In 1956, Stan Musial was 35 years old. His body had been through a lot after 13 years of baseball and a year of service with the Navy in World War II. Many believed Stan the Man was finally starting to slow down. Soon he would break down, they said. His best years were behind him.
Trader Frank Lane, the Cardinals general manager at the time, only saw an old ballplayer getting older. The front office cowboy with the quick trigger almost sent Musial to Philadelphia to finish his career for Robin Roberts. That deal never went through, though, and Musial would play seven more seasons in St. Louis after leading the league in RBIs with 109 in 1956. The old ballplayer could still play.
Musial was an All-Star each year and won the batting title in 1957 with a .351 batting average. He also finished second in the MVP vote that year. Though he did slow down eventually, Musial was productive and a Cardinals legend. No price tag or package of players could measure his value to the Redbirds franchise and city of St. Louis.
Sports Illustrated’s Joan Flynn Dreyspool profiled Musial for the magazine’s Subject feature in the July 9, 1956, All-Star Game preview. The profile captures Musial brilliantly as he entered the back end of his career. The Cardinals great is candid, funny, and intense as he shares some hitting secrets and his thoughts on getting older.
Excerpts from Subject: Stan Musial via SI Vault
I think they overemphasize age in athletics,” Stan Musial said, “and I’m not saying that because I’m upward of 35. A lot has to do with a man’s makeup, his physical condition and reflexes. Some players are through at 35, but that’s because they don’t keep themselves in good condition. A man starts looking old when he picks up 15, 20 pounds through the years. I’m six feet tall and weigh 180, five pounds more than when I started. I’m a great believer in conditioning. I’ve always taken good care of myself and watched my weight and diet.”
A few days before, Cardinal Manager Fred Hutchinson had moved his star from right field to first base, explaining: “Musial doesn’t cover the ground that he used to. He doesn’t get the ball to the infield as quickly. I thought he would be much better off at first base because we do need a first baseman, and he was considered one of the best when he played it. This is no discredit to him. Who doesn’t slow up? Stan’s played 600-some games consecutively, and you can’t tell me that doesn’t take its toll on a guy who’s played 15 years and given it as much as he has. It’s got to wear him down.”
To Musial, the shift is a challenge. “I like first base. I get a kick out of it,” he said on a rainy afternoon in New York while he waited for the skies to clear before a night game with the Dodgers. “It’s always a challenge with me when you’re doing something different from playing the outfield, which I’ve been accustomed to playing all those years.”
Dealing with change is a part of life, especially for professional athletes. And especially for the 1950s Cardinals with Lane running the show. No one was untouchable. Musial learned that the hard way when one of his best friends Red Schoendienst was traded in June of this season. He was the ultimate professional and didn’t complain. The trade provided some insight into Musial’s close friendships with Schoendienst and Hank Sauer.
Hank Sauer, Musial‘s new roommate, nodded in agreement. His presence reflected another drastic change in the life of Stanley Frank Musial, which up until those hectic happenings had proceeded at a fine, evenly spectacular pace. Ten of his 15 seasons with the Cards he had roomed with the slow-talking but fast-moving Albert (Red) Schoendienst, until Trader Frank Lane abruptly shuffled the freckle-faced second baseman to the Giants.
“It’s part of our business to be traded, and when you’re in baseball, you have to take those things in your stride,” was Musial’s only comment on the trade. “When they told me Red was leaving, they asked me who I wanted as a roommate. I told them Hank. He and Red and I have palled around together since spring training.”
“First I knew about it,” Hank Sauer put in, “was at batting practice in St. Louis. The trade had been mentioned that morning. Red was there packing and the rest were getting their equipment together to go to New York. Yeh, it was a little sad. You hate to leave a ball club. All the players are your friends, and then when you get to a new club you have to make friends all over again. Well, during batting practice I was hitting them out and Stan was standing around the cage.
” ‘Hi, roomie!” he said.
” ‘What do you mean, “Hi, roomie”?’
