By Marty Appel
The sad passing of Ted Williams reduces to just two, the last of the ‘immortals of baseball’, players who were already stars before Jackie Robinson integrated pro baseball and took us into the post-war, modern era.
Stan Musial and Bob Feller.
Feller will be 84 on November 3, and 18 days later, Musial turns 82. Stan has survived prostate cancer, and both seem to be doing well, making appearances, serving as goodwill ambassadors for their game. And both really touched baseball history, not only of their own making.
Take Feller, for instance. He was actually friends with Cy Young; went to his funeral. He knew Cobb, Speaker, Hornsby. When he broke in as a 17-year old in 1936, he pitched to Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Bill Dickey. He pitched against Red Ruffing, Lefty Grove, and Lefty Gomez. Babe Ruth had retired the year before.
Feller’s was a wonderful story, a teenager, on summer vacation from high school, brought up to the major leagues from a farm in Van Meter, Iowa. He struck out 15 in his first big league start. During the Great Depression, what an uplifting story this was for a nation in love with baseball.
Feller’s autobiography was published in 1947, called “Bob Feller’s Strikeout Story,” which would become part of Grosset & Dunlop’s wonderful “Big League Baseball Library.” One brief excerpt from chapter two captures the time and the tale so well:
“We were in the fields that day, combining wheat, and I was driving the tractor. As the tractor climbed a slight rise, I could see the figure of a man coming toward us, threading his way through the wheat. Like my father he was tall and thin. As he came closer, I decided that they looked a great deal alike.
“’Howdy,’ he said, and my father nodded.
“’I’m Cyril Slapnicka,’ he continued, ‘of the Cleveland Indians. That the boy they tell me is quite a pitcher?’”
And so it began there. And there would always be the farmboy in Feller. He once told Tom Seaver to throw a curve ball “like you’d fling a buggy whip,” as if Seaver knew how to do that. Didn’t everyone?
There would be a few other Feller books along the way. “Pitching to Win,” followed right on the heels of “Strikeout Story,” and was more of an instructional book, but also part of the “Big League Baseball Library.” After a juvenile biography came out in 1990 (part of the Chelsea House “Legends” series, written by Morris Eckhouse), Bill Gilbert collaborated with Feller on an updated autobiography, “Now Pitching: Bob Feller, A Baseball Memoir,” which was published in 1991. Gilbert, who was carving a path through baseball literature, writing books with Duke Snider and Dom DiMaggio, delivered a strong overview of the Feller life, 35 years after he had thrown his final pitch.
In the hobby world, a lot of people have come to feel Feller has been overexposed. “The rarest baseball,” they joke, “is one not autographed by Bob Feller.” But they sell him short on exactly what he contributed to the hobby industry – he practically invented it! Right after his career, armed with his pilot’s license, he began to barnstorm across the country, making hundreds of minor league appearances, offering pitching demonstrations, signing autographs, selling photos, posing for pictures, and just being “Bob Feller.” The card shows of today largely grew out of his appearances. When he sits in a row signing photos, consider that he was doing it for a living, alone, long before anyone else at the table thought of receiving money for an autograph. He was doing it in 1957!
Last year, another book came along, “Bob Feller’s Little Black Book of Baseball Wisdom,” of which he has plenty. It was written by Burton Rocks, and published by Contemporary.
During his career, Musial was usually spoken of in the same breath as Ted Williams. He won seven batting championships, Williams won six. In 1948, Stan led the league in runs, hits, doubles, triples, RBIs, and batting average (.376), and his 39 home runs were just one short of tying for the league lead and winning the Triple Crown. He broke most of Honus Wagner’s or Mel Ott’s league marks, and won three MVPs. Like Williams, his World Series appearances were few (none after 1946), and like Williams, his regular .300 marks ended with a thud in 1959. Williams came back to hit .316 and retire in ’60; Stan kept going until ’63, and put up another .330 season in 1962, age 41.
It was in retirement that Williams seemed to pull away from Stan in fan appreciation. They were no longer spoken of in equal terms; Williams took on DiMaggio in fan debates. Musial, the easy-going harmonica player from Donora, Pa., became a bit of a forgotten man.
But Stan surely touched baseball history too! His first manager in the minors was Dickie Kerr, one of the “honest’ White Sox pitchers of 1919. And Kerr’s Chicago manager had been Kid Gleason, who had broken in back in 1888. Gleason to Kerr to Musial, and you’re in 1963, Pete Rose’s rookie year.
The first Musial biography came out that year. It was called “Stan Musial: Baseball’s Durable Man,” written by the durable Ray Robinson (who has been a published author now in seven decades). The book went through more than ten printings – people were hungry for his life story after his career was finally winding down. In ’64 came his autobiography, “Stan Musial: The Man’s Own Story,” as told to Bob Broeg, the dean of St. Louis writers and a member of the writer’s wing of the Hall of Fame.
Broeg returned in 1977 with “The Man, Stan, Then and Now,” an affectionate look backwards. In 1993, Chelsea House included Stan in their Baseball Legends series (by John Grabowski), and in 1994 came “Stan the Man Musial: Born to Be a Ballplayer,” by Jerry Lansche. In 2001, a very well received volume from James Giglio called “Musial: From Stash to Stan the Man,” brought his life up to date.
Oh, and in 1994, there was an instructional book on harmonica playing, a 9”x12” softcover called “Stan Musial Plays the Harmonica.” Enough said on that one.
The Musial books are worth rereading, because it wasn’t right that the force of Ted Williams’ personality so overshadowed Stan’s accomplishments. He was a fabulous player. Likewise, Feller belongs in the same breath as the greatest hurlers the game has ever known, and while we still have these two, it is worth knowing their stories.