Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Man

I was eight years old, it was 11:30 at night, and I was in bed spinning the radio dial trying to find a talk show.  Radio talk shows were always lively and fun, extended bits of lighthearted talk with some music tossed in here and there, accompanied by the happy background clink of cocktail glasses.  But instead of clever chatter I found a baseball game.
*
This caught my attention.  It was late and the local teams (the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers) had all finished their games.  This radio broadcast must be coming from someplace way out west, I thought.  Like Pittsburg.  Or maybe even Chicago.
*
The first thing I remember the announcer saying was: "...he's digging into the left side of the plate and settles into his familiar corkscrew batting stance...."
*
A corkscrew batting stance?  Odd.  I knew about strange batting stances, by the way.  My friend, Bobby, from across the street, would choke up on the bat, then hunch over and lay the fat end of his bat on the dirt behind him in the batter's box.  He wouldn't lift up the bat until the ball was sailing toward him.  His way of hitting made me nervous, but, miraculously, he always seemed to make contact.
*
But this corkscrew stance?  In professional baseball?
*
As I tried to picture this weird stance in my head, my father poked his head in my room and asked what I was listening to, so I told him about this batter's (I hadn't heard his name announced) weird stance.  "That's probably Stan Musial," he said.  "He's with the Cardinals and he's a very good baseball player."  He was about to head downstairs to read his newspaper, when he turned to say something else.  Now, it's important to know that my Dad was a diehard Yankee fan who could rattle off the names and stats of every Yankee great.  Every so often he might drop in a nice mention of a Giant (Willie Mays, especially) or of a couple of Dodgers.  But for him the Yankees were where baseball royalty ruled supreme.  So it got my attention when he added, "Musial is one of the greatest players in baseball history.  He's so good a hitter that he's known as 'The Man.'  Stan 'The Man' Musial."
*
As my Dad went downstairs there was a distant cheer from my little plastic radio as Stan Musial rapped a pitch into right field for a double that scored a run.  A perfectly timed moment in my life.
*
The next morning at breakfast I told my parents about the game and how this guy Stan Musial seemed to have won it single-handedly, with two hits and several great fielding plays.  I said I wanted to know more about him.
*
Getting more information wasn't easy way back then.  No internet connection to Amazon or Barnes & Noble; no finger tip computer buying of used books or magazines or whatever.  But by the end of the day my Mom had managed to find a book about Musial (at the library) and my Dad came home with a magazine that had an article about him.  Both with photographs that included his famous corkscrew batting stance.  And his smile.  He seemed like a thoroughly nice guy from what I read and the photos I studied.  I was completely mesmerized by Musial, a non-Yankee and on top of that a National league player for the St. Louis Cardinals.
*
St. Louis?  I looked up where St. Louis was.  Then I read about the Cardinals, their history and who else was on the team with Musial.  I even bagan to appreciate cardinals (the birds) and found some glorious colored pictures of them.  In the weeks to follow my parents found other books and articles about Musial, all of which I gobbled up.  Then I started reading about other great players of the time (Ted Williams and Willie Mays, for example) and even read the official major league baseball rule book.  Don't ask me why because I don't remember wanting to read it, just that when it appeared on the kitchen table I grabbed it and read it cover to cover.  I was probably the only eight-year-old who could get into a screaming argument over a disputed sandlot baseball play and cite and explain rules between cusses, comments on the other kids vision problems, and other insults.
*
Stan Musial's recent death had me thinking about this unusual (for me at the time) quest for information that clearly boardered on the obsessive.  From Musial, to his baseball team and teammates, to a city and then on to other players and hundreds and hundreds of arcane rules.  And birds!  It was like a weed growing and expanding and taking up more and more terrain (in my mind, at least).       
*     
This began as a desire to know more about one of baseball's greatest ever players.  But then I found myself hooked by the gathering of details and the way it shaped and informed my understanding of Musial and baseball.  The more I learned the better I felt I knew Stan Musial.
*
The funny thing is that I now do research for my projects in much the same way.  I begin with a topic that interests me and then start reading about it.  I constantly ask myself if any readers -- kids who probably don't know much about whatever the subject is -- will be interested enough to pick up and read the book.  The research monster grows and grows, taking up months and years of time, and often wandering off into lands that don't have much to do with the focus of the project.  If I get bored with the project, I assume my readers will, too, and I give it up (something that, sigh, has happened all too frequently).  But in most cases I press on with the research until I can 'see' the time and people and situations in my mind and, hopefully, will be able to transcribe these images onto the page so that readers can experience history as if they were actually there.  And maybe be curious enough to carry on their own search for more information.
*
Stan Musial was 'The Man' who led me down this research path.  When I heard that he had died I took a baseball from a dusty office shelf and put it on my desk.  It was signed by Stan Musial in a steady, sure hand with "H of F 69" proudly written underneath  It's the only autographed ball I have.  I never met Stan Musial in person, but for some reason I feel as if I knew him very well. 

7 comments:

Gretchen Woelfle said...

What a wonderful story, Jim. Having recently been hooked by a sports obsession (English football), I've got an expanding library of books on the subject. It's also a reason why I try to spend several months a year in London, to see my beloved Chelsea in person(s)!

Steve Sheinkin said...

I had a similar experience with a book called The Bronx Zoo, a memoir of a year with the crazy NY Yankees of the late 70s, written by a pitcher named Sparky Lyle. I begged my parents for the book (which was kind of R-rated) and finally got it - and became obsessed. I can hardly express how fascinated I was to learn that whenever anyone brought a birthday cake into the clubhouse, my favorite player, Graig Nettles (the only major leaguer with curly hair, as far as I knew) liked to pull down his pants and sit on the cake! The stories in this book sent me searching for more and more...

Robert said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peggy T said...

What a great story. And congratulations on your recent award. Stan the Man would be proud.

Alan Donal said...

Very nice book. I am very interested about online books and I am searching about the gymnastics books.

Jim Murphy said...

Steve -- the sitting on cakes pantless image has forever changed my memory of Nettles! And not in a good way. But I guess he was lucky they didn't have lit candles on them. And, yes, Robert, the behavior contrast between Musial and Weaver was sad to say the least.

Robert said...

Thanks for sharing your connection with this very special man. I found it interesting that Sports Illustrated paired their tribute to "Stan the Man" with that of Earl Weaver, the tempestuous manager and "King of Ejections," who also recently died. A more poignant contrast would be hard to find.