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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Musial’s His Man

George Vecsey, an award-winning sports columnist at The New York Times, believes the St. Louis Cardinals’ Hall of Famer Stan Musial, a baseball superstar in the mid-20th century, has too often been overlooked in the 21st.

Vecsey wanted to do something about it, and the impressive result is the highly entertaining and just-published Stan Musial: An American Life (ESPN and Ballantine Books). Despite playing 22 seasons spanning from the 1940s into the 1960s, winning seven National League batting titles, and finishing with a career batting average of .331, Musial remains unappreciated, Vecsey argues. Moreover, few major leaguers have ever had a better home run (475) to strike-out ratio (696). “If he (Musial) doesn’t swing at it, it’s a ball,” one home plate umpire told Joe Torre.

Two prestigious institutions have taken notice of Vecsey’s historical reassessment, inviting the Port Washington resident and Hofstra alumnus to talk next month about his Musial biography. Vecsey’s first stop will be Tuesday, Aug. 2, at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. His presentation on that day, part of its 2011 Author Series, gets under way at 1 p.m. in the museum’s Bullpen Theater. Vecsey’s Musial Appreciation Tour then moves on to The Hotel Commonwealth in Boston, MA on Thursday, Aug. 11, where he’ll be the guest speaker at a dinner being held as part of The Boston Red Sox’ Great Fenway Park Writers Series. The event begins at 6:30 p.m.

Compiling a book on Musial’s life was a daunting task. Neither Musial, who is now 90 years old and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, nor his wife, Lil, were available for interviews. And only one of their four children, Gerry Ashley, agreed to speak with Vecsey.

“I knew I could get people in baseball to call me back,” Vecsey said, during a recent interview, explaining how his Rolodex, which dates back to his days as a Newsday sports writer in the 1960s, gave him a roadmap to the individuals who would provide the book’s source material. Indeed, it is the anecdotes from household names, like former Cardinals catchers-turned broadcasters Joe Garagiola and Tim McCarver, that drive the lively narrative, which offers a window into what it was like to be a nationally-known sports figure before the Internet, sports talk radio and ESPN changed everything.

Musial, who grew up in Donora, PA, played on the same high school baseball team as Buddy Griffey, father of Ken Griffey Sr. and the grandfather of Ken Griffey Jr., and the six-degree-of-separation moments continue to unfurl from there. The Cardinals drafted Musial as a pitcher, a position he played in the minor leagues before moving on to the outfield and first base. But Musial’s athletic ability also extended to basketball and, in his twilight years, he wondered aloud whether playing that sport at the University of Pittsburgh, not far from Donora, might have changed the course of his life.

Nonetheless, there is additional evidence that Stan the Man is finally getting his due. President Obama awarded Musial and a number of other distinguished citizens the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 2011, a further sign that “people were rediscovering the old master,” Vecsey concludes.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: