"He used to wait for me when I came up from the zinc works," recalls Joe Barboa, a grizzled ex-semipro player who was Musial's early tutor. "I was a short-shifter in the hot mill; we drawed the metal out of the furnaces at 6 o'clock in the morning, and by 8:30 or 9 I'd be through—it was that hot that a man did his day's work in a few hours. I'd be tired, but Stan would always ask me to play baseball with him. He was just a little kid and thin—that must have been around nineteen and twenty-six—but I never saw anything like him. Everything he did was right—the way he'd throw, the way he'd bat, the way he'd run. I ain't saying this because of what he's become either. I used to play with him just to watch him."
In the 1930s that fading institution, "town baseball," was a feverish part of life in Donora; big crowds came to watch seven-inning twilight games, even though the throngs along the left-field side had to stand on a line of trolley tracks and scramble to stay intact every time a streetcar passed. Joe Barboa managed a hard-bitten team known as the Zinc Works Athletic Club, and Musial became its bat boy. One evening in 1935 Barboa sent the bat boy—then 15—in to pitch. "The game was lost," Joe remembers, "and Stan wanted to play. He wasn't more than 5 feet 4 inches tall, and those other players were grown-up men, but he wasn't nervous at all. He went out and threw his fast ball and a little old cutty-thumb curve and struck out 13 batters."
A dazzling reward
After that Stash Musial played industrial baseball, high school baseball and American Legion baseball—sometimes almost every day in the week—in the smoky mill towns: Clairton, Monessen, Monongahela, Charleroi, California. When he was 17 the prodigy had his dazzling reward; the Cardinals gave him a contract and sent him to pitch for their Class D farm club at Williamson in the West Virginia coal fields. His father was angrily opposed. Stan was a catlike basketball player; the University of Pittsburgh had offered him an athletic scholarship, and his toil-worn parent felt that education was a precious American privilege. But Mary Musial settled the argument. "If he's an American," she said, "he's got a right not to go."
It might have seemed like a bad trade to anyone but Musial. The young pitcher got $65 a month and rattled from one mining town to the next, learning under the lights that he was not the world's greatest left-hander. He had pitched in high school because it seemed to prove he was the best player, but now he found that he was wild and that even Class D hitters were hard to fool.
In 1938 he married Lillian Labash, a blonde Donora girl of Slavic origins, whose father Sam ran a grocery store. If either of them worried about their hand-to-mouth existence they cannot remember it now. "Stan," says his old roomate, Milwaukee's Al (Red) Schoendienst, "isn't like most players. They hope they'll hit four for four. Stan is always sure he will."
Even in Daytona Beach the next year, when Lillian was pregnant and Stan fell in the outfield and suffered a shoulder "separation" which ruined him forever as a pitcher, they felt they were living in the best of all possible worlds—after all, the grocery store back home was full of food. "We were having a lot of fun," says Lillian. "I sat in a car on the field with the manager's wife and watched the games—the players used to push the batting cage around us to stop foul balls. The team gave us a baby carriage and the fans gave us a playpen and baby clothes. And Stan was always sure he was going to make it."
Stan was right. He had been tagged and branded as a run-of-the-mine minor league pitcher; the injury to his left shoulder forced the Cardinals to reappraise him and remind themselves that he was, more importantly, a tremendous young hitter. He came up to St. Louis the next fall—from Class D to the majors in one year. The year was 1941, and he was just 21, but from then on he belonged to the peerage of the National League.
He was a fine outfielder—although he had to return the ball with his shoulder partially locked and could never make the flat and burning throws from far out which characterize the truly great. He was fast and a wonderful base runner. But he was an awesome figure at the plate; his crouching stance—knees slightly bent, torso twisted away from the pitcher, bat cocked up and severely motionless, eyes staring unblinkingly over his right shoulder—became one of the wonders of the baseball world.
Musial, pitchers swear, is that rarest of creatures, a batter with no weaknesses. He is not a big man, but he has beautifully sculptured and tremendously powerful arms and shoulders, amazing reflexes and amazingly "quick wrists." Most batters can be inhibited if not baffled by pitches thrown high and tight (if the hitter swings he tends to take the ball on the handle of the bat near his hands) or low and away (as far as possible from his range of vision). Musial wallops them both indiscriminately; his 34-ounce bats fascinate other players, for the marks made by his hits are invariably grouped within a narrow zone nine inches from the barrel end. He can "pull" to hit the long ball to right field, punch it over the infielders' heads to left, almost at will. He can bunt. His judgment of pitches is uncanny.