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Stan Musial never led the league in home runs. He came close once—that was in his epic 1948 season, when he was one home run short of becoming the only man in baseball history to lead his league in batting, runs, hits, doubles, triples, homers and RBIs. To this day, Musial fans will tell you he lost that home run in an August rainout in Brooklyn, though nobody knows for sure.
Anyway, that's just legend. And Musial's career was so defiantly about what is real. He never led the league in home runs, but he led the league in doubles eight times and triples five. That was real. Musial broke hard out of the batter's box day after day, game after game. Dodgers pitcher Carl Erskine often said that his strategy for pitching Musial was to throw his best stuff and then back up third base.
Musial never struck out 50 times in a season. That was real. "I could have rolled the ball up there to Musial," another Dodgers great, Don Newcombe, says, "and he would have pulled out a golf club and hit it out."
The Brooklyn Dodgers pitchers tend to have special memories of Musial because he always seemed to hit his best in New York City. The numbers at the baseball database Retrosheet are not quite complete, but they show that Musial hit .359 with power for his career at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn (and a similar .343 with power at the Polo Grounds against the Giants). It was supposedly Brooklyn fans—based on their griping "Here comes the man again," when Musial would come to the plate—who created the nickname Stan the Man. They held a Stan Musial Day in New York at a Mets game once. Chicago Cubs fans once voted him their favorite player, ahead of all the hometown stars, including their own lovable Ernie Banks. That was real.
"All you have to do to understand what Stan Musial means is watch him around other Hall of Famers," La Russa says. "You can fool fans sometimes. You can fool the media sometimes. But you really can't fool other players. And when you see Musial in a group of Hall of Famers, they hold him in such high esteem.... It's like he's on another level."
La Russa then tells his own Musial story. He did not really get to know Musial until he became manager of the Cardinals in 1996. By then La Russa had won a World Series, two pennants and more than 1,000 games as a manager. But whenever he would find himself sitting in the office with Musial, he would call his father, Anthony, in Florida.
"Guess who I am in the office with, Pop," he would say.
And then Stan Musial would take the phone, and he would shout, "Whaddya say! Whaddya say! Whaddya say!" Then he would say, "Mr. La Russa, your son is doing a wonderful job here. Just wonderful."
And later in the day, almost without fail, Anthony would call his son and say, "Was that really Stan Musial?"
Anthony died in 2002. "I always had to tell him, 'Yeah, it was really Stan the Man,'" La Russa says, and, yes, there are tears in the eyes of the son.