The greatness of Stan Musial

At a luncheon for Hall of Famers at the White House in 2003, I won the lottery. Randomly, I was seated between the two nicest superstar players of all time, Brooks Robinson and Stan Musial.

Halfway through lunch, after I'd asked the great Musial questions about such topics as his start as a pitcher and his 1948 season when he hit .376 with 103 extra-base hits and 34 strikeouts, he looked at me and asked if I would like an autographed picture. Three days later, it arrived at my house.

I didn't see Musial again for two years.

"Did you get the picture?" were the first words he said to me.

His nickname was The Man, and he was in every way. Musial was the greatest Cardinal ever, one of the greatest players ever and perhaps the most underrated player of all time. He was a team player, a veteran of World War II and a great ambassador of the game. When he would play "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" on his harmonica to kick off the induction ceremony at the Hall of Fame, well, Cooperstown was never better than at that moment.

"I like to make people smile," he once told me. "The only thing I liked that much was hitting."

Musial began his career as a pitcher but finished as arguably one of the five best players of all time. He had the fourth-most hits in history, 3,630 -- exactly half came at home, exactly half came on the road. He had the sixth-most RBIs, 1,951. He hit .331 with 475 home runs; he, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig are the only players in history to hit that well with that many homers. Only Henry Aaron and Barry Bonds had more extra-base hits than Musial.

"He was the best hitter I ever faced," Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn once told me. "But he was more than that. He was a complete player. No one wanted to win more than Stan."

Musial led the Cardinals to world championships in 1942, '44 and '46. He won seven batting titles, including three straight from 1950 to 1952; he might have won another had he not served his country in World War II in 1945. He won MVP Awards in 1943, '46 and '48; only Bonds has more MVPs in baseball history.

Musial's best season was 1948 when he batted .376 with 46 doubles, 18 triples, 39 home runs, 131 RBIs and 34 strikeouts. Musial never struck out 50 times in a season, finishing his 22-year career with only 696 strikeouts -- Sammy Sosa had almost that many in a four-year span. Musial finished his career with 903 more walks than strikeouts; Reggie Jackson had 1,222 more strikeouts than walks.

When Tony La Russa won the world championship in St. Louis in 2006, he talked, almost with tears in his eyes, about what it meant to win a World Series in St. Louis. He talked about how much of a privilege it was to be "welcomed into the club by Bob Gibson … Lou Brock … and the great Stan Musial. To be in the same club with all of them, with Stan, is so special."

Baseball history tends to forget Musial's stunning greatness because he was in the Midwest and played at the same time as Williams and Joe DiMaggio and at the beginning of the careers of Willie Mays and Aaron. But there's no denying Musial's place in history, an outfielder/first baseman with an unorthodox swing and a smile that could light up a ballpark. In retirement, whenever he made an appearance at a Cardinals game, the fans couldn't get enough of him. It can be argued that no player in the game's glorious history was more important to his franchise, or more beloved in his town, than Musial was in St. Louis.

"That," Brock once told me, "is why he is Stan the Man."

At that Hall of Famers luncheon in 2003, President George W. Bush began the event with a prayer and then asked Musial to come to the front of the room and play "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" on the harmonica. It was so stirring it brought a tear to your eyes. The rendition brought down the house.

Stan "The Man" Musial always did.