George Vecsey, author of Stan Musial: An American Life, recently joined Redbird Rants for an interview to talk about St. Louis Cardinals icon Stan Musial.
Daniel Solzman: Thanks for joining Redbird Rants today. How are things treating you?
George Vecsey: Except for the near-blizzard we are expecting, great.
Daniel Solzman: I really enjoyed reading Stan Musial: An American Life, granted I was two years late to the party in reading it. When did you conceive the idea of writing a biography on Stan Musial and how many years did you spend working on the book, whether it was researching, interviewing, or writing?
George Vecsey: I never thought about writing a bio of Musial, although he was one of my favorite players as a kid, and a Brooklyn Dodger fan. We loved him – the way he smiled. As Don Newcombe said in the book, Stan and Red played the game right.
I was doing a book – Baseball: America’s Favorite Game — for a history series, Modern Library Chronicles, and in looking for a way to present the game, I wrote about Musial’s batting stance and then how his life touched many decades, from the era of Branch Rickey and George Sisler to the era of Aaron and Mays and Gibson. My enthusiasm for Musial as a classic baseball life, in just a few pages, was noticed by a few people, and editors at ESPN and Ballantine/Random House asked me to do a Musial biography. It was tricky because a writer named James Giglio had done a very nice biography a decade earlier, with some good research, and I wanted to add to it. The best way I could was to catch up with baseball people I knew, who would talk to me, from Kiner and Newcombe to younger players like McCarver and Bill White and Ruben Amaro and Dal Maxvill, who had come along toward the end of his career.
Daniel Solzman: It’s noted on your website that your admiration for Stan the Man was just as high after working on the biography. Did you expect to find something that would have changed how you felt about the Cardinals great?
George Vecsey: You never know. If I had found some “dirt” or something wonderful but unknown about Musial, of course I would have written about it. But he really was the person I had respected since I was seven in 1946.
Daniel Solzman: In working on the book, what was the most fascinating thing that you found out about Musial?
George Vecsey: I did not know much about his life from the end of his playing career, including the week he spent campaigning for a presidential candidate (John F. Kennedy) in 1960. When Musial retired, he wanted to be a businessman, not just a ball player trading in on his celebrity. He read the Wall Street Journal, talked to business people, diversified his investments. He also travelled to Poland with some very smart people, got to be around Lech Walesa and Karol Wojtyla, the archbishop of Cracow, who became Pope John Paul II. Musial had a much fuller private life after retirement than many players do. He got out and met people and saw things.
Daniel Solzman: Outside of the Midwest, it’s amazing to see just how underrated Musial was compared to the likes of Mantle, Williams, Mays, and DiMaggio. I thought that you covered it quite well. After his death in January, how many interview requests did you get to talk about Musial?
George Vecsey: I did hear from radio and television outlets and writers – couldn’t put a figure on it. More to the point, the book continues to touch off reminiscences of aging fans who met him when they were young. I have heard from people particularly in the center of the country, perhaps the old KMOX audience, but also the fan base before major-league baseball spread out around the country.
Daniel Solzman: Until reading your book, I never knew about the Cardinals having an interest in Ernie Banks. Had they been able to sign Banks, it’s amazing to think about what the Cardinals would have looked like in the 1950s going up against the Dodgers and Giants. The same could be said for the Dodgers had they not decided to hide Roberto Clemente in the minor leagues. How do you think the Cards would have fared with Banks in the lineup and would it have changed what happened in the 1960s or even 1970s?
George Vecsey: Musial apparently could see the Cardinals falling behind when Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947. They never won another pennant until 1964, when they had signed great African-American players like Gibson, Flood, White and Brock. Some people say Musial could have spoken up, pushed management to move faster. Banks was only a symptom – as was Elston Howard, from St. Louis. The teams that sought black stars – Brooklyn, the Giants, the Braves – dominated the league in the ‘50’s. It was not Musial’s personality to push management. It’s a conversation I would have liked to have had with him 20-30 years ago. But by the time I started on the book, he was not giving interviews. The black players of his time – Joe Black, Mays, Aaron, Newcombe – thought highly of him.
Daniel Solzman: Thanks again for joining Redbird Rants today and have a Happy New Year!
George Vecsey: My pleasure, and thanks for caring about Stan Musial. I cannot think of a player so beloved by the town where he played.