In the world of big-time sports, consistency is rarely celebrated. Respected? Yes. Admired? Absolutely. But most fans find it difficult — understandably difficult — to get worked up about consistency. It’s not, after all, a galvanizing trait. “A foolish consistency,” Emerson famously wrote, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.” But what would the Sage of Concord have written had he lived to see what an utterly inspired, mind-blowing consistency like Stan Musial‘s could achieve?
Musial, who died Saturday, Jan. 19, at the age of 92, was one of the greatest ballplayers in major league history, but his singular genius as an athlete derived not from an incandescent passion (although there was never a tougher competitor) or from a talent for highlight-reel-worthy drama (although he had his share of late-inning heroics and jaw-dropping performances). Instead, Musial’s magnificence, and a key reason — among many — why he was so beloved for so long was rooted in his uncanny, unwavering, crazily consistent excellence across decades.
From 1941 to 1963 — quite literally, from the very first to the very last — Musial delivered. He played every single game of his storied, 22-year career with the Cardinals. In his first game, on September 17, 1941, the 20-year-old Musial got two base hits in a 3-2 Cards win. In his last game, on September 29, 1963, the 42-year-old Musial got two base hits in a 3-2 Cards win. He was a three-time MVP, and a three-time World Series champ. Finally, and most improbably, of his 3,630 career hits, exactly half came at home, and half on the road.
Go ahead. Read that last one again.
All of a sudden, consistency feels pretty damn exciting.
As marvelous a ballplayer as Musial was, though, many of the most memorable stories and quotes about him suggest that, at heart, it was his fundamental, unflappable decency — and not merely his phenomenal skills and instincts for the game — that most deeply endeared him to his peers, his rivals and his countless fans.
(PHOTOS: The 2012 World Series in Pictures)
“Stan Musial,” teammate and chin-music virtuoso Bob Gibson once said, “is the nicest man I ever met in baseball. And, to be honest,” he admitted, “I can’t relate to that.”
“The bigger the guy, the less he argued,” observed long-time National League umpire Tom Gorman. “You never heard a word out of Stan Musial, Willie Mays or Roberto Clemente.”
Dodger pitcher Carl Erskine, meanwhile, offered this simple tactic for dealing with Musial: “I’ve had pretty good success with Stan by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third.”
But perhaps the single most illustrative tale about Stan Musial stems from what was, by all accounts, the one and only time he was booed in St. Louis. It happened during a game in August 1956. Musial committed two errors and went hitless for the second night in a row. (Imagine the outrage: two entire nights without a hit!) He was booed when he stepped to the plate in the eighth inning — but, the story goes, a wave of cheers gradually and thoroughly drowned out the boo birds.
The next day, St. Louis fans bought space in the local papers, and apologized to The Man.
Now, about that nickname — in its simple dignity, one of the most apt in all of sports. A St. Louis sportswriter popularized it after a series against the Dodgers early in Musial’s career, when the notoriously vocal, savvy fans at Ebbets Field took to chanting, partly out of respect and partly out of frustration, “Here comes the man!” every time Stan strode to the plate. Brooklyn fans had reason to be in awe of the guy: In 1949, to take just one example of how he owned Dodger pitching through the years, he hit over .500 for the season against Dem Bums.
How good was he when he was really, really good? In 1948, when he won his third MVP award, Musial led the league in hits (230), doubles (46), triples (18), RBIs (131), batting average (.376) and several other key categories, and missed the Triple Crown by one home run. He had 39; Ralph Kiner and Johnny Mize each had 40.
(LIST: Top 10 Sports Moments of 2012)
It’s worth remembering that so many of the pictures we have of Musial show him smiling or, quite often, outright laughing — with family, friends, teammates, foes. Stan Musial knew how to have a good time, and as modest as he was, he was no shuffling, aw-shucks kind of guy. When asked once why he always seemed happy, he is said to have replied, with a fine balance of diffidence and self-assurance: “If you had a .331 lifetime batting average, you’d be happy all the time, too.”
Lillian Musial, Stan’s wife of 71 years (they married when they were both 19 and he was playing Class D ball in West Virginia), died in early May 2012 at the age of 91. They had four children, 11 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. Until the end of his own life, Musial was still receiving recognition, and it would be impossible to find anyone who begrudged it. In February, 2011, President Barack Obama presented Musial (a life-long Democrat) with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that the United States bestows on civilians. Hearing that that particular medal had been awarded to the ageless kid from Donora, Pennsylvania — an American treasure who for decades played the national pastime in the very heart of the country — felt at the time, and still feels today, just about perfect.
Stan Musial is dead. Long live The Man. We shall not see his like again.