Grace and Grit

You have to admit there is a certain rich irony in the sad fact that two of baseball’s all-time greats – Stan Musial and Earl Weaver – died the same weekend that the sports and popular culture world is still trying to process the misdeeds, misdirection and misfires of Lance Armstrong and Manti T’eo.

Stan the Man, maybe the most talented nice guy to ever lace up a pair of spikes, and The Duke of Earl, one of the most competitive and successful managers in the history of the game, could not have been more different from one another or less like those who will forever be remembered for Oprah’s confessional and the bizarre cloak of hoax that a great university has thrown around it’s star linebacker. The two old Hall of Famers go out like the pros they were, individual, real guys remembered by fans and opponents for their accomplishments not their embellishments. 

Musial, the quiet, funny competitor who labored his entire career largely out of the media glare in St. Louis, has never gotten his due as among a handful of the game’s greats. Stan died as he lived, respected, even revered, as a good and decent fellow. Weaver, the profane, pint-sized dirt kicker who once said he hoped to be remembered as “a sore loser” will be remembered for more than that and not because he was perfect. He wasn’t, but he was the real deal.

“Despite his salty, inventively profane diatribes,” the Washington Post wrote in a swell tribute, “Mr. Weaver considered himself a practicing Christian. Nonetheless, Pat Kelly, on Orioles outfielder who later became an evangelist, once asked Mr. Weaver why he didn’t join players at chapel meetings.

“Don’t you want to walk with the Lord?”Kelly reportedly asked.

“I’d rather walk with the bases loaded,” Mr. Weaver replied.

Weaver will be remembered for his umpire baiting – he was thrown out of two games before the first pitch was thrown – and his priceless one-liners. If you can stand the language, check out a classic Earl tirade on YouTube. He tells the umpire who tosses him, “You’re here for only one reason – to ___ us!”

The Earl of Baltimore once said when one of the Oriole’s truly fine pitchers Mike Cuellar lost his stuff, “I gave Cuellar more chances than my first wife.” Like Musial, Weaver was a winner in the old fashioned way with hard work, commitment and fierce determination.

Musial’s statistics speak for themselves. In 22 years in the majors, Musial failed to hit .300 just four times. In 1949, he came within one home run of leading the National League in hits, doubles, triples – and homers. Next to his accomplishments on the field what comes through in George Vecsey’s fine 2011 unauthorized biography of Musial is what a completely decent guy he was.

In 1952 and 1956 Musial had supported the Republican moderate Dwight Eisenhower for president, but in 1960 he went all in for John F. Kennedy. The two elegant guys met on a street corner in Milwaukee in the fall of 1959. Kennedy reportedly said, “They tell me you’re too old to play ball and I’m too young to be president, but maybe we can fool them.” They did. JFK went to the White House, Stan the Man to the Hall of Fame. You might say they both won on the first ballot.

Musial went on a week-long, eight state barnstorming tour for Kennedy at the very end of the very tight 1960 campaign. It must have been as good a campaign swing as there ever was. Actress Angie Dickinson, novelist James Michener, future Supreme Court Justice Byron (Whizzer) White and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. joined Ethel and Joan Kennedy and the Cardinal slugger on the trip to rally support for JFK in generally tough country for Democrats – Nebraska, Colorado, Utah and Idaho included.

Dickinson remembered getting booed and having things thrown at her in the red states of 1960, but also that Musial was “always funny…the life of the party…such a dear guy.”

In Vescey’s book, Michener remembers the group’s stop at a Boise country club – it must have been Hillcrest – “where the well-turned-out ‘bridge-playing’ women would not even acknowledge the Democratic celebrities.”

Writing in the New York Times, Vescey reminds us that during the era of the late DiMaggio and Williams, the early Mays and Aaron, Stan Musial was voted by LIFE magazine as the greatest player of the post-war period.

“Lukasz Musial, a Polish immigrant who worked in the zinc mills, was never comfortable in this new land,” Vescey said, “but his son, sweet and athletic, found mentors, men who taught him how to dress and shake hands and look people in the eye. He wanted to have a good life. In later years, he wore suits and ties and read The Wall Street Journal in his office at Stan & Biggie’s Restaurant. Musial wanted to be a businessman, not a figurehead.

“He knew the cuts of meat the way he knew the repertory of Robin Roberts (10 homers) [Don] Newcombe (11) and Warren Spahn (17, the most.) Those pitchers loved him, by the way.”

The Duke of Earl and Stan the Man. Just when you think it’s no longer possible to look up to anyone in sports, when the current crop disappoints and frustrates time and again, you have to pause and say – they weren’t all that way. Even the pitchers will miss Stan and the umps will tip their caps to Earl.

 

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