Arts & Culture » Arts

Man Trouble

A new biography of Stan Musial adds complexity to "baseball's perfect knight"


I'm an historian and not a hagiographer," says Southwest Missouri State University professor James Giglio from his home in Springfield. Yet Giglio has taken one of St. Louis' icons, the great Stan "the Man" Musial, as his biographical subject. From the outset, Giglio didn't think he was entering controversial territory. Musial may not be canonized after his passing, but it is rare to hear a negative word about the Man. An extraordinary athlete, a profoundly decent human being, Musial has played the game and lived his life with admirable skill, grace and joy. Former baseball commissioner Ford Frick's description of Musial as "baseball's perfect warrior, baseball's perfect knight" may have the ring of sentimentality, but it has an even grander ring of truth.

Giglio's appreciation of his subject is obvious from the opening pages of Musial: From Stash to Stan the Man, just released by the University of Missouri Press. "He also epitomized, arguably more so than any other superstar," Giglio writes in the book's preface, "the selfless knight who promoted community goodwill...." Speaking about what he saw as the challenges in a Musial biography, Giglio says the star's basic goodness called for certain narrative strategies: "As a historian, to write about simply Stan Musial I could not justify. I had to show somehow the impact of the times upon him." A child of the Depression, living in a time of war, playing in the major leagues when racial integration came to baseball (shaking white America into racial consciousness), Musial became "a vehicle," says Giglio. "Musial alone could not have carried the story. He's not that exciting."

With these strategies in mind, Giglio was shocked when Musial refused him access. "Aside from a 15-minute telephone interview in December 1995," Giglio writes in the preface, "Musial refused to cooperate to the extent that he even advised friends and associates to remain silent."

Musial's silence redirected Giglio's inquiry. "Why is Stan so private?" Giglio asked himself. "Why is he so uncomfortable about anyone writing about his personal life? The fact that he did not cooperate with me -- and he had every perfect right not to -- it caused me, though, to probe even more deeply into the sort of upbringing he had."

The result is by no means Stanley Dearest. "I have not gone after Stan Musial," Giglio contends. "What I'm trying to do is be fair to the fact and to the truth." And, as the author observes, "The bulk of the book is about Stan as a ballplayer, about his relationship with people and about how much he was admired. It was about the underestimation of Stan Musial."

Giglio has added flesh to the monument. The ever-buoyant, constantly smiling figure who responds to the world with a cheerful "wunnerful, wunnerful" is a more complicated individual than even Musial credits himself as being. In Stan Musial: "The Man's" Own Story, as Told to Bob Broeg, published in 1964, Musial relates the unvarnished mythology of an immigrant upbringing, including a Polish father who had to be coaxed into allowing his teenage son to sign a pro-baseball contract rather than pursuing the dream of a college education.

In reality, Musial's boyhood was much starker. The small mill town of Donora, Pa., was nearly crushed by the Depression. "No state had more people on relief," reports Giglio. Surrounded by indifferent poverty, Musial's father was known as the poorest guy in town, an alcoholic who was sometimes robbed of his meager pay on the way home from a drinking binge. Lukasz Musial wanted his son in the mills, not in college or on the ballfield. Stan's mother, desperate to sustain her family, began to "appropriate" things, an activity that turned to kleptomania later in life.

"One point I wanted to make about growing up in the '30s, during the Great Depression," says Giglio, "is that we often hear mythology about how poverty builds character. Well, it can do that. But grinding poverty can be very debilitating, too, and it can cause people to do things that they ordinarily wouldn't do. It was a very tough time, and I needed to put him into that context. I needed to tell a truthful story of how it was to live in a community where you had more than 90 percent of the people out of the regular jobs." The Musials weren't the Waltons -- as if any family was -- and, like many people who carry shame in their lives, the Man reconstructed his past. This in no way tarnishes the Musial mystique -- rather, it makes his achievements even more remarkable. The smiling hero can be seen as wearing a mask of denial, undoubtedly, as many children of alcoholics do (Ronald Reagan being the most prominent example), but he is just as surely a character who through strength of will -- and no small amount of luck -- made of his hard times an unimaginable life.

A theme that runs through Musial is the Man's conception of his own good fortune. Musial was not blind to the stinginess of owners, especially the skinflint Sam Breadon, and nearly bolted to a rival league in Mexico after being lured with significantly more money in 1946. Foremost, though, he was grateful for the opportunity to make a living playing a game he loved and at which he excelled. As self-effacing as Musial was, former Cardinal GM Branch Rickey -- who moved to the Brooklyn Dodgers to change America by bringing Jackie Robinson to the majors -- aptly described the Man's "inner conceit." Musial played injured throughout much of his career, yet the pain intensified his concentration. In one game, suffering from extremely sore wrists, Musial managed five hits in five trips to the plate, swinging the bat an economical five times.

The hard soil of Donora also provided the young Musial with lessons that would be beneficial to him when baseball was integrated years later. As Giglio points out, there was overt racism in Donora, with the KKK burning crosses on the other side of the Monongahela River, but Musial was blessed by coaches who believed blacks and whites needed to take to the playing fields and courts together. Musial played basketball with African-Americans Buddy Griffey (Cincinnati star Ken Griffey's father and Junior's grandfather), and Grant Gray, for whom the team nearly refused to play a tournament game in Pittsburgh when he was refused service in the hotel in which they were rooming.

It's no small irony that when Robinson came to the majors in 1947, there was talk around the league of players' boycotting Dodger games in opposition to his presence. Musial, as was his nature, was not outspoken in his support of Robinson, but, as was also his nature, he treated the Dodger star with respect. "Musial always treated me with courtesy," Robinson later acknowledged.

Not so some of Musial's teammates, with the Cardinals maintaining the largest roster of Southerners in the majors, except for the Dodgers themselves. Most prominent of those were Enos Slaughter and Marty Marion, whom Giglio tactfully describes as having grown up with different "baggage" than Musial. Giglio notes that the Cardinals were unduly stained by the Eastern press for conspiring to boycott Dodger games. There were certainly such mutterings in the Cardinal clubhouse, as there were with every team, including the Dodgers. No overt strike plans were ever formulated by Cardinal players (the Chicago Cubs were actually much closer to taking action), but the brand of being on the wrong side of history remains with the team more than a half-century later, no matter how inaccurate the charge. Slaughter was kept out of the Hall of Fame for many years because of an incident in which he may or may not have spiked Robinson intentionally. (I had the privilege of speaking to Negro League great Buck O'Neill at the time of Slaughter's induction and asked what he thought about a purported segregationist's receiving such an honor. "It's not like he was the only one," O'Neill said, grinning coyly.)

Musial, being Musial, remained the stalwart center in a volatile time. In part, it is Musial's steadiness that has caused him to be neglected as one of the greats of the game in recent years. Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays -- these are charismatic figures who carried themselves with an aloof, nearly regal indifference toward those around them. Musial was constantly approachable, viewing the world as "wunnerful" no matter the injustices he witnessed and suffered, always grateful for his good fortune.

Giglio sets out to reevaluate Musial's rank among the greats and at the same time tries to chart the rise of a superstar from his earthly beginnings. He manages to give insight into the man that Musial was and is, even as he pays homage to the Man.

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