November 18, 2008

"OLD BUT NOT GRAY":

Benching Of A Legend: The prideful struggle of an aging Stan Musial to keep on playing ball has been a painful experience for everyone (Roger Kahn, 9/12/60, Sports Illustrated)

Disturbing paradoxes surround an aging baseball player. He is old but not gray; tired but not short of breath; slow but not fat as he drives himself down the first base line. Long after the games, when the old ballplayer thinks seriously, he realizes that he has become obsolete at an age when most men are still moving toward their prime in business and, in politics, are being criticized for their extreme youth. It is a melancholy thing, geriatrics for a 40-year-old.

To Joe DiMaggio , age meant more injuries and deeper silences. To Bob Feller it meant months of forced jokes, with nothing to pitch but batting practice. To more fine ballplayers than anyone has counted age has meant Scotch, bourbon and rye. The athletes seldom bow out gracefully.

Amid the miscellaneous excitements of the current National League pennant race, the most popular ballplayer of his time is trying desperately to overcome this tradition. Stanley Frank Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals , now 39 and slowed, intends to end his career with dignity and with base hits. Neither comes easily to a ballplayer several years past his peak, and so to Musial, a man accustomed to ease and to humility, this has been a summer of agony and pride.

Consider one quiet June evening in Milwaukee when Musial walked toward the batting cage to hit with the scrubs, dragging his average (.235) behind him. He had been riding the bench for two weeks.

Out of place

"Hey, what a funny-looking ballplayer," called Red Schoendienst of the Braves , who was Musial 's roommate on the Cardinals for five years. Musial grinned wide. It was an old joke between old friends. Then he stood silently among anonymous second-liners, attempting to act as though he were used to the company.

"Stash," someone said, while George Crowe , a St. Louis pinch hitter was swinging, "did you know that Preacher Roe was using a spit ball when he pitched against you?"

The question snapped Musial to life. "Sure," he said, enthusiastically. "We had a regular signal for it. One day Preacher goes into his motion and Terry Moore , who's coaching at third, picks off the spitter and gives me the signal. Preacher knows I've got it, so he doesn't want to throw the spitter. But he's halfway through his wind-up and all he can change to is a lollipop [nothing ball]. I hit it into the left-field seats, and I laughed all the way around the bases."

Musial laughed again at the memory, then stepped in to hit. He swung three times but never got the ball past the batting practice pitcher. A knot of Milwaukee fans jeered as Musial stepped out of the cage, and the sound, half boos, half yahs, was harsh. Musial blushed and began talking very quickly about other games against Roe and the old Brooklyn Dodgers . "Yeah, I could really hit those guys," he said. It was strange and a little sad to see so great a figure tapping bouncers to the pitcher and answering boos with remembrances of past home runs.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 18, 2008 6:57 AM
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