Donora native, Cardinals great Stan Musial dies at 92
Stan Musial, who left smog-shrouded Donora as a teenager and became one of Major League Baseball's greatest hitters and a beloved figure in his adopted hometown, died Saturday at his home in suburban St. Louis. He was 92.
Known far and wide as “Stan the Man,” Musial played outfield and first base with the St. Louis Cardinals for his entire 22-year big league career, which began before Pearl Harbor and ended within two months of President Kennedy's assassination. He got two hits in his first game on Sept. 17, 1941, and two hits in his last game on Sept. 29, 1963.
Musial was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility and inducted in 1969. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 2011.
A model of consistency throughout his career, Musial hit .331 with a unique, left-handed stance. He won seven National League batting titles and hit better than .300 for 17 consecutive seasons. His 3,630 hits, fourth-highest in major league history, were equally divided — 1,815 at home and 1,815 on the road. A three-time Most Valuable Player (he finished second four times), Musial made the All-Star team in each of his 21 full seasons. In his prime, he missed the 1945 season because of military service.
Led by Musial, the Cardinals won four pennants and three World Series from 1942 through '46. The one time the Cards failed to finish first, Musial was serving in the Navy.
Musial, who occupies the top 10 in several career categories, was as well-known for his humility, his pleasing, albeit low-key personality and the quiet life he led off the field. He greeted strangers with his trademark slogan, “Whattaya say!” and almost never turned down autograph seekers. He loved to do magic tricks and tell jokes and played the harmonica so well that he performed on television.
“Maybe one reason I'm so cheerful,” Musial once said, “is that for more than 20 years I've had an unbeatable combination going for me: getting paid, often a lot, to do the thing I love the most.”
Former teammate Bob Gibson, a Hall of Fame pitcher who was surly and intimidating on and off the field, was quoted as saying, “Stan Musial is the nicest man I ever met in baseball. ... I never knew that nice and baseball went together.”
Musial was the most revered athlete to play in St. Louis, which has a rich sports tradition.
“He represents everything that's good about the city,” Cardinals president Bill DeWitt III said. “In today's day and age, we know so much about people. In time, secrets ultimately come out. Even back in the old days there was a delay factor. That never happened with Stan. His career and life were so exemplary. No dark side, no hidden unknowns.”
Musial's wife of nearly 72 years, Lillian (or “Lil,” as all knew her), died in May. He is survived by four children, 11 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
‘Stash' finds his niche
Stanislaus Franciszek (later changed to Stanley Frank) Musial was born Nov. 21, 1920, in Donora, a mining and mill town on a bend of the Monongahela River about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. (Another left-handed slugger who ranks among MLB's best of all-time, Ken Griffey Jr., was born in Donora 49 years later to the day.)
Musial was the fifth of six children of Lukasz Musial, a Polish immigrant, and Mary Lancos, the daughter of Czech immigrants. Immediately Lukasz began calling his first son, “Stashu,” which later became “Stash.”
Musial's father bounced between different jobs, earning little money. During most of his childhood, young Stash lived in a small two-story, two-bedroom house occupied at times by all eight members of his family and the occasional relative. Near the house was the U.S. Steel Zinc Works factory, which employed many Donora residents while also contributing to the thick smog that shrouded the town and led to innumerable health problems. Over five days in October, the “Donora Smog of 1948” killed 20 people and sickened thousands, among them Lukasz Musial, who died a short time later.
Short and wiry as a youth, Musial nevertheless excelled in several sports, including gymnastics. Playing baseball with older kids, Musial at 14 started his own team, the Donora All-Stars, and in high school helped revive a baseball program that was dormant for 15 years. An outfielder and pitcher, Musial signed with the Cardinals in 1937 at age 16 but continued to play for Donora High because he wasn't yet being paid. He was enough of a basketball player that the University of Pittsburgh offered him a scholarship. He chose baseball.
Even after he left Donora and pursued his glittering baseball career while living year-round in St. Louis, Musial maintained his roots. He returned often, continued to pay dues to the local American Legion post and kept the Donora Smog Museum and Historical Society stocked with memorabilia.
“The thing that sticks out it his attachment to Donora and the graciousness he always tended to Donora,” museum curator Brian Charlton said. “Stan Musial is a Donora boy. You identify him with Donora. He was very generous with the historical society.”
Rise of a legend
Musial spent five years in the minors before joining the Cardinals late in the 1941 season. In 1940, with Daytona Beach of the Class-D Florida State league, he pitched 19 complete games and complied an 18-5 record. He also played the outfield and hit .311. But he later hurt his arm and never again pitched.
In 1942, his first full season, Musial hit .315 as the Cardinals beat the Yankees in the World Series. The next year, Musial won his first MVP award, hitting a league-best .342 and topping several other categories. He was 22.
Musial was easily identified by his unique stance, often described as a “peek-a-boo crouch.” Hall of Fame pitcher Ted Lyons memorably said Musial in his stance “looks like a kid peeking around the corner to see if the cops are coming.”
Unwinding from the stance like a corkscrew, Musial sprayed line drives to all fields. Late Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood said Musial's hitting advice was simple: “Well, you wait for a strike and knock the (expletive) out of it.”
Musial never struck out 50 times in a season. He led the NL in most every hitting category for at least one year, except homers. He hit a career-high 39 home runs in 1948, falling one short of winning the Triple Crown.
Musial held 55 records when he retired in 1963. Fittingly, the accolades on his bronze Hall plaque start off with this fact, rather than flowery prose: “Holds many National League records ...”
“The secret of hitting,” Musial told a reporter, “is physical relaxation, mental concentration and don't hit the fly ball to center.”
Asked to describe the habits that kept him in baseball for so long, Musial once said: “Get eight hours of sleep regularly. Keep your weight down, run a mile a day. If you must smoke, try light cigars. They cut down on inhaling.”
One last thing, he said: “Make it a point to bat .300.”
A local icon whose statue outside Busch Stadium remains a popular meeting place, Musial seems to have been far less appreciated nationally. He hit 475 career home runs, an impressive figure, but was never known as a power hitter. Also, after 1946, the Cardinals never again reached the postseason during Musial's career. He did not play in a major media market and lived quietly off the field. When MLB asked fans to vote for baseball's all-century team in 1999, a special committee had to add Musial because he did not finish among the 10 top outfielders.
But, as St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz wrote on the occasion of Musial's 90th birthday in 2010, “This snub and others merely strengthened the bond between St. Louis and Stan. To heck with everyone else; Musial would always be our hero.”
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