SI Vault
 
BENCHING OF A LEGEND
Roger Kahn
September 12, 1960
The prideful struggle of an aging Stan Musial to keep on playing ball has been a painful experience for everyone
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 12, 1960

Benching Of A Legend

The prideful struggle of an aging Stan Musial to keep on playing ball has been a painful experience for everyone

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5

The answer, of course, is pride; more pride than most of us suspected Musial possessed, more pride than Musial ever displayed when he was Stan the Man, consistent .350 hitter, owner and proprietor of most National League pitching staffs.

The issues in the case of Stan Musial versus time have cleared considerably since his May benching and his dramatic July comeback. He was not through in June as many suspected but, because Musial is well loved, few put in words. But neither was he the young Musial in July, as many said loudly, but, I imagine, few really suspected. Both the benching and the comeback represent skirmishes in the continuing battle Musial joins each time he puts on a pair of spikes and heads out toward left field, trotting a shade more slowly than he once did.

After a career in which he had never batted lower than .310, Musial hit .255 in 1959. Since he was 38, the wise conclusion was that he was finished, and most baseball men assumed that he would retire. In fact, most hoped he would choose retirement instead of the awkward exit that seemed inevitable if he played this season. "No," Musial insisted during the winter. "I want to go out on a good year. I'm not quitting after a lousy year like that." Athletes, like chorus girls, are usually the last to admit that age has affected them, and Musial appeared to be following the familiar unhappy pattern. His timing seemed gone—change-ups made him look foolish—and he appeared to be the only man who didn't know it.

During the winter Musial enrolled in a physical education program at St. Louis University. The exercises were orthodox—push-ups and such—but placed emphasis on tumbling.

He arrived in spring training splendidly conditioned and hit well, if not sensationally, during exhibition games. For the first three weeks of the regular season he played first base, batted about .300 and fielded poorly. Then his hitting dropped sharply, and for the next three weeks his average drifted toward .200. Finally, on May 27, Solly Hemus, the Cardinal manager, benched Musial. The decision brought pain to Musial and pain to Hemus, too, since what the manager did, after all, was bench a legend.

"He'll be back," Hemus said vaguely to everyone who asked. When? Solly wasn't quite sure. "I'll play whenever they want me to," Musial said cheerlessly. But he didn't start another game for almost a month.

Hemus is a conscientious, combative man of 36, who joined the Cardinals in 1949 when Musial was already a star, a factor which complicated the usual manager-ballplayer relationship. "I'd never pulled much," Hemus recalls, "and when I first came up Stan gave me some tips. He told me to concentrate on hitting that right-field screen—it's close—at Busch Stadium. I admired him, and I guess he liked me. It got so that when he'd come home, Janet, Stan's daughter, wouldn't start by asking if he got any hits. First she'd say: 'Did Solly get any hits?' "

Discussing the Musial benching troubles Hemus. He was buffeted somewhat in St. Louis sports pages for the move, and, beyond that, it strained a friendship. But he talked about the benching at some length and with tremendous earnestness after one recent Cardinal night game.

"What's my obligation as manager?" Hemus said, staring darkly into a glass of light beer. "It's not to a friendship, no matter how much I like a guy. My obligation is to the organization that hired me and to 25 ballplayers. I have to win. Stan was hurting the club. He wasn't hitting and balls were getting by him at first base. It wasn't something I wanted to do. I had to do it."

For all his attempts to show outward indifference, Musial hated the bench. He confided to a few friends that he wouldn't mind being traded to a club that would play him every day. A few hints appeared that he and Hemus were feuding. They weren't—they were just miserable about the situation—but Musial still says, in the closest he comes to a grumble: "Don't let anyone tell you they were resting me. I was benched."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5