Sunday, January 27, 2013

Musial: The Greatest Ever?

It has been one week since St Louis Cardinals icon Stan Musial passed away.  In that brief period of time, Stan the Man has received more media attention and adulation in death than he ever experienced over his entire 22-year Hall of Fame career.  It's nice that he's finally getting some publicity, along with some well-deserved recognition for his greatness; not only as a baseball player, but as a human being.

Musial always seemed to be overshadowed by the likes of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio early in his career, despite being the best player in the National League; at least until Willie Mays came along in the early '50s.  As Musial's career reached its peak by the mid '50s, Mays' and Mickey Mantle's were rapidly ascending -  and grabbing all the headlines.  By the time Musial retired in 1963, he had quietly compiled a Hall of Fame career that was worthy of a first ballot induction at Cooperstown in 1969, with 93.2% of the vote.  What's puzzling to me is how 6.8% of the voters could justify excluding him from baseball's highest fraternity.  Go figure.

Recently, when MLB Network's sabermetric-obsessed expert Brian Kenny compared the career production of Stan Musial to the likes of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Henry Aaron, his conclusion may surprise the vast majority of baseball fans outside of St Louis:  "Saying Stan Musial was among the greatest to ever play the game is probably selling him short.  He may very well have been the greatest all-round player in major league history."

Not to mention its most under-rated superstar, by far.

He was certainly under-rated back in 1999, when MLB decided to let fans vote for the players they felt worthy to be on the All-Century Team.  The top nine vote getters among the outfielders would make the squad (100 total candidates were previously selected by a panel of experts).  Musial finished eleventh in the fan voting, behind Pete Rose - the guy with the most hits in the history of MLB, as well as the guy who made the most outs.  It took a special veteran's committee to add Musial and some other all-time greats who played so long ago nobody had ever heard of them.  Honus Wagner?  Who's he?  (Arguably, the greatest shortstop of all-time)  Warren Spahn?  Never heard of him. (The winningest left-handed pitcher of all-time with 363)

A couple of years after the All-Century Team was chosen, the Godfather of Sabermetrics - Bill James - did a little independent research of his own, and concluded that Stan Musial was the second-best left-fielder to ever play the game (behind Ted Williams) - and the tenth-best player, overall; even better than Pete Rose. 

As early as Musial's first full season (1942), it seemed as though this humble 21-year-old kid with the unique batting stance was destined for greatness.  He played on three World Championship teams for the Cardinals in the '40s - just before the Television Age brought the Fall Classics into millions of homes from coast to coast.  He also won seven batting titles and three Most Valuable Player Awards - the last coming in his greatest season - 1948.  Unfortunately for Musial and his team, St Louis barely missed winning another NL pennant that year; or any other year for the rest of his career, for that matter.  While his destiny for greatness had already been realized, his accomplishments were almost taken for granted; destined to be overlooked by the casual fan.

Case in point:  In 1948, Musial led the National League in every major offensive category, except home runs.  Perhaps Mother Nature is to blame for Stan the Man coming up just one home run short of winning the Triple Crown.  Officially, he is credited with 39 home runs.  Unofficially, he hit 40, but one of those came in a game that was eventually rained-out; so it didn't count.

Just for the sake of argument, let's suppose those rain clouds never materialized; let's suppose all of Musial's 40 home runs counted that year.  With that minor revision to baseball history, add in his .376 batting average (with a .450 OBP) and 131 RBI which also topped the Senior Circuit, and he'd have that coveted Triple Crown.  But he was just getting started.  Musial also led the NL with 133 runs scored, 46 doubles and 18 triples (He led the NL in triples five times in his career).  This combination of pure hitting, remarkable plate selection, power and speed has really never been matched in MLB history.  In fact, no other Triple Crown winner has ever taken the triple crown, as well.

Even minus that extra home run, Stan the Man racked up an astounding 429 total bases while becoming the first National League player since 1930 to have a slugging percentage over .700 (.702 SLG to be exact); a feat that wouldn't happen in the NL again until 1997.

Getting back to reality; Musial's incredible 1948 season is often mentioned merely as a footnote to his storied career accomplishments.  Thanks to some lousy weather, he not only was deprived of a home run title and a Triple Crown of historic significance, he was also deprived of a much higher level of adulation from fans, in general.  Of course, all that stuff didn't matter to him; in fact, he seemed a bit embarrassed when people noticed his greatness.  In 1952, the irascible and brutally honest Ty Cobb created a bit of a stir when he was quoted in a Time Magazine article, "Stan Musial is better than Joe DiMaggio."  Deep down inside, Stan the Man may have agreed with the Georgia Peach's bold assessment, although he modestly replied, "I don't think I've ever been as good as DiMaggio."

Many people would beg to differ, taking into consideration the total package that Musial brought to the ballpark on a daily basis; the key components that made him so great.  Not only was he an elite hitter who rarely struck out; he was incredibly durable - rarely missing a game until the tail end of his career - and he was able to sustain a high level of performance for well over two decades.  Those attributes are rare enough; added to the mix was Musial's genuine humility, his kindness towards everyone he came in contact with, and his unwavering positive attitude.  Essentially, he was a truly great person in all facets of life. 

MLB Network analyst Brian Kenny's closing comment says it all:  "If you had to choose one player in the history of  major league baseball you'd want to be on your team for twenty years - you'd want Stan Musial." 

Millions of grateful Cardinals fans who will always cherish the Musial legacy, agree wholeheartedly.

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