” ‘You’re going to be my new roommate,’ he told me. I was real happy about it.”
“Hank and Red and I are a lot alike,” Musial said. “I never did like to get involved when I’m playing baseball. Red and I had many friends on the road, but they’re friends who don’t bother us all the time or wait for us after the game, or at the train station, or try to rush us around here and there. In this game your mind has got to be free and you can’t be tied up with too many people all the time…. Although I’m not a loner, or don’t hibernate from people, I don’t let them tie me up while the season is on.
Sauer only played one season with Musial and the Cardinals. He spent most of his career with the rival Chicago Cubs before coming to St. Louis. In Chicago, Sauer won the 1952 MVP and earned the nickname the “Mayor of Wrigley Field.” He was a fan favorite for the Cubs and a top slugger in his prime. After his stop in St. Louis, he played parts of three more seasons with the New York and San Francisco Giants, retiring at the age of 42.
Sauer spent nine years in the minor leagues before he found his footing in the big leagues. The big outfielder never gave up and earned the respect of his peers by the end of his career. Perhaps his determination and attitude toward the game was why he and Musial became such good friends. Musial was all-business on the field. He also felt it was important to never get too high or too low during the long season. Sauer had to have control of his emotions to survive his wait in the minors. Said Musial:
“I take my baseball pretty seriously, and through the years I think I’ve proved it. That doesn’t mean I won’t laugh or get a kick out of something that happens at a ball game, but I don’t like to hear ballplayers talking about other ballplayers, or saying, ‘He should have done this’ or ‘I could have done that better.’
“I believe it’s better to have an even temper in baseball. You can’t let little things upset you. I’ve known ballplayers who fight themselves and get mad. When I was young, quite younger, if we lost a ball game, I would more or less take it with me for a while. It would take me a couple of hours to get over it. I wouldn’t talk. I’d sulk and not be myself. I’ve kind of got over that in the last five years, I guess. When you know that your teammates tried to do everything they could on the ball field, what’s the use of worrying about it? The game is gone. You did your best and that’s about all you could do.”
Musial’s best was legendary best. Few players enjoyed such a brilliant career. When he retired, he trailed only Ty Cobb in career hits. His total of 3,630 ranks fourth all-time today, behind Pete Rose, Cobb, and Hank Aaron. He won three MVPs in his career, all by the age of 27. All of these achievements support Musial as one of the most feared in hitters in the game. One team feared him more than any other. Born out of that fear and respect was his nickname: The Man.
As a child, Musial‘s family called him Stash, the nickname for Stanislaus. Years later, in Brooklyn, he was to acquire another, more famous, nickname: Stan, the Man, bestowed upon him quite accidentally when moaning Dodger fans lamented, “Here comes the man again; here comes the man,” while Musial‘s bat was mowing down the Bums.
When young Stash first picked up a spoon to feed himself, he held it in his left hand, but not wanting her child to be different, Mrs. Musial trained him to use his right hand—in practice frowned upon today for it encourages stammering. He grew up a left-hander anyway, but in his quick speech Musial still stutters occasionally and when he does, he’s shyly apologetic for he doesn’t approve of weakness in himself.
Musial took pride in staying on the field and off the DL as a player. He had only suffered one injury to this point in his career. It was an injury that ended his career as a pitcher and sped up his journey to the big leagues as a hitter.
“The only time I ever got really hurt was when I dove for a ball [in Orlando, Fla. on Aug. 11, 1940] and I didn’t tumble over like I generally do. My spikes gave way, and I landed on my left shoulder.
“My arm never did get better. It’s never been the same. I couldn’t throw hard from then on. It takes me a long time in spring training to build my arm up whereas some fellows can throw hard the first day in camp.”
It was the nearest he had come to an excuse, but hastily he corrected it.
“It never bothered my hitting. I was a pitcher then, and it looked like I was going to be quite a pitcher—I won 18 and lost five that year—but even if I didn’t hurt my arm, I think somewhere along the line, somebody would have switched me over to outfielder anyway, because my hitting was always good.”
