"There is only one man in this town."
- Albert Pujols (a.k.a. El Hombre)
canvas by John Falter, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
No act of biology automatically turns a boy into a man. There’s no set chronological age – say, 18 or 21 – at which a male launches with certainty into maturity; no cultural rite, be it wedding, bar mitzvah, boot camp or high school graduation, that turns a kid into a mature person. Is there?
The counterparts hold true for girls and women. I once taught an English seminar, “Heroines in Literature” (Twelfth Night, Emma, Washington Square, To the Lighthouse, Their Eyes Were Watching God), and in my classroom full of girls I loved asking an introductory question: When does a girl become a woman? After voicing that question, I’d pause for a long time.
We then spoke quite personally about various conditions and human situations that might turn a girl into a woman: physiology and hormones, loss of virginity, wedding day, birth of a child, an academic or professional title, a corner office. My students laughed at some of this, and I did too; the word woman felt so big, so serious.
We all knew that it was politically and biologically correct to address girls of a certain age as women or young women (sometimes annoyingly as “ladies”), less and less as “girls.”
At what point in your life did you feel that the term woman or man actually fit you?
“You make a good cup of coffee, woman.” I took those words as a compliment, because they were voiced with satisfaction, vigor, and no trace of condescension. If spoken admiringly or suggestively, woman has a certain fullness that connotes desirability. Voiced in a duller tone, however, the term sounds matronly, boring, middle-aged, and ill-fitting to those of us who sometimes feel a lively girl within.
“Don’t you love being with a real man?” My friend voiced her happy question in a dimly-lit café while nibbling on sweet potato fries. “You know, the kind who says aw, stay and have a beer, pops the cap off a cold one, offers you the same, puts his legs up on the kitchen counter, and is happy to have you stay and watch the game with him?”
A “real” man: the definition is more a matter of taste, jest, opinion, and circumstance than absolute truth. I picture a Harley, leather, and tattoos - is that what a man is? Then other images start colliding until I am confused: intelligent conversation, shelves and shelves of great books, an advanced degree, a bottle of fine wine; muscles; a Marlboro man; baseball on television or radio and a frosty summer ale; a good father who is respected by his children; a man in uniform, baseball or military; a kind person.
Just watch any Little Leaguer or young adolescent. Kids swagger and spit just as grown men do, adeptly imitating every idiosyncratic move. You see miniature Jeters at the plate, Becketts and Halladays on the mound. The reverse is also true: watch any so-called grownup on the bench or in the pen and he’s blowing bubbles, cracking seeds, laughing til his sides hurt at something that’s just been said about a girl. Or woman.
What is it to be a man, anyway?
Is Stan “The Man” Musial more a man than that other ballplayer nicknamed “The Kid?” And if so, why?
In that realm of imagination where you are allowed to choose, would you prefer to spend time with a nice fella sporting a red blazer or a complicated s.o.b. who lectures you colorfully on the science of hitting while gracefully casting a fly rod?
The Man. Though secularly christened with an honorable nickname by adversaries who admired his talent and power even as they competed hard against him at Ebbets Field, what I’ve been hearing lately is that Stanley Musial’s “boring” life off the field doesn’t make for a very compelling biography. The concept of goodness isn’t sexy. It’s better for an athlete to be hot than good. Such is the general consensus among reviewers who have taken an appreciative look at Stan Musial: An American Life, by George Vecsey.
“Compelling” and “sexy” are qualities our current age has come to demand of stories; the terms are now almost synonymous. Compelling means “you have to buy this book.” “Sexy” indicates “you have to read this story (because it will make up for some of the excitement your own life is lacking).” Audiences want fireworks; they really like fireworks. Many show up at the ballpark because of the post-game fireworks, suggesting that the quiet action of baseball isn’t quite enough.
Stan Musial is like a ballgame without the fireworks. “He makes a better statue,” Bill James asserted in a 1986 abstract. I find those words to be untrue and incredibly sad.
