When we first chose the name for StanGraphs all the way back in March of 2012, it had only been about three months since Albert Pujols had left for Anaheim. Yeah, our wounds were still a little fresh, okay? We knew it was ultimately for the best that the great slugger moved on and took his Disneyland-sized contract with him, and that’s especially obvious now after yet another downward trend in 2012, but w were still a little raw about it. The point is, we grew up watching Pujols bash baseballs like no one else we’d ever seen, and we got to see him do it for our favorite team — an honest to God dream come true.
But then the dream ended and reality came crashing down. It helped us realize that there was no true question about where our loyalties were, although for years it was hard to wonder if maybe Albert wasn’t bigger than the Cardinals — bigger than everything in this world, in fact. There’s something magical about watching someone and knowing he will be remembered as a legend while he’s still in his prime, almost like you’re seeing the present and the future all at once. Likewise, there’s something every bit as magical (charming, you might even say) about watching that same player as he gradually ages and becomes less of a threat than he used to be over a career spent playing in front of the same fans. That didn’t happen with Albert Pujols, but thankfully the Cardinals have a player that fulfills all of that and then some; a player who gave fans their dream come true without ever forcing them to give it up. Hint: our site is named after him.
So while we’d love to tell you that we’re huge Stan Musial buffs around here, that we’ve studied up on his history and know all kinds of random, arcane facts about the man, the truth is we chose him as our namesake because it became clear after Albert’s departure that the longtime Cardinal icon was no longer in any danger of ever being displaced, and that perhaps the best way to move on was to give a grateful nod to the past (see our About section). Maybe we also wanted to stick it to Albert a little, too. The point is that we certainly appreciated Stan’s accomplishments and impressive numbers, but come on, as relatively young fans who can’t remember much prior to the Ray Lankford era, we couldn’t truly speak to how incredible he was. Now, with The Man dead at 92, we can say without hesitation that it’s truly a shame we didn’t get to witness his on-field greatness ourselves. Chances are this isn’t the first Stan Musial tribute you’ve come across, so we won’t bore you with the details other eulogizers have already gone into far better than we ever could. We do, however, want to talk about the aspects of Stan that stand out to us, the aspects that fans of a completely different generation can look back on and really admire.
Firstly, there’s the baseball. We’re guilty of gushing in an overly fond manner of the current crop of players, be it on the Cardinals or around baseball in general. We tend to gravitate toward the belief that players are better athletic specimens today, and that they can do things players of previous eras could never imagine. Sometimes we get a little snobby about it, dismissing the accomplishments of players of old by saying the league was easier back then and that today’s players are far better. At the risk of throwing Brian under the bus, he’s even been quoted as saying Bruce Sutter has no business giving Jason Motte any advice on how to pitch after spotting the two of them talking before a game. Those are bold words, to be sure, but Sutter never had peripherals like the ones Motte featured in 2012, even if he did have impressive longevity and that revolutionary split-fingered fastball.
As a result, we always scoffed at the notion of comparing Musial and Pujols. When Albert was in his prime and still improving every year, it seemed to us that he would shatter everything Stan had ever done, and why not? He was bigger, stronger, hit for more power, and just seemed to be an even more complete package at the plate than The Man, at least to us. Now, as Albert’s career winds down, we can finally start comparing the two, and it’s interesting to see just how much Musial’s numbers are holding up. No, he didn’t have Albert’s power, but he was still putting up insane numbers after he passed the age of 30, and that’s something we can’t say about his Dominican counterpart. Consider this: in Pujols’s age-32 season, he posted easily the worst numbers of his career, failing to eclipse even the .900 OPS mark and seeing his walk rate plummet all the way down to 7.8 percent. In Musial’s age-32 season in 1953, he was too busy hitting .337/.437/.609 to worry about declining. Furthermore, he had every intention of continuing his dominance — he didn’t show any signs of slipping at all until 1959, his age-38 season. He would be done after 1963, and over the course of those last five seasons — his full-on nothing-left-in-the-tank-decline — he was still a .283/.369/.466 hitter. Musial didn’t have Albert’s power (we’ll say that again), but in their respective primes there’s not much of a difference, and that’s the only thing he didn’t have over Albert.
However, we’ll resist turning this into a full-blown Musial/Pujols comparison. Such comparisons are inevitable and extremely tempting, but that isn’t the point of this post. What we’re trying to get at here is that Stan Musial was not merely a good player for his time: he’s absolutely, unequivocally one of the greatest players in the history of the game. Look no further than the famed FanGraphs (they stole our name from us despite having originated several years prior) leader boards and sort by WAR. There you’ll find Mr. Musial nestled comfortably at the number nine spot of all-time with 139.4 WAR, 0.4 WAR behind the great Ted Williams and nearly 5.0 WAR ahead of the legendary Rogers Hornsby — that’s some pretty good company. And oh, since we can’t resist a little more comparison, Albert currently stands at 91.6 WAR for his career. As he’s under contract for another nine seasons, let us assume he maintains the pace he dropped off to last year (4.0 WAR) for the rest of his career even though we all know that won’t happen. Even if it did, however, he’d wind up with 127.6 career WAR, and you don’t need us to tell you that number is not greater than 139.4. The site name may well have been partly tongue-in-cheek, but in hindsight, there’s absolutely no doubt that Musial will go down as the better player even considering Pujols’s unbelievable peak.
There’s also the descriptions about how Stan refused to participate in the poor treatment of black players when they started infiltrating the ranks of Major League Baseball. Who knows to what degree Stan actually stood up for these players, but for that time period, just making it clear they shouldn’t be treated any differently is amazing enough. The fact that Musial would act in such a respectful manner doesn’t surprise us at all, because everything we’ve heard about him seems to indicate he was nothing if not a modest, quiet, and humble guy with a great work ethic. You can get a little too carried away when praising the personality of dead icons sometimes, but Stan seems to be the rare case when a celebrity actually did live the kind of life everyone wishes those in the spotlight would live — namely, he wasn’t motivated by that spotlight. He was just a regular guy with an extraordinary gift of punishing pitchers, a regular guy who didn’t give up even when his career as a pitcher got derailed in the minor leagues, a regular guy who could play the hell out of a harmonica. Too bad we never got a chance to have a jam session with The Man — StanGraphs is big on music, you know.
What struck us most when looking back on Stan’s life, however, was the history of his legacy. A man of 92 years has the chance to experience a great many things, and Stan didn’t fail to do exactly that. I was mesmerized when I saw the picture of Stan standing right next to John F. Kennedy, an almost mythical historical figure in the mind of someone who was born just over 20 years after his assassination. For me, that picture alone is the most telling aspect of Stan’s life. He stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the legends of history — always with that same modest smile on his face — because he is himself a legend of history. I used to gaze at Stan’s statue in front of Busch and wonder what Albert’s would look like next to it. Now I know there isn’t a single Cardinal player, not now or ever, that deserves that kind of honor. There were a lot of factors that went into the naming of StanGraphs, but I can’t imagine a better choice in hindsight.