school sweetheart and went to church regularly. He served in World War II, but, like millions of other soldiers, didn't see action. As a player he didn't brood, and he didn't feud; he was a cheerful presence on the field and off, seeming to invite everyone around him to share his delight in having a gift for smacking the hell out of a baseball. He was born Stanislaus Musial in 1920—his father was a Polish immigrant, his mother of Czech origin—in Donora, Pa., a steel-mill town outside Pittsburgh. Musial's hardscrabble upbringing interested writers, but that story could be told only so many times.

These days the 90-year-old Mr. Musial is much diminished by Alzheimer's, Mr. Vecsey reports, but the Hall of Famer was able to make it to Washington in February to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony. DiMaggio was given the medal in 1977; Williams got his 20 years ago. Even though the late-arriving award for the old Cardinal outfielder came about only after a campaign by a coalition of fans, politicians and business owners in a political swing state, honoring Mr. Musial at the White House still seemed like a laudable corrective. So does Mr. Vecsey's book, which is part sportswriter's memoir and part oral history, in addition to simple biography.

Thus we have Mr. Vecsey covering a game in St. Louis in 1998 and happening on a scene outside the ballpark before the first inning: Stan Musial, standing near a statue of himself, spontaneously entertaining a gaggle of fans by playing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" on the harmonica he always carried. No security guards, no police, just a great former Cardinal playing like a sidewalk busker, Mr. Vecsey says, "a merry twinkle in those gimlet eyes that had once launched a thousand doubles."

One of the book's many attractions is its evocation of baseball in an earlier era—not simpler, necessarily, but certainly more modest and affecting. In the 1940s, on days off or in the evening after day games, many Cardinals players and their families would gather at a lakeside cabin across the Mississippi River in Illinois, where they'd cook hot dogs and corn on the cob and frogs that the players caught by "gigging" them with a long, pronged stick. We also see Mr. Musial in 1946—by then he had already won the National League Most Valuable Player award and played on two World Series winners—being released from the Navy and, like countless other discharged vets, hitchhiking hundreds of miles home.

The postwar years were his best. He won the National League batting title five times between 1946 and 1952. In 1948, he led the league in batting average (.376), on-base and slugging percentage, hits, doubles, and triples—but a rain-out cost him a home run that would have left him tied (at 40) for the league lead. In 1954, he hit five home runs in one day, in a double-header at home against the New York Giants. With Mr. Musial, the Cardinals won the National League pennant four times and the World Series three times in the 1940s, before the team hit a trough in the 1950s.

Mr. Vecsey offers plenty of fascinating Musialiana: Stan the Man clipped his eyelashes in the belief that he would be better able to see pitches, and he began the time-saving habit of carrying autographed photos of himself to hand over to fans after getting the idea from actor John Wayne when the two had lunch.

The author also tries to weave elements of oral history into the story, but it's a struggle: Most of Mr. Musial's contemporaries are either dead or too old to be of much help, so Mr. Vecsey often ends up talking to the children of people who knew the player in his prime and dredging up quotes from articles and books. Or dragging in folks who have little to offer. Therein lies a cautionary tale about writers trying to fatten up books by venturing outside their areas of expertise. Mr. Vecsey introduces Reggie Walton, a federal judge, who happened to grow up in Mr. Musial's hometown but never met the man. The judge, who is black, talks about race relations in Donora—in an era long after the ballplayer left town. So far, so unenlightening. But Mr. Vecsey, a longtime New York Times employee, also mentions that Judge Walton presided at the trial of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who "was convicted of leaking government secrets, including the identity of a covert agent of the Central Intelligence Agency." Mr. Libby leaked no secrets; he was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice after having had the bad luck to cross paths with prosecutors desperate to charge somebody with something in the sorry Valerie Plame affair.

When Mr. Vecsey hews to the Musial story, there is much to savor. Oh, he tries, as biographers will, to find blemishes that will "humanize" his subject. It's a tough job. The best that Mr. Vecsey can come up with: "He was not without ego. He smoked for a long time. He drank a bit. He could shatter pomposity with a timely obscenity. Late in life, he broke off at least one long friendship over a business disagreement."

Much more plentiful are examples of Mr. Musial's kindness and generosity, like the time he stopped at a bank on his way to a Cardinals reunion and picked up a stack of hundred-dollar bills. A friend who was with him later estimated that Mr. Musial slipped a total of $10,000 to ex-players who needed a little help.

Mr. Vecsey sees his subject as having much in common with Dwight Eisenhower. The two-term president fell in the public's estimation soon after leaving office, he notes, and the Eisenhower era itself was derided "for its—what? Complacency? Stability? Normalcy?" In our fractious times, the author says, "normalcy is looking good." He finds encouraging signs nowadays of fresh respect for Eisenhower, adding: "Maybe Stan the Man's time would come around again."

