Affixing Stan Musial’s place in baseball history is one of the game’s great pastimes. Is he better than Aaron or Williams? How does he compare to Wagner, Bonds or Speaker? Is he better than Gehrig? The debate will certainly be revived now that Musial has passed on at the age of 92.
Musial’s numbers are stunning: he had a career BA of .331, hit better than .300 seventeen times, is third in the N.L. in RBIs, ranks fourth in history in total hits (3630), won three N.L. MVP awards and three World Series.
His best year, arguably, was 1948. He led the National League in average (.376). hits (230), runs (135), doubles (46), triples (18), RBIs (131), OBP (.450), slugging (.702) OPS (1.152) and total bases (429). He was voted the National League’s MVP and appeared in his 10th All Star Game — in a row.
Where does that put him in baseball history? It depends on who you ask. The Baseball Almanac puts Musial at 10th all-time (behind Hornsby and Gehrig, surprisingly), the Baseball Guru (based on Win Shares) puts him at seventh (behind Wagner, but ahead of Bonds, Speaker and Mantle), ESPN puts him at eighth (pitchers are included — and Clemens is 7th!), and Bleacher Report ranks him 6th.
The usefulness of such lists is questionable, but in baseball they serve a credible purpose — sparking comparisons of data while uncovering similarities and differences. In Musial’s case, the most interesting comparison (and similarity) is with Ted Williams — who has comparable, if better, numbers.
Williams outdistances Musial in batting average (.344 to .331) and home runs (521 vs. 475), but Williams comes up short in terms of personal awards (two MVPs vs. three), and post-season appearances (zero vs. three). Musial played three more years, but Williams didn’t play at all during World War Two.
But how close were they really? Those who put Williams ahead of Musial in terms of pure numbers have it right: “the splendid splinter” hit for power and got on base more. That said, there’s this, from Bill James (who’s no slouch): “(I)f I had to choose between the two of them, I’d take Musial in left field, Musial on the basepaths, Musial in the clubhouse, and Williams only with the wood in his hand. And Stan Musial could hit a little, too.”
We agree, and then some: Stan, after all, played in the senior circuit — while Williams plied his wares among the underclass (now the home, fittingly, of the Astros). Which is why our own list, compiled by the CFG board of directors (and here they are) is much more subjective: Musial is 4th All Time (with a separate list for pitchers) behind Ruth, Mays, and Cobb but ahead of Hornsby, Gehrig and Aaron. And ahead of Williams, who would be an itchy-close 4th.
Of course there’s that other list — of players who through their style and character place themselves above the statistics and data. That list drops Cobb (“the darkest man in baseball“) into the underworld, cuts into Teddy Ballgame’s reputation and rewards the contributions of Aaron, Clemente and Gehrig. On that list, Musial ranks first.