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Stan Musial, epitome of good hitting and good sportsmanship, dies at 92

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Stan “The Man” Musial, one of major league baseball’s most prolific hitters and a model of good sportsmanship during his Hall of Fame career with the St. Louis Cardinals, died Saturday. He was 92.

The death was announced by the team. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that he had Alzheimer’s disease.

The most beloved Cardinal of all, Mr. Musial led the National League in batting seven times in the 1940s and ’50s and was voted the league's most valuable player three times. His lifetime batting average was .331, his total of 3,630 hits ranks fourth all-time, and he was a perennial all-star. After spending the entirety of his 22-year career with the Cardinals, Mr. Musial retired in 1963 with so many firsts to his credit that he may have carved out a new category: the record for holding the most records at one time.

Of Polish and Czech extraction, Stanley Frank Musial was born Nov. 21, 1920, in Donora, Pa., a mill town south of Pittsburgh. He recalled learning to hit “with a broomstick and a ball of tape.” As a pitcher for mill teams and Donora High School, he caught the eye of a Cardinals scout. In 1938, Mr. Musial signed a contract paying him $65 a month.

Pitching in a low-level minor league, he struck out roughly a batter per inning but walked almost as many, and one of his managers recommended that the young left-hander be let go. Mr. Musial saved himself by taking over for an injured outfielder and hitting impressively. After hurting his left shoulder while trying to make a diving catch, he was finished as a pitcher. By then, however, he had earned a reputation as a fearsome batter.

During the 1941 season, he scampered up the ladder from Class C ball in Springfield, Mo., to the Class AAA International League franchise of Rochester, N.Y., and to the majors in September, where he hit .426 in 12 games with the Cardinals. At age 21, Mr. Musial started the following season as the Cardinals’ left fielder. That year, his team won 106 games to capture the National League pennant and then beat the New York Yankees in the World Series.

Mr. Musial won the first of his seven batting titles in 1943; the Cardinals made it to the Series again that season and in 1944, but not in 1945, when he didn’t play because he was serving in the Navy. He was sent to the shipyard at Pearl Harbor but did not see combat. He came back in 1946, and so did his team, winning its fourth pennant in its young star’s first five seasons of play.

The American League champions were the Boston Red Sox, and the World Series stacked up as a duel between Musial and another superb hitter, Ted Williams. However, they both under-performed, leaving the heroics to Musial's teammates Harry Brecheen and Enos Slaughter.

At the end of that season, Mr. Musial rejected a lucrative offer to jump to the Mexican League. The Cardinals rewarded him with only a $5,000 salary increase, but before his career ended they were paying him $100,000 a year. Although a mere fraction of what major league rookies earn today, that amount made Mr. Musial the highest-paid baseball player of his time.

Not a big man by today’s standards — 6 feet tall and 175 pounds — Mr. Musial was easily recognizable by his unorthodox left-handed batting stance: right shoulder pulled back to the point where he seemed to be peeking around his own torso at the incoming ball. One observer likened the stance to being “coiled like a cobra.” More of a line-drive hitter than a power machine, Mr. Musial still managed to accumulate 475 home runs, including five in a doubleheader against the New York Giants in 1954. His 12th-inning homer won the 1955 All-Star Game for the National League.

Mr. Musial’s best season was 1948, when he batted .376, hit 39 home runs and drove in 131 runs. One more homer, and he would have tied for first in that category and earned a rare Triple Crown (leading the league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in). That year he won his third MVP award, becoming the first National League player to do so.

Mr. Musial’s nickname of “Stan The Man” was given him by St. Louis sportswriter Bob Broeg, who in 1946 overheard fans at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field react to the outfielder’s success against their pitchers by muttering, “Here comes the man,” when Mr. Musial stepped to the plate. Dodgers pitcher Preacher Roe offered this advice on how to get Mr. Musial out: “I throw him four wide ones and then I try to pick him off first base.”

Primarily an outfielder throughout his career, Mr. Musial also played first base for several years. His 17-year streak of never batting below .300 over a season ended in 1959, and he contemplated retirement. But the year before, he’d joined an elite group by stroking his 3,000th base hit. More records lay within reach and his presence on the team brought fans to the park, so he played on.

“I was having too much fun hitting to want to quit,” he later explained. He had 1,815 base hits in home games during his career and 1,815 on the road.

In 1962, at age 41, he batted .330. The following year his average fell again, but he went out in style with two hits in his last major league game, on Sept. 29, 1963. In 1969 he was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Shy and inarticulate off the field, Mr. Musial preferred playing the harmonica at public appearances to giving speeches or interviews. After his playing days were over, he worked for the Cardinals in several capacities, including general manager, a post he held for a single season, 1967, in which the Cardinals won the World Series.

For many years, he was co-owner of a St. Louis restaurant, Stan Musial & Biggie’s. He had married his high school sweetheart, Lillian Labash, in 1940. She died in 2012. Survivors include their four children: a son, Dick, and three daughters, Gerry, Janet and Jeanie.

For all his accomplishments, Mr. Musial did not always receive the credit he deserved. Recently, analysts for ESPN put him at the top of its list of underrated athletes. The neglect is attributable both to the conditions he played in and to his own personality.

For the most part, he performed his feats outside the range of the Eastern media limelight that shone steadily on such peers as Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. After that first rush of titles, the Cardinals were hit by a pennant drought that lasted the remainder of Mr. Musial’s career. And Mr. Musial himself was neither a showboat nor a whiner.

He was so unruffled, in fact, that no umpire ever threw Mr. Musial out of a major-league game. One day he hit what appeared to be a double until an umpire called it foul. Mr. Musial's teammates disagreed vehemently, but the Man kept his cool, trotting back to the plate and asking, “It didn't count?”

When the home-plate umpire allowed as how the call might have been wrong, Mr. Musial said, “Well, there's nothing you can do about it,” and smacked the next pitch to virtually the same spot — this time called fair.

That equanimity, along with a generosity to autograph-seekers and a sunny disposition, inspired Ford Frick, commissioner of baseball during much of Mr. Musial’s career, to pay these respects, which appear on Mr. Musial’s statue outside Busch Stadium in St. Louis: “Here stands baseball's perfect warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.”

It was at the 2009 All-Star Game in that stadium that Mr. Musial made a notable late-in-life appearance, handing President Obama the ball to throw to the plate in the pre-game ceremonies. In the summer of 2010, at age 89, Mr. Musial made the cover of Sports Illustrated for a theme issue called “Where Are They Now?” In 2011, Obama awarded Mr. Musial the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Mr. Musial's excellence over a long period offers rich material to stat-hounds. But true athletic greatness resists quantifying. Rather than try to do so with the Man, longtime Dodgers' announcer Vin Scully said this about him: “How good was Stan Musial? He was good enough to take your breath away.”

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