It was about a year ago that I received a phone call and then some emails from George Vecsey, the famous New York Times sports columnist and author of more than a dozen books about everything from baseball to country-music icon Loretta Lynn.
Vecsey said he was working on a book about Cardinal legend Stan Musial and that he’d heard from a mutual friend that my dad, Del Wilber, had been a friend of Stan’s. Was Stan a friend of our family’s? Did I know him very well? Did I have any interesting stories to share about Stan? The questions went on and I answered them as best I could, though, in fact, I didn’t have too much to say beyond the fact that Stan and his wife, Lil, had been friends with my mom and dad, for sure, and that Stan had attended my first wedding way back when, and attended the wedding of one of my siblings later, too. Stan had been quiet, as I recalled, but very gracious, and we were appreciative that he’d been there. Many years later, when the family gathered to celebrate Dad’s 70th birthday, Stan and some other old ballplayer pals had come to the party and wished him well. That, too, was a kindness we appreciated.
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After a conversation or two, and some emails back and forth about Vecsey’s books (brilliant) and mine (rather more ordinary), the connection faded away, as these things do. I haven’t talked with Vecsey in many months now, though I meant to post something on my blog about what a terrific book his “Baseball: A History of America’s Favorite Game” (2006) is, and how appreciative I am that he signed a copy for me.
Well, I’ve just finished reading “Stan Musial: An American Life,” the new book by George Vecsey, and this is my chance to talk about what it is that makes Vecsey a terrific writer and why you should hustle out to your local bookstore or get online at Amazon or somewhere and buy this book if you have any interest in baseball at all. If you’re from St. Louis or any of those Southern states that long thought of the Cardinals as their team, than “Stan Musial” is absolutely required reading. It’s not just a book about Musial, it’s a book about St. Louis, that most baseball of cities, and about the Midwest and the South, and about the game as it was during World War II and then the post-war years when Musial became one of the game’s all-time best hitters while also earning respect as a famously nice guy in a sport too often filled with players, and stars, noted for bad behavior as much as for their excellence on the field.
In the book, Vecsey talks about Musial’s life, from his childhood in the Pennsylvania steel town of Donora and his early career in the Cardinal minor league system that was famously devised by Branch Rickey, to his sudden emergence as a big-league hitting sensation in the final weeks of the 1941 season, when he hit .426 in the season’s last dozen games. From there Vecsey follows Musial’s blossoming during the 1940s and 1950s as one of the game’s greatest hitters, and one of its nicest guys.
Vecsey, of course, talks statistics when he needs to and is perfectly persuasive in his argument that, on the facts, Musial is one of game’s greatest hitters and, arguably, the best hitter of his generation; on a par, at least, with Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.
But it’s not just Musial’s lifetime batting average, or his amazing number of doubles, or the other facts you can read here or here or, perhaps most importantly, at the Hall of Fame site here. More importantly, to my mind, is how Vecsey constructs a full, fair, picture of Stanley F. Musial, a human being who happened to play baseball for a living over parts of three decades.
There were some bad times, certainly, for Musial, both in his personal life and in his baseball career. On the field, in 1956 Musial fretted about being traded by general manager Frank “Trader” Lane, and in 1959-61 he struggled some at the plate. Oh, and on opening day of 1958, Vecsey reports, Musial almost got tossed from a game after being called out on strikes in the first inning. That’s right; “almost” getting tossed is worth a mention. After all, in a career that spanned 22 seasons Musial was never ejected. And that tells you something about both the man and his reputation.
Vecsey talks at length about baseball’s belated embrace of black players and the infamous rumors of Cardinal racism and a threatened strike on the part of the Cardinal players when Jackie Robinson entered the game with the Dodgers in 1947. Was Stan the Man, one of the most gentlemanly men to ever play the game, involved in this sad affair?
No one seems to know for sure what happened in the Cardinal clubhouse in May of 1947, but ultimately there was no strike, and the Cardinals played and won two of the three games (and needed those wins, since they’d only won three and had lost 11 coming into Brooklyn). Vecsey finds evidence that Musial, just 26 years old then, was quiet in the clubhouse as the Cardinals veterans talked it over. Musial, who’d been suffering from appendicitis, left the team right after that clubhouse discussion and with a friend named Del Wilber (my father) at his side for support, took a plane flight home to be seen by the team doctor. By the time he returned to the field, the tension seemed to have passed and the Cardinals were back to playing baseball instead of debating issues of race in America.
There is evidence, Vecsey points out, that Musial, again as quietly as ever, was more supportive than others about the entrance of black athletes into the game. After all, Musial told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (in a story that Vecsey found) that “I didn’t give it a second thought. I played against blacks in high school, played with Buddy Griffey (a black teammate and father of Ken, Sr., and grandfather of Ken, Jr.).”
And another example of personal trouble is a longstanding rift between Musial and one-time pal Joe Garagiola. It started with a lawsuit over troubles with a bowling alley that both men were partners in owning, and it involved Stan’s famous “Stan Musial and Biggie’s” restaurant, and it became a bitter matter that kept them apart long after the suit was settled out of court.
But Vecsey balances those few personal troubles with this: Musial was a friend to almost everyone in the game, from clubhouse pals to patrons at his restaurant to fans seeking autographs. His life was scandal-free, with no divorces and none of the rowdy bouts with alcohol and women that tainted the careers of some of the major stars from that era. Musial was generous with his friendship, and such a nice guy that he came to a couple of Wilber family weddings and that touching 70th birthday party that was held for my father, a player of modest big-league skills, never a star; but a Cardinal, and a St. Louisan, and a friend of Stan’s. That’s being a nice guy. A very nice guy.
Ultimately, what Vecsey does in this book is enlarge and illuminate the life of Stan Musial, and he does it with a clean, approachable, often lyrical, occasionally humorous, but always sensitive voice. The book is a pleasure to read.