“Even in matrimony, Musial was the boring one,” writes Vecsey. With all due respect to a longtime sportswriter, I wonder how any outsider can possibly render a judgment on another man’s personal life, especially one so private? Who knows what goes on behind the closed doors of a good man, especially if the door doesn’t open readily to fans who feel entitled to an intimate account or compelling psychological drama.
Nice, gracious, opaque, boring: these adjectives present to the biographer an artistic and intellectual challenge. There’s the added philosophical predicament that many individuals - athletes, celebrities, ordinary people just like us - are fundamentally unknowable, except perhaps to closest family and friends.
Among the most important truths of Stan Musial’s life are his baseball stats. Height: 6’0.” Weight: 175 lbs. One hundred seventy-five? A 24-time All Star (tied with Willie Mays); 3,630 hits; winner of 3 MVP awards; first major leaguer ever to record 5 home runs in one day; 3 World Series rings; Hall of Fame 1969, first ballot inductee. Speed. Versatility. Quick reflexes. That coiled stance. Explosive energy. Small hands for a .331 hitter. A wiggle. The ripple of muscles on his back that helped generate power. Never thrown out of a game.
What more do we need know? Why read any book?
Stats and traits make us yearn for more. We need numbers entwined with words, disparate facts shaped neatly into narrative. We want to understand what's beyond that curious stance and cheerful red blazer, some clues to thought and feeling. What were you thinking? Can you tell us what it means? How did you feel? Such questions are now routinely asked of ballplayers as if to ensure that when the time comes for biography or enshrinement, plenty of psychological and emotional content will be there for the taking. What was in your head? What was in your heart?
Stan Musial played the harmonica. He married Lil. He enjoyed a few drinks now and then. Faithfully attended Catholic mass. Co-owned a steakhouse in St. Louis. Carried baseball cards with pre-signed autographs. Missed one season of professional baseball while serving in the Navy during World War II. Showed up at Mickey Mantle’s funeral and sat alone, off to the side in a ray of sunlight. Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. These are among the truths of one man’s existence.
As he crafts Stan Musial’s achievements into a richer human story, Vecsey’s methodology initially seems disjointed and almost haphazard, as if a straightforward, linear chronology would only make an already prosaic story even duller. The author rearranges time and juxtaposes geographic locations, bringing narrative complexity to a life that wasn’t on the surface very complicated. For some reason we want things to be complicated.
Readers expect continuity and momentum in biography, not unlike what a ballgame provides, but this is not what you will find in The Man. At various points along the way, Vecsey interrupts the direction of his tale, circles back to past events, jumps ahead, moves around in time and place, punctuating denser chapters of sustained narrative with quicker anecdotal sections that are nonetheless worthy in their brevity.
Occasionally there’s a jolt. “Skip ahead nearly two decades to 1958,” he commands his narrative to jump forward in a disorientating change of gears. There’s a method in the telling, however. What might strike the reader as a flaw in design ultimately makes sense. Stan Musial was, after all, “a man of action rather than reflection, a man of anecdote rather than narrative.”
The gentleman in the red blazer might chat with you for a moment or two, and then he’s gone. He’s accommodating and kind, yet private and “opaque,” guarding what few flaws he may have; welcoming, yet protective of his private life. Similarly, his biographer offers quick glimpses of the man’s world and his cheerful persona. Wunnerful, wunnerful and hey-hey, whaddayasay, whaddayasay capture Musial’s upbeat essence, but they are also a cloak, leaving the deeper psychological stuff untapped. The Man has not provided his biographers or critics with an abundance of quotable lines.
The words of others bring him to life, including those of Ted Williams reflecting on the question “Was Musial really as good as you?” The Kid offered a remarkable answer: “Yes, I really think he was.” Williams went on to say, “He was a better all-around hitter than Hank Aaron. He was a quiet leader on the field and in the clubhouse and was one of the most universally respected ballplayers of our generation. He wasn’t the biggest guy in the world but he was a lithe six-one and 175 pounds, and he was whippy.”
