SI Vault
 
For 1957 the Editors of Sports Illustrated Choose STAN MUSIAL
Paul O'Neil
December 23, 1957
Deep in their inner fiber Americans still remember the vanished frontier, and measure their heroes against its hard and simple attitudes; the leathery "old pro" rather than the dashing amateur is the real beau ideal of U.S. sport. He is held no less a gentleman for being a mercenary. The fact that he is paid to play is simply taken as proof of superiority, evidence that he will stand firm—sagacious, contemptuous of pressure, immensely competent and as coolly realistic as Kit Carson himself—when the Indians attack in the fourth quarter or the ninth inning. The Sportsman of the Year for 1957 is a grand professional: Stanley Frank Musial, bright, particular star of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
December 23, 1957

For 1957 The Editors Of Sports Illustrated Choose Stan Musial

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4

Webster defines "sportsman" as one who is fair and generous in sports, who has recourse to nothing illegitimate; a good loser and a graceful winner. The word has other connotations, sprung from the English public school; the most important involves the idea that victory or defeat is less important than how one "plays the game." The average American expects—in fact he demands—fairness, generosity and grace in his heroes of sport. But what is illegitimate? He thinks not a whit less of the pitcher who "brushes the batter back" by throwing at him—and neither does the batter—although this is counter to the rules. The game itself is more important than winning? Few Americans can believe so in their hearts. They like a good winner. But what is a good loser? If he is simply a man who keeps his mouth shut about his difficulties, fine. But the leap across the tennis net, the extravagant handshake, strikes the average fan as "strictly phony."

"Make the other fellows beat you"

In the U.S. the ideals of sportsmanship as well as those of competence are increasingly those of the professional—his attitudes, rather than those of schoolboys at play, shape the American's real code of sporting behavior. The schoolboys and the amateurs subscribe to them too: sport in the U.S. tends to be an emulation of life. The pros, it must be admitted, sometimes feel the need to enforce sportsmanship by sheer muscle power (as in the "bootsie play" of pro football, where the whole team charges an offender), but the English public school has its bullies, too, and they are discouraged by much the same method. By and large, professional athletes, in the supercharged phrasing of Branch Rickey, are a "splendid influence on the youth of our country," even though some of them would deny any such intent.

"I don't think I believe in sportsmanship," cried ex-Cardinal Manager Marty Marion, a few days ago in talking of Musial. "Look at those fighters on television—I'll be damned if I'd be throwing my arms around somebody who'd been beating on me for 10 rounds." But, in the same breath, he began defining his own exacting concept of sporting behavior. "A man ought to do everything he possibly can to win—anything else is cheating. I don't understand this stuff about being a good loser. I don't believe it. Of course, somebody has to lose. And I think this—if you make the other fellow beat you—if you force him to prove he's better than you, you have to give him credit for it. I'll admit he was better today. I don't say he'll be better tomorrow. I don't like alibis. I don't like this business of losing your temper, throwing bats, that sort of stuff. You ought to be a big leaguer. Take Stan—nobody will beat you worse, but I've never seen him do one thing any man would be ashamed of anywhere."

Musial, indeed, is a rare human. Great talent can distort as well as reward a man, but Musial seems to have been born with a truly awesome sense of duty and self-control. He is a relaxed, obliging, ordinary-appearing sort of fellow—at 37, his dark hair is thinning slightly and the lines of his lean, light heavyweight's body are deprecated by easy and conservative clothes—but it is hard to consider his life and times without feeling that he must have been invented by Horatio Alger Jr. His is the story, trite but astounding, of the poor, proud boy who goes to the great city, marries a lovely girl, becomes rich and famous, raises three handsome children and earns the admiration of his fellow citizens in all walks of life. Musial is very seldom booed—one day last year after he had been hooted in St. Louis 10 citizens inserted apologies in the papers. But Horatio Alger wrote of shoe clerks and industrious newsboys; when Musial stands, coiled and ready, at the plate, he is a warrior.

The smog that killed

To understand him, one should travel to the coal and iron country of western Pennsylvania and go down the turgid Monongahela River to Donora. The town (pop. 12,186) rises, drab and poor, like a backdrop for Socialist dramatics, on the slope above the dark, slow river. It has two reasons for existence, locally known as the Wire Mill and the Zinc Works; the river front is lined for miles by the vast and somber appurtenances of industrial metallurgy: blast furnaces, open hearths, blooming mills, rod mills, smelters. Smoke from the tall platoons of stacks has peeled the paint of the houses and killed the grass in Donora. In 1948, when smog settled too thickly in the valley, it killed 19 of Donora's people, too.

Musial's mother, a big, gray-haired, wonderfully animated woman, now has a bright, new ranch house in the green country beyond the town, but she—and Stanley—are products of grimmer days. Her father, a coal miner from Austria- Hungary, was one of the Central European immigrants who were Donora's first citizens. He spoke, as they say in the valley, the "Slavish" language, and worked in the Ella Mine. Daughter Mary rowed him across the Monongahela in a skiff at dawn, he walked four miles to the tipple, worked 12 hours underground, walked back and was duly rowed across the river again. He earned 90� a day. Mary mined coal, too—there was a pit in the back-yard down which she crawled to get fuel for the kitchen stove. When she was in her teens she went to work in the wire mill; she "took the whiskers off nails" and packed them into 100-pound kegs.

In 1912 she married a wiry young Pole named Lukasz Musial (pronounced Mew-shell, rather than Mu-si-al, in Donora), who came from Warsaw to load nails, barbed wire, reinforcing steel and other heavy objects into freight cars at the wire mill. Henceforth, for more than 30 years, she walked down the hill, in heat or snow, each morning at 9:30 with hot soup and his round, galvanized lunch pail. She also raised six children, four daughters and two sons, in the tumble-down four-room house her father had built above the mills. If it was a hard life it was also a hopeful one. Donora is a town of churches (the Roman Catholics alone have six) and good schools; the Musial children had love, "Hunky" food (dishes with names like pierogi, kolatche and halucki) and old-country discipline. And even before he was old enough for school, the fifth child, Stanley, laid hands on a talisman—a 15�' toy baseball bat.

Looking back, it is difficult not to believe that his whole future fell securely into place at that moment. Few human lives are tinged with anything that close to magic, but as he swung his shiny little piece of wood he experienced a curious bliss which was to grow into the sure knowledge of great talent and was to lead him, unerring and undistracted, to fame, to applause, to wealth.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4