But to this Cardinals fan, Stan Musial calls to mind another president, of more recent vintage, one who had a similarly sunny disposition and was also inordinately good at his job. A man who lived so long that he, too, drifted into the land of forgetting but left behind fond memories in countless others who smile just at the thought of him.

—Mr. Lasswell is the Journal's deputy books editor.

The Story of Stan the Man

The New York Times
May 6, 2011

Since the time I took my very first cuts with a baseball bat, my father has been telling me about Stan Musial. Not just about the corkscrew batting stance but also about the gentleman. You may not be able to imitate the stance, I think was the lesson, but you could always emulate the man. Somehow Musial slipped from the pantheon of baseball’s immortals among the general public; more fathers chose to tell their sons about DiMaggio and Mantle and Mays, and as their legends grew, Musial’s kind of faded into some kind of runner-up, a tragic slight that culminated with him being left off the all-century team voted on by fans in 1999.

Those are some of the themes that course through “Stan Musial: An American Life,” which will be released by Random House next week. It was written by the New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey, who just happens to also be my father and the same guy who introduced me to Musial’s legend some 35 years ago. He himself was about 7 when he discovered the greatness of Musial, who terrorized his Brooklyn Dodgers but also earned adoration, as well as the moniker Stan the Man, from the Brooklyn fans.

So this book is more than just a result of three years of research and writing; it is a result of more than 60 years of observation and fascination. And it shows. I just got through reading the published version (I had seen it in various stages of draft and redraft), and I can say without (O.K., with) prejudice that it is as fine a biography — sports or otherwise — as I have ever read. It not only captures the essence of a man and his life but also the essence of America and of baseball and the changes to each over time.

It is a proud day in the Vecsey house, to be sure, to see this book arrive. It was as much a labor of love as any project I have seen my father undertake — much more than just a paycheck that, as he jokes, came to about 30 cents an hour after all the time he put in on it. He spent countless hours combing the Western Pennsylvania countryside, just trying to sniff any remnants of zinc in the air around Musial’s hometown of Donora, and he dutifully tracked down dozens of people to gain even just a hint of insight into Musial’s upbringing.

Kudos to my colleague on the second floor on his new book. As one of the guys at my Sunday softball game said to me this week, “It’s probably the perfect match of author and subject.”

The legend of Stan the Man has always lived in my father, waiting to be told. A few years ago, long before this book came along, I caught him in the front yard teaching my 6-year-old daughter how to stand like Musial, all twisted up with a Wiffle bat in her hands, her chin poking out over her front shoulder. After he left, I straightened her hips, squared up her feet and pulled her arms back from her body. Told her to keep the grin.

Big hitter Vecsey scores with tribute to Stan Musial

Special to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Saturday, May 7, 2011

Back in 1985, sports number cruncher Bill James chose Stan Musial of the Cardinals as the best left-fielder ever. But James sighed that Musial seemed to be fading from memory — that Stan the Man deserved as much praise as the heaps dished out to his contemporaries, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. A year ago, in "Stan the Man," baseball writer Wayne Stewart repeated James' theme that Musial was underrated. Alas, Stewart's biography never caught fire, and neither did Musial's reputation.

But early this year, Musial made headlines by traveling to the White House to pick up a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Now, Musial's fans can pick up a new biography that has a shot at putting a new glow of the reputation of Musial, who is 90. The book, "Stan Musial: An American Life," has a big-name author — sports columnist George Vecsey of the powerful New York Times. Attention will be paid.

Vecsey's book contains little in the way of news, although way toward the end, the author notes, almost in passing, "In his mid-eighties, Musial was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease."

Like James and then Stewart, Vecsey insists that Musial deserves to stand alongside the likes of Williams and DiMaggio. Vecsey writes, "From 1946, when all three came back from the war, until 1951, when DiMaggio retired, Musial was every bit their equal — some would say maybe even better. They remained linked into old age, refugees from a time when baseball was king, but somehow DiMaggio and Williams excited the public with their air of mystery and inaccessibility, whereas Musial grew more familiar and somehow smaller."

Well, Musial poses a problem for biographers. Unlike the testy Williams and the haughty DiMaggio, Musial comes across as a plain-and-simple nice guy — and nice packs less pulling power than testiness or haughtiness. To paraphrase Leo Durocher, "Nice guys finish third."

Even so, Vecsey ranged far and wide, interviewing scores of people to pin down just how nice — and how generous and gentlemanly — Musial was, and is. Although the heart of this book rests in Musial's accomplishments as an athlete, a whole bunch of the book's body consists of anecdotes describing Musial's stature as a genuinely decent human being. And if Musial often comes off as less dazzling than some of the other personalities featured in the book — Branch Rickey, say, or Gussie Busch — Vecsey quotes current Cardinals owner William O. DeWitt Jr. as calling Musial "the great icon of perhaps the most visible institution of the city." Vecsey writes that when he was growing up in New York (as a Dodgers fan), Musial was "the most beloved man in his sport."