“Lithe” and “kind” are words that appear frequently in Vecsey’s biography of Musial. “Whippy,” as I recall, is uttered only once.
“All he ever wants to do is talk about hitting,” are the words Musial offered when speaking of Ted Williams in return. “I don’t say he doesn’t know about anything else, but that is always the first thing he wants to talk about.” There’s a critical and competitive edge to these words, a tone not entirely “gracious.” It strikes me as one of the most curious sentences in the book.
After considering the relative greatness of two hitters, Vecsey jumps abruptly back in time to 1948 and Musial’s hometown of Donora, Pennsylvania, the same working-class community that produced high school football hero Buddy Griffey, father of Ken Sr. “Donora was known for its fogs, thick and brown and vile-smelling, but this was like nothing they had ever seen or inhaled. The air kept getting worse.” The reason for this disruptive flashback gradually becomes clear: “Zinc is one of those elements that the body needs in very small doses in certain forms, but zinc can be poisonous in larger amounts.” Stan Musial’s father died in December of 1948, a sad event that temporarily summoned the athlete back to a former existence well after he had been catapulted into fame.
Mickey Mantle had Oklahoma’s bleak chat piles to call home, while Musial could claim fluorospor and zinc as his native territory. Both young men would welcome the opportunity to gravitate elsewhere, leaving behind misfortune and entering the world of Toots Shor, Coupes de Ville, and steaks on the grill outside Al Lang Field, as baseball set them free.
Unlike the palpable raw material of Mickey Mantle’s life, the stuff of Musial’s background seems more resistant to close analysis. While the imagery of Donora becomes vivid, the character of Stan Musial’s father is less so. “Lukasz never took his son to a game at Forbes Field,” Vecsey writes, “and Musial often said it was his mother who had played catch with him.”
The relationship of father to son does not yield much in the way of specifics that tell a psychologically riveting story, and one can only speculate about the degree to which the elder Musial’s form of employment, probable alcoholism, emotional distance, and reluctant attitude toward the business of baseball affected the trajectory of his son’s career and the content of his character. Musial’s mother emerges as the stronger presence in the narrative, though she appears more as mythical figure than fully developed personality: “he would always tell how his mother had stitched rags into a makeshift baseball and played catch with him between chores. When he told that story, he would weep, and so would she.” Clearly it was Stanley’s mother who understood the legitimacy of a baseball vocation more vividly than Lukacz Musial.
When envisioning a future for himself, young Stan gravitated to his first and only sweetheart partly because her family enjoyed a life of relative security and stability: “The girl I was going to marry, Lillian, her father owned a grocery store. No matter what happened in baseball, I knew I could always get a job in the store.” One pauses to wonder about the serendipity of relationships and our reasons for choosing as we do, leaving much to loyalty and good luck.
George Vecsey's story of a ballplayer's life offers some delightful phrases that you can "lift your hat to," as Emily Dickinson might say (though probably not about baseball). Good writing doesn’t simply arise out of strong content; it isn’t a matter of vocabulary alone. There's the cadence at a chapter’s end: “Stanley the homebody sent everybody home.” Or the elegant and emphatic balance in an opening that urges one forward: “He had always been a hitter. In 1948, Musial became a slugger.”
Rhythm is just as important: “St. Louis was loyal and highly undemanding psychologically. He did not have to fulfill everybody’s psychic needs. All he had to do was just hit the ball. Run out of the batter’s box. Smile when he slid into second. Sign autographs. Just say whaddayasay-whaddayasay and the people were charmed.”
Vecsey checks these sentimental visions of ballpark life, however, when faulting the Cardinals organization for its “paralysis toward black players” in an era when other teams took steps to diversify their rosters. Bitter comments voiced by Lou Brock and Bob Gibson (who described 1961 as “the year I got out of prison”) challenge Musial’s outlook on America’s game and its “wunnerful” opportunities.
