Jul 12

Stan the Navy Man Musial

Friday, July 12, 2019 10:27 AM

By

The National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1943, Stan Musial credited an adjustment he made while playing baseball during his 1945–46 service in the Navy with making him a better power hitter. (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, NY)

Some shards of memory gleam back from long ago with a special sparkle that keeps them ever fresh in mind. For my brother Mark and me, a cluster of such memories assembled one hot summer evening, 27 August 1954, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. We had been captivated by bubble-gum baseball cards and Harry Caray’s exciting radio broadcasts of Cardinal games. For months we had been begging our parents to take us to our first big-league game.

The magic evening arrived. Alas, the Brooklyn Dodgers won the game 8–4, but we were hooked. Our hero, then and since, was the Cardinals’ right fielder, Stan Musial. The product of the industrial town of Donora in western Pennsylvania, he was by then an established major-league star and had settled in St. Louis to stay.

It was there that he died in 2013 at the age of 92. A thoroughly decent man, he had endeared himself to hundreds of thousands of individuals, by both his hitting and his down-to-earth approachability. Even the fans in Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field were admiring. They gave him the nickname “Stan the Man.”

Like many in his generation, Musial served in World War II, though he missed only one season of baseball. At the time, he was registered with the draft board in Donora, and plenty of other able-bodied males were available to meet the calls for manpower. Moreover, his priority was low because of the draft rules: He had become a father before the United States entered the war in 1941, and he provided most of the support for his parents.

While playing for the Cardinals in 1943, Musial was the National League’s Most Valuable Player. After that season, he joined other major leaguers in visiting servicemen in the Aleutians and chatting about baseball. Years later, in 1966, he and other ball players went to the battlefront in South Vietnam, flying in vulnerable helicopters from place to place and getting close enough to action to see tracer bullets flying at night. One day he visited a hospital in Danang and introduced himself to a young man who’d lost both legs to a bomb. The serviceman said, “”Oh, Mr. Musial, I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you.”

Musial had gotten a similar reaction when he joined the Navy in 1945, the last year of World War II. He entered boot camp at the naval training center at Bainbridge, Maryland. There he promptly got a close-to-the scalp shearing. As Musial recounted in his autobiography, a news photographer took a picture of the scene, prompting the barber to apologize: “Why didn’t you tell me who you were? I wouldn’t have cut it so short.” Musial responded by quipping, “Thanks, but now I know how a guy feels when he’s going to the electric chair.”

The Navy concluded that it could best use the new sailor’s abilities by having him play baseball to entertain other servicemen. That happened first at Bainbridge and later at Pearl Harbor. In addition, he served in the crew of a motor launch. Those in charge of his Navy team wanted him to try to hit home runs, believing that they would be more entertaining to the spectators than singles and doubles. Musial adjusted by moving his batting stance closer to home plate. He credited that move with making him more of a power hitter during the rest of his major-league career, which he finished with 475 home runs.

Musial got emergency leave to return home from Pearl in the autumn of 1945, when his father was seriously ill. From there he was reassigned to the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and then in early 1946, with the war over, he was released from active duty. Clad in his Navy uniform, Musial was hitchhiking home to Donora when he caught a ride from two state legislators. Unlike the barber at Bainbridge, the men recognized him. Their red-carpet service delivered him to his front door.

Stan the Man retired from baseball after the 1963 season and in 1969 was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot. He received many other honors during the remainder of his long life, in part because of his generosity and humanity. Included were the Navy Memorial’s Lone Sailor Award in 2007 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. Last October, my brother Mark and I were in St. Louis to see the Cardinals play the San Francisco Giants. Before the game, Musial was driven around the inner perimeter of Busch Stadium’s seats. We were part of the crowd that poured its affection down upon him. It was his final ballpark ovation.

In January 2013, Mark stood in a long line of mourners who filed past Musial’s casket in the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis. Stan was dressed in his trademark red necktie and blazer. The bottom half of the casket was closed and covered with an American flag. Nearby was an honor guard: a Marine gunnery sergeant and a Navy lieutenant (j.g.) and electrician’s mate second class. The Navy remembered one of its own.