Oh sure, the book suffers from some shortcomings. Baseball buffs may complain that far too much of the action takes place far from the ballpark — in Europe in 1988, say, when the Polish-American Musial met two powerful Poles, Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II. And readers in general may sigh at Vecsey's insistence on quoting Musial in dialect — "kinda," "gotta," "outta," "wunnerful," "whaddayasay" and so on. A little of that goes a wearyingly long way.

But New Yorker Vecsey makes up for all that with his insights into St. Louis as a fitting showcase for Musial, the star, and with his respect for Musial, the civic hero. And after looking back at Musial's life, Vecsey ends his book by looking ahead to its end.

"Having covered the deaths of DiMaggio and Williams," he muses, "I know that Musial's funeral, whenever it happens, will be far more religious, far more civic, far more loving. St. Louis will get it right. Stan Musial might finally surpass the Clipper and the Kid. Posthumously."

Harry Levins of Manchester retired in 2007 as senior writer of the Post-Dispatch.

George Vecsey on "Prince of New York" Stan Musial

By Aimee Levitt
May 3 2011

Veteran New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey will be at O'B Clark's in Brentwood next Thursday night, May 12, for a signing party of his new book Stan Musial: An American Life. (The event is sponsored by Left Bank Books.) Yesterday he took some time out from his tour to talk to Daily RFT about Stan the Man.

Daily RFT: What inspired a New Yorker like yourself to write about Stan Musial?

George Vecsey: He was a great hero in New York when I was growing up. Honest. It's a theme in the book. I saw him play when I was a kid against the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. New York was where he got the nickname Stan the Man.


If you know anything at all about baseball, you'd know that.


People in St. Louis have worked over this myth that he didn't get his propers because of the era he played in, because there was this bias toward the East Coast.


Musial was beloved in New York. He'd come to town with the Cardinals and get 27 hits in three games at the Polo Grounds and then go terrorize 'em in Brooklyn. There was this day in Brooklyn when the fans were muttering "Here comes that man again." He was nicknamed by the Brooklyn fans. They loved how joyful he was. Musial would hit a ball into the corner and slide into second in a cloud of dust and come up smiling.

Believe me, Brooklyn fans could be rough, especially with the Cardinals, who were their main rivals. But the fans weren't vicious to him. He was a good citizen. You could tell that from the stands. He was one of those players who, when they came to New York, was treated like a god. He was a prince of this city.

Did you find out anything unexpected in your research?

No -- if I'd found anything newsworthy, I would've told my paper. He was exactly the person I got to cover when I broke into the business as a young reporter in the early '60s. He was a sweet, nice man. The book is structured with small chapters interspersed throughout called Musial Sightings. Those are acts of kindness.

Ruben Amaro, who's the father of the Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr., came up with the Cardinals in the 50s. He was a dark-skinned Mexican, part Cuban. He wandered into the clubhouse on his first day to get his uniform, and the clubhouse manager, Butch, gave him a baggy pair of pants. Musial came by and introduced himself and told Ruben he'd known his father -- he'd played against him when he was barnstorming in Cuba. Musial not only made Ruben feel good by acknowledging his father, he turned to Butch and said, "Get this man a better pair of pants." Ruben said that made him feel like a major-leaguer.

Some of the Cardinals didn't want to play against Jackie Robinson when he first came up. Musial had played high school baseball on integrated teams. I can't find any quotes, but it's clear from his attitude and his willingness to play, that he didn't [go along with his teammates]. He was consistent about that.

Joe Black, who was a college-educated black pitcher for the Dodgers, told me how some of the Cardinals were making remarks about him. The next day, Musial was waiting for Black. He said, "I'm sorry about that." He knew how to act. Did he get mad once or twice? Did people feel they didn't get to know him? Sure. But he was 99 percent good.

Was it hard writing about someone that good?

​The problem is, he's not a reflective person and never was. He was never verbal, he didn't talk about money or race. He was a see-the-ball-hit-the-ball guy. He stuttered as a kid, and he was reserved about expressing himself in public.

As a writer, you want to deal in controversy. But writing this book, I was aware that so many people had nice things to say, there was a danger of him coming off as a goody-goody. He smoked. He had a drink or two. As a reporter, I wanted to let the evidence speak for itself.

It was a challenge that he was a nice person. The book is laced through with this theory about why he's not more remembered. Ted Williams didn't tip his hat to the fans, Joe DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe. Musial was a guy who lived in a house that he decorated at Christmas. He took his kids to Ted Drewes.

Did you spend a lot of time in St. Louis?

There's quite a St. Louis feel to the book. Musial and his family were off-limits, but I talked to old players, people from the town, customers from his restaurant.

You know the book's subtitle is An American Life. Someone came up with that for me, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. It's not only a St. Louis story. He came from a poor Pennsylvania mill town. He was someone who looked around and saw people who wore sports jackets and knew how to handle money, and he figured out how to be like them. It's a Horatio Alger story, about a guy who did everything right. He just hit the ball.

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