The Problem With Remembering Stan Musial as Baseball's 'Perfect Knight'

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Biographers and fans paint the late Cardinals outfielder as the nicest guy in baseball, but that narrative has lessened his longterm legacy when compared with the other greats of his time.

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AP / Warren M. Winterbottom

Like most fans in the Gateway City, I convene with family and friends before St. Louis Cardinals' games at the base of the Stan Musial statue outside of Busch Stadium. "Let's meet at the statue," we text on the day of the game, and despite the fact that 12 statues encircle the ballpark, there's never any confusion about which one we're referring to. It's the statue of Stan the Man, of course, the undisputed best player in the history of the National League's most decorated franchise.

Unlike the meticulously lifelike statues of lesser Cardinals luminaries nearby—Bob Gibson tumbling off the mound after hurling a ferocious fastball, Ozzie Smith lunging to his left for a shallow pop-fly—the 10-foot bronze Musial statue is beefy, stiff, and unrepresentative of the lithe Pennsylvania native whose 170-pound frame earned him the nickname the "Donora Greyhound." Even though Musial possessed one of baseball's most unorthodox batting stances—a hunched, butt-out coil—the statue flattens the stance, jettisoning the kinks that made it distinctive. In his 1977 autobiography, The Man Stan, Musial stated bluntly, "I didn't hit the way that guy in the statue does." With its brawny shoulders and boxy facial features, the statue looks like a work of heroic realism—a sanitized depiction of an idealized hitter, which is reinforced by then-Commissioner Ford Frick's inscription: "Here stands baseball's perfect warrior. Here stands baseball's perfect knight."

In many ways, the romanticized statue is a good metaphor for the difficulties that many have faced in conveying Musial's greatness. Even by the time he retired in 1963, Musial already was fading into baseball lore as the game's model citizen. He signed every autograph, shook every hand, and entertained all admirers with a well-rehearsed magic trick or an impromptu rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" with the harmonica that he invariably kept in his pocket. He stayed married to his high-school sweetheart for more than 70 years, and remained loyal to the St. Louis Cardinals for nearly as long. After becoming the first National League player to sign a $100,000 contract in 1957, he asked the owners to dock his pay three years later when age began to impair his hitting prowess. In choosing him as its Sportsman of the Year in 1957, Sports Illustrated reasoned that Musial "is a rare human. Great talent can distort as well as reward a man, but Musial seems to have been born with a truly awesome sense of duty and self-control....His is the story, trite but astounding, of the poor, proud boy who goes to the great city, marries a lovely girl, becomes rich and famous, raises three handsome children and earns the admiration of his fellow citizens in all walks of life." According to eyewitness accounts, during Musial's induction ceremony into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969, a light rain fell throughout the morning in Cooperstown, but as soon as Musial was called on to give his speech, the clouds broke and the sun peeked out, as if it were a beatification ceremony rather than an induction. Commissioner Frick wasn't exaggerating: Musial really had become "baseball's perfect knight," an ideal by which he would continue to be assessed, for better or worse, right up to his death this past Saturday at the age of 92.

In a 1963 New York Times article, Hank Sauer, an all-star outfielder in the '50s, declared, "Any guy who ever says anything bad about Stan Musial has to have something wrong with him." Rather than boosting Musial's post-career popularity, this sort of attitude, no matter how well intentioned, effectively turned Musial into a cardboard cutout, a bygone era's one-dimensional paragon of constancy, stability, community fealty, and humility, devoid of the temperamental shadings that humanize public figures. A 2007 profile in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch earnestly dubbed him "baseball's Galahad."

Musial's statistics place him comfortably among baseball's elite: three World Series rings, three Most Valuable Player awards, 3,630 hits, 475 home runs, seven batting titles, 24 selections to the All-Star game, and 17 major league records by the time he retired. But even here, his signature statistic—1,815 hits at home and 1,815 hits on the road—comes across as almost too perfect an emblem of his consistency. (It should also be noted that he nearly matched this freakish symmetry with 1,949 runs scored and 1,951 runs batted in.) Instead of invoking awe the way that batting .400 or garnering a 56-game hitting streak does, Musial's home-away hit totals seem ineffably strange, too coincidental to be believable. Albert Pujols, the brawny infielder who was Musial's heir apparent in St. Louis until he signed last season with the Los Angeles Angels, pondered whether Musial had accomplished this home-road split on purpose. There seemed to be no better explanation for it.

Williams and DiMaggio's off-field imperfections induced some of the nation's best writers—Updike, Talese—to dig deep into their personalities. Musial, in contrast, has inspired little poetry.

Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, Musial's closest peers, suffered from the opposite problem: Their off-field imperfections often threatened to overshadow their on-field feats. But it was their flaws and foibles that induced some of the nation's best writers—John Updike, Richard Ben Cramer, David Halberstam, Gay Talese—to dig deep into their personalities, sifting through the complexities that made them human. The key scene in "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," Updike's seminal portrait of Ted Williams's last game in the major leagues, is not when Ted Williams hits a homerun in his final at-bat, but when he refuses to acknowledge the cheering fans, a baffling snub that would elicit discussion about Williams's motivations for decades. In "The Silent Season of the Hero," Gay Talese depicts the 50-something DiMaggio as a reclusive, heartbroken retiree who lived with his widowed sister in San Francisco, kept pictures of his ex-wife, Marilyn Monroe, on his bedroom dresser, and mandated that flowers be placed on Monroe's grave "forever." Through such warts-and-all depictions, Williams and DiMaggio came across as multilayered, slightly tormented souls who struggled with their public fame and private shortcomings, which rendered them equal parts relatable and enigmatic.

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Luke Epplin is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, the New Yorker Page-Turner, and n+1

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