Stan Musial’s stance was different. But boy was it effective. His focus and approach at the plate was second to none. He gives some great advice for young players that will never lose its value: Be yourself, find your own way and do what’s comfortable at the plate. Today, coaches try to change players’ stances and tendencies to fit their own beliefs rather than trying to help kids find their comfort zone. There’s more than one way to be successful. If Stan Musial understands that, coaches everywhere should too.
“I know my batting stance is very unorthodox,” he confessed, “and some fellows say I didn’t have as much of a pronounced crouch in the beginning as I do now. I can’t remember if I had it in the minor leagues. I don’t know how it all came about. I would say when I first came to the big leagues, I started to crouch because that way I could guard the plate better, and I always wanted to hit .300 in the big leagues.
“When I’m hitting, I try to get comfortable and loose at the plate and that puts me in a relaxed position.”
His hitting technique was so much second nature to him that he couldn’t describe it without getting up and going through the motions. The shoulders of his custom-tailored brown business suit restricted him, but he swung anyway. He went through the motion several times before he sat down again.
“I just can’t get loose at the plate without flexing my body,” he demonstrated in his back-wiggling, unlimbering way. “I like to hold my wrists high and my arms and shoulders high. You’ve got to have a good firm grip, firm, but not tight, where your reflexes don’t work. You have to take a good level swing with your bat, so when you’re meeting the ball, you’re not swinging down. Don’t swing at anything the pitcher throws up there, but hit your pitch.”
Catching his reflection in the mirror, he seemed surprised to see what he was doing, so he sat down again.
“Most people think you have to be 200 pounds or more to hit that long ball, which isn’t so. You have to have good timing, coordination, a pair of good wrists [his are small but flexible], control of your hands and quick reflexes, so if a ball’s inside you can come around quickly with your hands and wrists and hit it solidly.
“The main thing is not to try to copy anybody else. A lot of ballplayers, especially youngsters, do things the way other ballplayers do because they have heroes and try to copy them, but actually it’s not a good thing because what you try to do is not what the other fellow can do and vice versa. You have to feel natural when you stand up at the plate.
“It’s important to take a good comfortable stance in the box. Everybody has a different hitting range, and it takes time to find out whether you want to stand close to the plate, or back, or way back. Nobody does those things alike, although the fundamental things in baseball are all alike.
“If your timing is right and your ball is in the strike zone—and you’ve got to learn the strike zone—you’re going to meet that ball good. So go ahead and hit it. A lot of times your body might be out of position. Your bat might be out front and you can still hit the ball, but not as good. You can’t have it your own way all the time, but it’s not a bad idea to get as many things working for you as you can.
“Fellows like Ted Kluszewski and Willie Mays who are good hitters—they’re what you call sluggers, more or less. Lots of the time they’re swinging for the fences. A fellow like Don Mueller or Schoendienst doesn’t swing for home runs. They’re hitting singles and doubles. Those fellows are different types of hitters because of their swing and physical makeup, whereas big fellows like Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, they have the power and leverage necessary to hit home runs.
“I could be in both categories,” he said matter-of-factly. “I have enough power and leverage to hit the ball out of the ball park, but I can still punch the ball for base hits, if I want to. Early in my career I was not much of a home run hitter, and I’d hit more line drives and triples. The home run in baseball is the most exciting thing to the fans, but to me there’s always great excitement in trying to reach third base before the ball gets there. I always thought there was excitement in it for the fans, too. With a home run, you just hit it and then trot around the bases.
“Not that it isn’t harder to hit a home run. But you can’t control it. All you try to do is hit the ball hard and let it take care of itself. If it has leverage, it will meet the stands.
Musial won seven batting titles during his 22-year career. He retired with a .331 batting average as one of the greatest hitters of all-time. But he never hit .400. Musial batted .376 en route to an MVP in 1948. It was the closest he’d ever get. He was s