There are four left fielders in major league history who stand out among all the rest. Three of them are three of the most exciting, singular players in the annals of the sport; they are also three of the most arrogant, churlish players in the game's history and -- depending on your opinion on such personalities -- most disliked.
The fourth was, simply, known as The Man.
Ted Williams was arguably the greatest hitter of all time. Barry Bonds became the greatest hitter since Williams. Rickey Henderson was the greatest power-speed combo ever, unless you give that honor to Bonds. It's easy to extract an image of them in play: Williams, with that beautiful uppercut swing, launching that home run in the 1941 All-Star Game, the last man to hit .400; Bonds, once the graceful two-way threat, already the best player in the game, turning into the beefy monster late in his career and putting up softball numbers; Henderson, in that crouch at home plate, annoying pitchers with his postage-stamp strike zone and then annoying them further by swiping second base ... and often third.
But Stan Musial? What's your image of Stan the Man?
Musial died Saturday at the age of 92. William Nack has written an eloquent obituary of Musial, and the subhead on that story reads, "Baseball lost a true gentleman and one of its most underrated players."
Let's be honest: Williams, Bonds and Henderson were all a pain the ass. Williams was undeniably the Bonds of his day in many ways, from attitude to talent, except Giants fans actually liked Bonds more than Red Sox fans liked Williams. The Williams love affair in Boston didn't really begin until late in his career and didn't really entirely blossom until after he retired and became an old man. As John Updike wrote in his famous New Yorker essay on Williams after his final game at Fenway, "The affair between Boston and Ted Williams has been no mere summer romance; it has been a marriage, composed of spats, mutual disappointments, and, toward the end, a mellowing hoard of shared memories."
With Bonds, even Giants fans admit to his sins and the late-career numbers compiled with help beyond just quick wrists and maple bats. Rickey? I suppose he's revered in Oakland, but he doesn't belong just to Oakland, having gone from the A's to the Yankees to the Blue Jays back to the A's and then to the Padres and a bunch of other stops. Rickey was a man of many steals and many teams and many teammates whose names he never bothered to learn.
With Musial, it was just baseball. No fighting with the media or fighting with teammates or deciding to take a day off. He showed up to the ballpark every day, played as hard as he could, usually lashed a couple hits and then returned the next day to do the same thing. I'm pretty sure he never got caught playing cards in the clubhouse in the middle of a game.
Of course, he played his entire career with the Cardinals, and I would argue no baseball player is more beloved by his home fans than Musial is in St. Louis. Sure, maybe Cal Ripken in Baltimore, maybe Mickey Mantle or Derek Jeter in New York, maybe George Brett in Kansas City. You can make those arguments, maybe a few others as well. But how many of those guys were so respected by fans throughout the league as Musial was?
As beloved as he was in St. Louis, however, Musial's legacy had faded over time, picking up in attention only in recent years, it seemed. He wasn't the last player to hit .400. He hadn't played with the Yankees. He didn't play center field like Willie Mays or become the home run king like Hank Aaron. Again: What label do you put on Musial?
How about ballplayer? I think you can make the argument that Musial is the greatest of the four; it's a hard one to win (in part because Musial actually played a few more games at first base than left field, and also several seasons in right field). But that speaks not just to his versatility -- he was athletic enough to play over 300 games in center field as well -- but his obvious willingness to put the team first, not always something said about Williams, Bonds or Henderson. He once played more than 800 games in a row, and that durability, consistency and attitude provided a bonus you didn't get at all times from the other three.
In terms of career wins above replacement, the four rank like this:
Bonds: 158.1 WAR
Musial: 123.4 WAR
Williams: 119.8 WAR
Henderson: 106.8 WAR
Williams, of course, missed three full seasons and the majority of two others serving in World War II and the Korean War. Musial missed one season during World War II. Maybe Musial didn't quite match Williams' overwhelming skills at the plate, but the guy was pretty good with the stick, winning seven batting titles, one more than Williams, and hitting .331 lifetime. And Musial didn't have the benefit of playing half his games in Fenway Park (where Williams hit .361 in his career, compared to .328 on the road). Musial never led the National League in home runs, but he led eight times in doubles, five times in triples and six times in slugging percentage. This was a player who never loafed to first base, that's for sure.
"I consciously memorized the speed at which every pitcher in the league threw his fastball, curve, and slider," Musial said about his approach to hitting. "Then, I'd pick up the speed of the ball in the first 30 feet of its flight and knew how it would move once it had crossed the plate."
The respect the writers held for Musial was evident in the MVP voting: He won the award three times and finished second on four other occasions. The only player with more MVP "award shares" (percentage of total MVP votes) than Musial is Bonds. "I've had pretty good success with Stan [Musial] by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third," Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Carl Erskine once said.
Ballplayer. I like it. And if I were starting a team, I might just take Stan the Man and leave the headaches for somebody else.