Today, baseball mourns the passing and celebrates the life of the original Met-killer — or, more precisely, the Original Mets-killer.
Stan Musial, who died Saturday at 92, raked against the Mets. I don’t think they called it “raking” then, but they could’ve invented the term on the spot once they saw him take the measure of the Metropolitans. He succeeded against all, he flourished against many, but he was the ultimate late re-bloomer when it came to facing Mets pitching.
Musial enjoyed a career renaissance at age 41 in 1962. That was also the year the Mets were born. It did not seem to be a coincidence. On the verge of retirement after turning 40 following the 1961 season, Stan found himself with incentive to keep playing.
“[T]hey invented the Mets,” wrote Jerry Mitchell in The Amazing Mets. “Stan looked at the pitching staff that had been rounded up for the new club and drooled at the thought of the hits he could get if he stayed on; all thoughts of quitting fled his mind. He went right down in the cellar and began to bone his bats.”
A Cardinal spokesman didn’t hide Musial’s expansion glee, either: “[Stan] said something about how nice it would be if he could play 18 games with the Mets, nine of them at the Polo Grounds, which used to be one of his favorite parks.”
Stan Musial’s track record within the city of New York was already the stuff of legend prior to 1962. Nobody’s ever had to listen to Ralph Kiner very long for the story of how Brooklynites, in the course of watching Dodger hurlers surrender 37 home runs to Musial at Ebbets Field, would fret as he left the on-deck circle, “Here comes that man again.” Natch, he became Stan the Man.
The Man hit .359 at Ebbets, but did very well for himself at the Polo Grounds, too, chalking up a .341 average from 1942 through 1957. But when the PG reopened for business in 1962…well, here came that Man again, pounding Met pitchers so powerfully that vibrations could be felt across all five boroughs.
Musial at the Polo Grounds against the Mets in their first year: 11-for-25, with 4 homers (all in one series, including three in the same game) and 10 ribbies. His lifetime average in Manhattan leapt to .345. Overall against the Mets in their first year, The Man was reborn as a kid in his prime: batting .468, slugging .787. The 22-for-47 virtuoso performance, which started with a 3-for-3 on Opening Night in St. Louis and included the first run ever driven in against the Mets, changed the complexion of the National League batting race in 1962. Without his at-bats versus whatever arms the Mets threw at him, Musial was a .314 hitter, plenty solid for a 41-year-old. Mix in what he did to the Mets, the Man was suddenly raking at a .330 clip, third-best in the senior circuit — and incredible, considering his senior status.
Not only did you have to respect him, you couldn’t help but love him. Everything you’re reading and hearing about Stan Musial in death jibes quite accurately with what people thought of him in life, and not just as a revered, retired immortal. The Mets were so enamored of what he meant to baseball (and to New York fans who shared his Polish heritage) after two decades in the game that they honored the Man with Stan Musial Night at the Polo Grounds in August. The Associated Press guessed this was “the first time such an occasion has been arranged for an out-of-town ball player. If it is, it is another of Musial’s growing stack of records.”
Gifts stacked up at Musial’s side when the Mets gave “baseball’s perfect knight” (Ford Frick’s phrase) his own New York night. There were, according to Bill Morales, author of New York Versus New York, 1962, “golf clubs, a hunting gun, and from Ted Williams — his only contemporary peer in the hitting department — a fishing rod.” Representing the New York chapter of the BBWAA, Dick Young presented Musial with a portable typewriter. The press loved him as much as fans home and away, describing him as part of “a vanishing breed…a gentleman professional in and out of uniform”. Musial, in turn, had nothing but good to say about this so-called enemy territory, thanking the sport’s decision-makers for returning baseball to New York, “where I like to play”.
As tipping a cap to a lethal opponent goes, the treatment the Mets gave Musial in 1962 kind of makes that business from last September of slipping Chipper Jones a painting and hoping nobody would notice look even sadder than it actually was.
Yes, different times. And to be fair, if it wasn’t exactly a note of dissent, an element of the Met crowd made an early version of the “not impressed” face at the festivities, at least by the Marv Throneberry-centric reckoning of Jimmy Breslin. “[T]he fans,” Breslin wrote in Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?, “proudly wearing their VRAM t-shirts and shouting their cheer, showed much more affection for Throneberry. Musial? He was fine. Great guy, magnificent baseball player. A perfectionist. Only who the hell needed him? The mob yelled for Marvelous Marv.” The Mets’ cult hero’s reaction to the reaction that seemed to favor Marv over the Man?
“I hated to take the play away from Stan on his big day here.”
Not really a problem where Musial versus the Mets was concerned. The Man played on through 1963 and continued to (however gentlemanly) display his own brand of unimpressedness with New York pitching. In two seasons, he came to the plate against the Mets 101 times and reached 52 times via hit or walk. According to ESPN Stats & Info’s Mark Simon, that .515 on-base percentage remains the best any player has ever recorded against the Mets over the course of a career (100 plate-appearance minimum).
It’s always seemed strange to me to realize Stan Musial’s career overlapped with the Mets’ existence. As noted by Morales, he was a contemporary of Ted Williams, not to mention Joe DiMaggio and however many greats one dares inject from that same era into this same conversation. Musial, like Williams and DiMaggio, first played in the big leagues before America entered World War II. He played for St. Louis before Warren Spahn warmed up in Boston, before Ralph Kiner made it to Pittsburgh, before Jackie Robinson debuted in Brooklyn, before Richie Ashburn showed up in Philadelphia. He outlasted all of them, too. Musial was still a Cardinal when youngsters we’d associate with later decades — Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub, Pete Rose — were breaking in.
The Mets were a modern creation, yet they crossed paths with Stan Musial at the end of a truly classic tenure. Classic took it to modernity pretty good in those days.
And then there’s the “hey guy!” story.
It’s not much of a story, I suppose. It’s been passed along to me second-hand, but ever since I first heard it a few years ago, it never fails to make me want to grab a harmonica and play “Take Me Out To The Ball Game”.
Seems a friend of a friend was in Cooperstown one induction weekend and, since it was Sunday, attended church services. I think that’s how it goes.
OK, so this friend was coming out of church in Cooperstown, and who should come walking in his direction but the great Stan Musial, all 475 home runs and 3,630 base hits of him? It was an awe-striking moment. You go to the Hall of Fame and you find yourself eye-to-eye with one of its prime residents. You couldn’t pray for an encounter like this, but here it is, right in front of you: Stan Musial, ambling right your way.
What in the name of Marty Marion do you to say to Stan Musial? My friend’s friend went for simplicity:
Stan’s response? He smiled and he said…
…and he continued on his walk.
The Man, indeed.
For a more small-c catholic perspective on Stan Musial, we recommend Joe Posnanski’s reflections, here. And for an array of thoughts on the late Earl Weaver, who managed the Baltimore Orioles to the 1969 American League pennant, Posnanski’s got those, too.