Fifty years ago, as he prepared to enter the last season of his distinguished playing career, Stan Musial was feeling, at 42, like an athlete approaching his peak rather than one facing the end.
On the morning of Jan. 3, 1963, Musial impressed himself and his trainer by completing a vigorous workout _ his first day of conditioning in advance of spring training. That afternoon, he signed his contract for the 1963 season at a figure that for the first time in three years wasn’t a pay cut.
From a Cardinals historical perspective, 2013 is significant as the golden anniversary of the final season for the greatest player in the franchise’s history.
The reason Musial was heading into his 22nd major-league season in 1963 was because he had produced spectacularly in 1962.
After three consecutive seasons of finishing with batting averages below .290, the seven-time National League batting champion had indicated 1962 would be his last year as a player. He changed his mind, however, after batting .330 with a .416 on-base percentage in 135 games in 1962. Those numbers returned Musial to elite status. He placed third in the league in batting (behind the Dodgers’ Tommy Davis, .346, and the Reds’ Frank Robinson, .342) and first among left-handed batters. Musial also ranked second in the league in on-base percentage (behind Robinson, .421).
Inspired, Musial wanted to return for the 1963 season _ and the Cardinals welcomed him. (General manager Bing Devine and manager Johnny Keane encouraged Musial to return; Branch Rickey, 81, a senior advisor to owner Gussie Busch, said Musial should retire.)
“I felt like I did in the old days,” Musial said to The Sporting News of his 1962 performance. “I knew I was going to hit. I knew I was going to play every day. Yes, my biggest thrill was the overall season. I couldn’t wait for the next game. I really hated to see last season end and I can’t wait for the next one to start.”
Dressed in a black suit with a black tie and a white shirt, Musial arrived at the boardroom of the Anheuser-Busch headquarters in St. Louis for the official contract signing. He accepted the Cardinals’ offer of an estimated $65,000 to $70,000, the same amount he played for in 1962.
(The Sporting News reported Musial signed for $65,000. The Associated Press wrote two versions of the story, reporting the figure as $65,000 in one and $70,000 in the other. United Press International reported the amount as $70,000. All three news organizations reported the figure was the same as Musial had earned in 1962.)
That ended a string of three consecutive years of pay reductions for Musial.
In 1959, Musial was earning $100,000 a year from the ballclub. After he hit .255 (first time below .300 in his career) in 1959, Musial asked for (and received) a $20,000 pay cut, to $80,000, for the 1960 season, according to The Sporting News.
Though he boosted his average by 20 points, his salary was cut again after he hit .275 in 1960 and it was reduced yet again despite improving to .288 in 1961, The Sporting News reported.
(The Associated Press reported Musial’s salary for 1963 increased his career earnings with the Cardinals to $1.25 million, “the most any player has earned in salary in baseball history.”)
In addition to his stellar 1962 performance, another reason Musial was confident he could contribute significantly to the Cardinals in 1963 was he felt physically fit.
At 10 a.m. on Jan. 3, 1963, Musial went to the St. Louis University gymnasium, climbed onto a scale and was pleased to see it showed him at 184 pounds, just four above his targeted playing weight for the regular season.
Under the watch of Cardinals trainer Bob Bauman, Musial pushed himself through a workout that began with a quarter-mile run, followed by 40 minutes of calisthenics. He finished with a one-mile run, plus a sprint around the gym.
“That was one of the most strenuous opening day workouts Stan has ever gone through,” Bauman said to The Sporting News. “He really looks good and should be in excellent playing condition by the time he reports in Florida.”
Said Musial: “I never felt better … Last spring, I was in much better shape than I had been in five years _ and I aim to be in even better shape than last year … I should be able to play at least 100 games.
“I’ll play as long as I feel I’m helping the club. I’ll settle for anything about .300.”
Musial would play in 124 games (94 as a starter in left field) in 1963 but he batted .255 and his fielding and throwing skills had eroded. It would be in August 1963, three months before he turned 43, that he would announce he would retire from playing at the end of that season.
In his book “Stan Musial: The Man’s Own Story” (Doubleday, 1964), Musial wrote, “I wasn’t a .330 hitter … in 1963, but I’m very glad I played one more year … I had the satisfaction of reaching that point where, without anyone else having to tell me, I realized my liabilities were about to outweigh my assets as a ballplayer.”
Previously: The story behind Stan Musial’s $100,000 contract