Spring training for the integrated Cardinals initially brought white players to the Vinoy Hotel by the glittering bay, while athletes of color were housed in black neighborhoods further inland. Management finally broke with this short-lived tradition in 1962 when it filled two hotels with a newly integrated team and brought all players together, including wives and children. Lil and Stan moved from their waterfront bungalow on Tampa Bay to the team motel where the family shared a single room. Bob Gibson's cheerful description of the outdoor scene captures a free and easy, oasis-like atmosphere that many still associate with spring training, his words suggesting a spirit of victory over cruelty and injustice: “People would drive by just to see all these black and white guys swimming and grilling steaks together.”
What may strike the reader as peculiar is Musial’s reserve in the midst of profound change, his remoteness at critical times when he might have been more outspoken on behalf of teammates. “Nice guy, I guess,” Bill White would recall in 2009. “He was a good player, but I don’t know him. I don’t think any white guys knew him either.”
Many biographers rely heavily on the testimonials of others. In writing about Mickey Mantle, for example, Jane Leavy consulted over 500 individuals in seeking to understand the complexity of her boyish hero. Similarly, Vecsey counts on hundreds of others to provide insight into Stan Musial’s life on and off the field, but one seldom hears the voice of the man himself.
It takes a fine reporter to elicit poignant tributes such as that voiced by Jim Frey: “There are a few people in the world who love being themselves. And I think Stan Musial is one of them.” A lengthy chapter is devoted to Musial's “very private family life” and the degree to which Stan and Lil adapted to relative affluence, while maintaining a relatively normal existence. “You go to his home and you step on kids everywhere," observed Ben Vanek, son of former player-manager Ollie Vanek. “That’s what my home is for,” Stan is reported to have said. “It’s for kids, yours and mine.”
Vanek laments the fact that “we have elevated professional athletes much higher than they used to be. I mean, if you saw Musial’s house, it was not a mansion. It was a house among other houses. Neighbors right next to him. No security fence out front. You probably could walk up, paperboy or something, walk right up to the door, get paid, give him change, stuff like that.”
A tenuous line separates the man who knows greatness and fame from those who resume a so-called ordinary existence. Stan himself once faced considerable odds: a father who didn’t particularly want him to sign; an unimpressive beginning as a pitcher; a few seasons of bouncing around in the minor leagues. He may very well have become that “player to be named later.” But somehow talent reveals and asserts itself. Boys turn into men as they make their choices for better or worse, take their licks, and enjoy their good luck and the blessings of good health together with a few magic ingredients and intangibles whereby an ordinary existence becomes extraordinary, and all the fans show up in red.
In his epilogue George Vecsey explains that he never formally interviewed Musial during the writing of his biography. This revelation doesn’t undercut the credibility of his narrative, because the author has already achieved a satisfying fullness in the telling.
It’s an odd feeling to hold a book in your hands and feel as if you know a man, to the extent that anyone can be known through words. You come to understand some particulars of his personal life, however tame those facts may be. You sense his few imperfections and simplicity of character against the backdrop of which athletic feats gleam brightly. You spend time in his company; share a steak medium rare; travel with James Michener and Angie Dickinson; meet Pope John Paul II and John F. Kennedy and Lech Walesa; enjoy a slice of life off the field in a Florida motel where black and white families vacation together in a scene that the man named King has not yet prophesied.
In the end you may not know much more about the mind of Stan Musial, if that’s what you look for in biography or baseball writing; but you may come to appreciate something of the world that shaped him. His stats are there for the taking; the matters of his personal life remain largely private.
Stan Musial: An American Life offers its readers the opportunity to spend time with a baseball man. This is, after all, what we want, isn’t it? It’s not unlike what we hope for during those few seconds it takes a ballplayer to sign his name. We enjoy a brief conversation and the impression that the man is our friend.
Perhaps there is an untold and more complicated story beyond the coiled stance, distinguished Hall of Fame numbers, and the smooth curve of an athlete's signature. But in the end the reader may be content, as was his biographer, to be in a gentleman’s presence and feel the warmth of his hand.
To watch Stan Musial on and off the field, please click here.