a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The finest pure hitter in history

The Donora Historical Society has set aside a section of its museum in the Pennsylvania borough to honor Stan Musial on his being given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.

President Barack Obama, when the award was presented Tuesday at the White House, said the Hall-of-Famer is "a gentleman you would want your kids to emulate." 

As another way to honor the 90-year-old Donora native, let's look back to December 1999 and take another look at this story about him that appeared in the Observer-Reporter:

By Matt Jacobs

Before the phrase, "You da man," weaved its way into the fabric of modern pop culture, there was just "The Man."

Stan "The Man" Musial, that is. 

During his 22-year Hall-of-Fame career with the St. Louis Cardinals, Musial, who was born and raised in Donora, was, and perhaps still is, regarded as the finest pure hitter in National League history. 

At times overshadowed by American League stars of the era like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, Musial has the statistics to back up his immortal nickname. 

From the time Musial first broke into the big leagues with the Cardinals in 1941, until his final game in 1963, the three-time National League Most Valuable Player compiled a .331 batting average to go with 475 home runs and 1,951 RBI. Musial finished with 3,630 hits, won seven NL batting titles and was the first Cardinals' player to have his number (6) retired. 

As a member of three World Series champions, Musial frequently saved his best for when it mattered most. All that, despite missing the entire 1945 season while serving the United States in World War II. 

Despite his success at the major league level, Musial never forgot his humble beginnings on the rugged, unforgiving ball fields of Donora. 

"Sixty years ago, I was a batboy for the Donora Zinc Works (a semipro team)," said Musial in 1996 during a dedication ceremony for Stan "The Man" Musial Baseball Field.

"My neighbor, Joe Barbao, took me under his wing. He tutored me and we played baseball all the time. One day when we were playing, the regular pitcher didn't show up. So Joe put me in to pitch. 

"Well, I struck out something like 15 guys in six innings. Of course, that was quite a feat because I was only about 14 at that time. After that game, they voted me into their association so I could play. It was terrific experience because I was playing against fellows who were 18, 19 and 20 years old." 

While Musial frequently returns to his old stomping grounds, the field dedication held special meaning. 

"I want these fields to be a symbol and an inspiration to all the young ballplayers," said Musial, who was born November 21, 1920, to Lukasz and Mary Musial. "Somewhere along the line, something like what happened to me could happen to them."

Musial also met his wife of nearly 60 years, the former Lil Labash, in Donora. 

"I remember when I was about 14," Mrs. Musial recalled. "I was at a baseball game and everyone kept telling me to look at the little Polish kid. Well, I wasn't interested in boys at that age. But the following year, I met Stan at 15 and everybody told me he was the Polish kid who played baseball. I knew it was Stan." 

The couple has four grown children, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. 

Musial, who was voted into baseball's Hall of Fame in 1969, runs Stan "The Man" Inc., a St. Louis firm that deals in memorabilia from his baseball career. 

He remains as humble as ever. Musial never wanted to be DiMaggio or Williams. He's quite content just being "The Man." 

"I played on this field 60 years ago – 60 years ago, that's hard to believe," he said at the ceremony. "I'll tell you, I'd rather have a bat in my hands than a mike. I knew what I was doing with a bat."

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