What I’m Reading: Stan Musial — An American Life by George Vecsey

George Vecsey’s Stan Musial: An American Life is a painstakingly researched look at the legend of the greatest Cardinals hitter of all time.

As Vecsey notes throughout the book, Musial was one of the best hitters of all time, with numbers that placed him alongside Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams as the greatest hitters of their generation. Vecsey argues that while the legends of DiMaggio and Williams grew greater as the years passed, Musial somehow became less noticeable, as though his obliging, Midwestern sensibility couldn’t hold the attention of modern audiences.

Though Vecsey did not speak to Musial for the book, he did speak to family, friends, and celebrities who knew him, even taking a tour of Musial’s hometown, Donora, Pennsylvania, and diving into the history and culture of the community where Musial grew up. Vecsey tells surprisingly few baseball stories, instead focusing on Musial’s personal life. It’s filled with fascinating stories about Musial’s life and a lot of interesting quotes from people who knew him.

Among my favorite stories:

  • Vecsey shares a quote from Cardinals owner Sam Breadon that indicates Branch Rickey originally wanted to sell Musial to the Giants after he began to hit in the minor leagues.
  • When Musial finally joined the major-league team in 1941 after spending years as a pitcher in the Cardinals’ farm system, Terry Moore was amazed to realize that Musial had pitched in an exhibition game against the Cardinals earlier in the season. When Musial told him, Moore called out to Johnny Mize and said, “Hey, John! You won’t believe this! Musial is the left-hander who threw up those long home run balls at Columbus this spring.”
  • As a major leaguer playing in the military, Musial realized that everyone wanted to see him hit home runs. As a result, he made slight adjustments to his stroke to generate more power. When he came back from the war, those changes had transformed him into a power hitter.
  • The story about Stan Musial calling his shot at the 1955 All-Star Game, when he hit a 12th-inning home run to win the game. Hank Aaron says that as Musial headed toward the bat rack, he said, “They don’t pay us to play overtime.” In Yogi Berra’s autobiography, he wrote that as Musial dug into the box, he told Berra that he was tired, but they would all be going home soon, though Berra later denied that account in an interview. Frank Sullivan, the Red Sox pitcher who gave up the game-winning homer, later told a version of the story in which Berra was begging Musial to end the game as the Cardinals slugger came to the plate, then afterwards came to Sullivan’s locker and said, “I should have told you he was a high fastball hitter.”
  • Even though I’ve heard the story before, I’m still delighted by the idea that Frank Lane asked Gussie Busch for a contract extension and Busch’s response was to send a telegram that simply said, “Kiss my ass.”
  • The time a teammate told Musial that he felt so good he could go 4-for-4 that day. Musial told him, “Hell, I feel like that every day.”
  • When Musial was inducted into the Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Fame in 1990, his cab dropped him off at the wrong place. More than a mile away from the correct location and still recovering from a recent surgery, Musial was standing on the corner wondering what to do next when a car pulled up and a man recognized him and asked what he was doing in Brooklyn. When Musial told him, the gentleman drove him to the induction ceremony.

Stan Musial: An American Life provides a wealth of interesting stories. Vecsey is a heck of a writer, and I wish he’d had the opportunity to speak to Musial himself. There are a number of key places where Vecsey is reduced to speculation, including Musial’s relationship with his father, whom Vecsey believes struggled with alcohol abuse; Musial’s role in the Cardinals’ reported discussions about going on strike rather than playing against Jackie Robinson; and Musial’s fallout with Joe Garagiola over business dealings.

Nonetheless, there’s little doubt that this is the definitive biography of the greatest player in Cardinals history. It’s well worth a read for any Cardinals fan interested in understanding why Musial remains a legend, not only to Major League Baseball fans but to the entire city of St. Louis.

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