Early in STAN MUSIAL: AN AMERICAN LIFE, George Vecsey struggles to explain why Musial, one of the elite ballplayers of his era right alongside Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, was left off the fan voting for the Major League Baseball / American Express All-Century team in 2000. He points to the fact that DiMaggio played in New York and Williams played in Boston, a pair of East Coast media outlets that certainly played up their players’ respective legacies far more than St. Louis ever could Musial’s. He points to the drama that surrounded both DiMaggio and Williams even after their playing days ended, their larger than life personalities and legacies, whereas Musial was far less likely to rock the boat, more Midwestern in his values and public persona.
After reading Vecsey’s biography of Musial, I think Vecsey’s latter explanation may be closer to the truth. For one thing, New York loved Musial, a fact Vecsey details in the book. Secondly, throughout the book, it’s obvious that Musial plays things pretty close to the vest. He makes public appearances and signs autographs, and when he’s feeling especially outgoing he’ll play “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on his harmonica, but he never really lets people in, never gives us a real feeling of exactly who Musial is.
In many ways, that keeps Vecsey’s book from going as deep into Musial’s life as I would have liked. It’s extensively researched, as Vecsey quotes a variety of people from all walks of life, people who met Musial just once and came away with a story, and others who knew him during his ball playing days and his life as a businessman / restaurateur. But while Vecsey finds plenty of these stories, he doesn’t speak to Musial for the story. He doesn’t speak to Musial’s wife Lil, though he does speak to their daugher and former son in law. He speaks to a few players who knew Musial in the day, but even they seem to have nothing more to say beyond the fact that he was a nice guy.
In the end, I got the feeling that nobody Vecsey spoke to really knew Musial all that well. There were a lot of stories about what a great guy he was, and the tales of his friendship with Michener was interesting, but for the most part, everyone’s tale of their relationship with Musial was the same — he was a nice guy who could really hit.
Without getting any closer than that, it’s hard to feel like you really understand Stan Musial. Prior to reading this book I read David Maraniss’ book on Vince Lombardi, “When Pride Still Mattered,” and came away feeling as though I really understood Lombardi, both personally and professionally. Maybe Lombardi is simply an easier man to understand simply because he was more expressive and open than Musial ever was.
I recommend the book for baseball fans, especially Cardinals fans, because of the wealth of stories Vecsey collects. It’s a good book, a solid baseball biography, but I came away wanting more, wanting Vecsey to dig just a bit deeper.
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