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

Musial, in contrast, has inspired little poetry. He was the subject of several fawning biographies, as well as two unrevealing autobiographies processed through the forgiving pen of St. Louis sportswriter Bob Broeg. In 2011 the New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey released the first comprehensive treatment of Musial, entitled Stan Musial: An American Life. Even though Vecsey skillfully contextualizes Musial's career, characterizing him as the "epitome of the Eisenhower years," he never fully gets away from the "Galahad" cliché. More than once, Vecsey has to remind readers that Musial had his share of vices and imperfections. Midway through the book, for example, he dedicates a short chapter to Musial's supposed temper, in which he notes: "After collecting thousands of examples of Musial's kindness and good humor, it was downright refreshing to hear of an instance when Stanley got angry—at a kid! Otherwise, we would be submitting his name for sainthood. Much better to think of him as a nearly but not quite perfect human being." The unsubstantiated anecdote involves Musial threatening to kick a young autograph seeker in the shins after a game at Wrigley Field. Unable to come up with a reasonable explanation for Musial's outburst, Vecsey muses: "That little episode outside Wrigley goes down in history as one of nature's mysteries, but affirmative in its own way. Stanley was human. Thank goodness for that."

The fact that Vecsey felt the need to affirm Musial's humanness (and, conversely, to deny his saintliness) indicates how closely his book adheres to the "perfect knight" framework, shifting it ever so slightly to "nearly but not quite perfect human being." And it's this same framework that hinders Vecsey from fully exploring the narrative threads that might complicate it. In an interview with Vecsey, Fay Vincent, the former commissioner of baseball, recalls that Musial was "very aggressive in making me see the celebratory side of him...It was almost like he was making me see that he was a great man and a great ballplayer. He didn't have to persuade me at all, but he worked pretty hard at it." Musial had, Vincent surmised, "sort of a compulsion to convince you how good he was." Vecsey curiously follows these intriguing observations with the declaration: "There was little ambiguity to Musial."

In fact, Vincent hinted at a great deal of ambiguity in Musial. He was, in effect, insinuating that the public persona that Musial had crafted was rooted in underexplored insecurities, namely a knee-jerk albeit sincere impulse to make strangers like him. What's more, Vincent contended that Musial used this persona as a distancing effect, a way to keep his audience from penetrating beyond his veneer of good humor to the deeper recesses of his personality. Vincent concluded that despite his warmth, Musial was just as difficult to get to know as the withdrawn DiMaggio; Musial was just subtler about it. Bill White, a former Cardinals first baseman, said that Musial was equally inscrutable with his teammates: "Nice guy, I guess. I don't know Stan. He was a great player, but I don't know him. I don't think any white guys knew him, either."

But the biography's most startling statements come from former catcher Joe Garagiola. Once close-knit business partners, Musial and Garagiola suffered an acrimonious split when Garagiola sued Musial for mismanagement, which was settled out of court. As Vecsey notes, "Garagiola rarely spoke about the rift, once telling somebody he had come to realize Musial was not a nice person. There were suggestions that Musial, prior to settling, had shown a heretofore unseen brusque side, in effect saying, Who are they going to believe, you or me?" Vecsey tries his best to square these statements with the version of Musial that he has presented—"It is hard to imagine Stan Musial kiting money or approving of it"—but he eventually concedes that the broken partnership "exposed a melancholy side, a trace of vindictiveness," which he quickly qualifies with the statement: "Or maybe it was old age coming on."

In truth, Vecsey no more wants to pry into Musial's melancholy side than fans want to learn about it. There is too much comfort to be gained, for fans and writers alike, from continuing to envision Musial as "baseball's perfect knight"—a selfless, uncomplicated figure born to hit a baseball and belt out harmonica soloes, one of the last star athletes to be largely untarnished by a media culture that thrives on scandal and conflict. In an online remembrance, the sportswriter Joe Posnanski, after first affirming that Musial "was a man, flesh and blood, [and] made his share of mistakes," argued that "if there's one overriding theme of Stan Musial's life, it was how much he wanted to make people happy." It's a romantic sentiment, to be sure, one that would sound corny or fake if affixed to nearly any other public figure. But it's true to the spirit of Musial and, more important, is how we want to remember him.

So perhaps the heroic statue of Musial outside of Busch Stadium is indeed appropriate. After all, when it comes to Musial, we prefer to see him uncritically, as someone so close to the all-American ideal that even the most skillful writers periodically need to remind us that the player known as "the Man" was, in fact, exactly that.

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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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