This American Life
Mention “The Big Three” today, and most sports fans envision the Miami Heat. At one time, though, the term referred to baseball’s greats: Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Stan Musial. Journalist Richard Ben Cramer brilliantly captured Williams and DiMaggio in his bestselling bios, but Musial, who never played for an East Coast team nor lived a sensational lifestyle, often went overlooked by nationally acclaimed writers—until now. This month, New York Times sportswriter George Vecsey gives The Man’s life the proper treatment with Stan Musial: An American Life. The book covers everything from Musial’s childhood in Pennsylvania to that peculiar swing, his time in the service to the baseball records and Hall of Fame, his role at Stan Musial & Biggie’s Steak House to home life in Ladue—and Musial’s overall importance to St. Louis. “He was a man of that city,” says Vecsey, “probably in ways deeper than I could understand.”
After publishing Baseball in 2008, what made you decide to write a bio about Stan Musial of all players?
I had done so much research for that book. My editor kept saying, “Lend more of yourself and your own feelings about baseball.” So the opening is me teaching my grandson how to get into a batting stance, and I always turn kids into a kind of modified Musial stance... I write this, and in the middle of the book, I also realized that Musial touched backward and forward as much as much as any player—the man literally overlapped 30 or 40 years of baseball playing experience.
The book is peppered with stories from Bud Selig, Bob Costas, and Tim McCarver. How did they respond when you mentioned Musial?
Just sheer love. They couldn’t say enough about him. It’s the purest form of admiration—people at the top of all they’re doing recognizing him as being one-of-a-kind. They all see Musial in a clearer light than the general view in the United States. They know what a fine person he is, as well as a great player.
Given all of the praise, was it difficult to avoid making out Stan as a saint?
I have one anecdote about this guy volunteering that Musial had snarled at him one day outside Wrigley Field. [Former Cardinal] Dal Maxvill had said to me months earlier, “You’re not going to find one person that’s going to say one bad word about Stan.” And this guy wasn’t even negative; he was just saying I don’t understand… There were other things: Clearly he had his privacy issues and didn’t like to talk about some things in his life; clearly, the relationship with [former business partner Joe] Garagiola went bad—that’s public record—and even there, Joe wouldn’t talk about it.
The book truly does show Musial in all his complexity: his Polish roots, his faith as a devout Catholic, his role during World War II and the civil rights movement. It adds a context lacking in some bios. I was a news reporter for 10 years; I’ve covered the country and things like religion. I wasn’t about to write a standard biography, either of Musial or a baseball player. I was originally going to call the book The Forgotten Man, a play on the song from High Society. Someone said that’s too negative, and the publisher came up with Stan Musial: An American Life. It really is perfect. Whoever came up with that was perfectly cued in to what I was doing. As I read it over, I understand that a lot of it is about America… It is an American story.
Vecsey visited the Missouri Athletic Club on May 11.
Ben Westhoff believes Southern hip-hop deserves more cred. So for his new book, Dirty South, the former River-front Times writer and Wash. U. grad tracked down a slew of Southern rappers, from a cross-dressing rapper named Ms. Peachez to St. Louis’ own Murphy Lee.
Why have Southern rappers received so much resistance from their colleagues on the coasts?
They were a little bit later to the party. New York took such pride in being the birthplace of hip-hop and didn’t really have any interest in letting other regions have their day.
You visited Derrty Entertainment’s office and talked to Murphy Lee. What was most surprising?
He thought that for the St. Louis rap scene to get back up on top, it’s not just that the rappers need to succeed—it’s that the sports teams need to succeed, and the town needs to get on the map again.
How do you think historians will remember the genre?
A lot of these genres that are today really revered were a lot like Southern hip-hop when they were popular. It wasn’t music that was trying to make political statements…it was about getting people to dance.
Westhoff visited Left Bank Books on April 26.