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.
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.