When baseball great Stan Musial passed away last month, many heartfelt tributes and obituaries poured in throughout the baseball world.
Sure, Stan “The Man” was one of the few remaining nonagenarian members of baseball’s Hall of Fame, but Musial is rarely among the short list of the sport’s most celebrated. “What was the hook with Stan Musial other than the distinctive stance and one of Baseball’s best nicknames?”, asked decorated broadcaster Bob Costas, while eulogizing his friend.
What are we losing with the passing of Musial? The answer is more complicated than a stat line or a trophy.
We live in an era in which greatness and fame are often mutually exclusive. Disgraced former 7-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong is one of the most recognized sports figures worldwide, yet his transgressions in becoming cycling’s most decorated athlete inspire vitriol from those who supported his meteoric rise. Fans voted Barry Bonds to 14 all-star appearances, yet in his first year on the Hall of Fame ballot, the man behind 762 home runs received just 36.2 percent of the vote—well short of the 75 percent required for induction.
“It seems that all that Stan had going for him was more than two decades of sustained excellence as a ballplayer and more than nine decades as a thoroughly decent human being,” says Costas. “Even Ty Cobb, who apparently didn’t like anybody, once said that Musial was as close to a perfect player as he had seen”.
Musial’s accolades remain awe-inspiring: .331 lifetime average, 3630 hits, 24 all-star appearances and three Most Valuable Player awards to name a few. But it was the content of his character that had the sport’s most elite take notice. “I didn’t just like Stan Musial. I wanted to be like him,” Hank Aaron, the man who preceded Bonds as Home Run King, told Costas. Even after his playing days, Musial was notorious for taking the time to sign an autograph, or to entertain a young fan with a tune on the harmonica he carried with him.
The man Musial once called “probably the greatest pitcher of our era” was the late Hall of Famer Bob Feller, who passed away in December of 2010. The two not only share the honour of enshrinement in Cooperstown, but both men interrupted their distinguished careers to serve the United States i the Second World War. In a 2009 interview, I asked Feller how he was able to have the best year of his career in 1946, after a four-year stint fighting overseas. “Well I played catch aboard ship quite often,” he simply stated.
What would be unthinkable for the modern athlete was a humble reality for the pitcher known as Rapid Robert; a gun captain for three years aboard the battleship USS Alabama. “We played games in the Pacific, in fact we even played a game in the Atlantic—played in Iceland one time, in Reykjavik, against the battleship South Dakota,” said Feller.
“In the South Pacific, we were out there for a couple years. We played all throughout the islands—the Seabees had leveled off a bunch of coconut trees and called it a ball diamond. We had our duties to do fighting the war. I did exercise twice a day, conditions permitting, so I was in pretty good shape when I got back to Cleveland.” Like many other athletes, Musial returned from military service to the major leagues in 1946 (Feller returned for just 9 games in 1945). For the curious, here are their respective stat lines from that ’46 season:
Both players produced numbers that are jaw dropping for any era, and simply absurd for players who prepared by playing catch at sea in the year(s) prior. Perhaps it’s because these performances came from such modest individuals, but the accomplishments of Feller and Musial are hardly held in the same regard as those of controversial characters like Mark McGwire, Pete Rose, or Bonds. When asked his take on players implicated in drug usage or gambling, Feller didn’t mince words.
“There must be consequences when you break those rules, and that goes for baseball and that goes for the ones that use PEDs or gamble on the game,” he said. “Gambling on the game is even worse than taking drugs, but the worst thing about taking drugs is the high school or college kids that do it, and you’ll die by the time you’re fifty.”
The passing of Musial, and Feller before him moves us farther away from a time when players were motivated by a sense of team and the love of the game, rather than their next contract. Perhaps this seems like a romantic notion, but the same sense of greed simply didn’t exist in sport. According to baseballreference.com, Musial made $13,500 in 1946—relative to a modest $160,894 today.
We can learn from this generation, as Costas recounts the troubled Mickey Mantle did before his death at the age of 63. “You know, I had as much ability as Stan, maybe more,” the Yankee great told Costas. “Nobody had more power than me, nobody could run any faster than me. But Stan was a better player than me because he’s a better man than me. Because he got everything out of his life and out of his ability that he could, and he’ll never have to live with all the regret that I live with”.
Musial and Feller are reminders that athletes can still be role models, even long after their playing careers. As longtime NBC newsman Tom Brokaw writes of WWII veterans in The Greatest Generation Speaks, “If we are to heed the past to prepare for the future, we should listen to these voices of a generation that speaks to us, of duty and honor, sacrifice and accomplishment.”
While it’s easy to have a jaded view of today’s athletes, we can still celebrate those who have left us by visiting the Hall of Fame, and by recognizing those who stand for values we believe in. Perhaps the next great generation of athletes will then be inspired to leave their own great legacy.