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Ben Frederickson: Here's hoping Mays and Musial watched Thursday's game together

Ben Frederickson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch on

Published in Baseball

I hope Willie Mays and Stan Musial got to watch this game together.

That’s how I chose to imagine it playing out Thursday night, as the Cardinals and Giants met at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Ala., to honor the historic Negro Leagues stadium and remember the great players who starred there in the past.

In the forever debate about naming the best all-around baseball player of all time, Mays is, at worst, tied for first. His death Tuesday, just days before this Rickwood Field showcase, created a more somber tone than expected. But Mays’ spirit, as powerful as his baseball superpowers, attempted to discourage that. Just like he did with his over-the-head catch on a Vic Wertz fly ball in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, Mays was out in front of everyone else.

“Birmingham, I wish I could be with you all today,” wrote Mays in his remarks sent to his friend Dusty Baker before his death. “This is where I’m from. I had my first pro hit here at Rickwood as a Black Baron. And now this year, some 76 years later, that hit finally got counted in the record books. I guess some things take time. But I always think better late than never. Time changes things. Time heals wounds. And that’s a good thing.”

Instead of focusing on the cruel curveball of Mays having to miss this, I imagined Musial and Mays watching their beloved teams together instead.

They'd be wearing different hats and different championship rings. They'd be wearing the same Presidential Medal of Freedom. Mays pulling for his Giants. Musial pulling for his Cardinals. The “Pride of N.L." reunited again. That was the phrase used on the 1963 Topps baseball card that featured both first-ballot Hall of Famers gripping the same bat. The image must have caused pitching panic attacks nationwide.

“It’s a very sad day for me,” Mays said when Musial died in 2013. “I knew Stan very well. He used to take care of me at All-Star Games, 24 of them. He was a true gentleman who understood the race thing and did all he could. Again, a true gentleman on and off the field. I never heard anybody say a bad word about him, ever.”

Musial’s opinion of Mays was just as high.

“He’s a perfect ballplayer,” Musial wrote about Mays in his autobiography. “Mays can beat a ballclub with his bat, glove, arm and legs. The guy plays with a contagious enthusiasm.”

Musial had more hits (3,630 to 3,293), but Mays had more homers (660 to 475). Mays had better defense and gobs more steals (339 to 78), but Musial had more RBIs (1,951 to 1,909) and fewer strikeouts (696 to 1,526).

What is remarkable, though, is just how much they had in common.

Mays played 23 seasons between his Negro Leagues debut in 1948 and his final season with the Mets in 1973. He didn’t play in 1953 due to serving in the Army. He was a 42-year-old All-Star in his final season.

 

Musial played 22 seasons between his debut in 1941 and his final season in 1963. He didn’t play in 1945 due to serving in the Navy. He was a 42-year-old All-Star in his final season.

Mays played 3,005 games, which ranks ninth all time. Musial played 3,026, which is tied with Eddie Murray in the spot right ahead of Mays.

Mays and Musial, per research done by The New York Times, are two of the five players in MLB history to homer for the same team at the age of 20 and again at the age of 40. The other three are Ted Williams, Henry Aaron and George Brett.

Mays was a 24-time All-Star. Same for Musial. But they didn’t just go. They showed. Mays remains the all-time All-Star Game hits leader with 23. Musial had 20. No one else has even 15. Mays and Musial both made the All-Star team in each of their final 20 seasons.

Mays’ career produced an adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS+) of 155, meaning, if you buy the advanced statistic, he was a 55% better hitter than the league-average hitter during the course of his career. Musial’s OPS+ was 159.

Or, if you prefer the more traditional stats, check these out.

Mays through 12,545 plate appearances slugged .557. Musial through 12,721 plate appearances slugged .559.

Mays socked 1,326 extra-base hits during his career. Musial? 1,377.

In their 206 head-to-head games, Mays (1.017) and Musial (1.002) exited with nearly identical on-base plus slugging percentages. Mays hit 44 homers in games played against Musial’s Cardinals. Musial hit 47 in games played against Mays.

And then there’s this one, which could very well be the best one.

Mays and Musial, both universally respected for their grace and class along with their games, are believed to rank first and second all time in number of games played without a single ejection.


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