In his debut with the Cardinals, Stan Musial saw a knuckleball for the first time. Rather than become baffled or intimidated, Musial determined what he’d have to do to succeed, adjusted his approach at the plate and attacked the pitch with a purpose.
Seventy-five years ago, on Sept. 17, 1941, at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, Musial, 20, appeared in his first Cardinals game in the nightcap of a doubleheader versus the Braves. Batting third and playing right field, Musial was 2-for-4 with two RBI in the Cardinals’ 3-2 victory.
Facing knuckleball pitcher Jim Tobin, 28, who was in his fifth season in the big leagues, Musial had a double and a single, launching a Cardinals career that would lead to his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Converted from a pitcher to an outfielder, Musial had opened the 1941 season with the Cardinals’ Class C minor-league club at Springfield, Mo. In 141 games combined for Springfield and Class AA Rochester, Musial batted .359 with 204 hits.
When Rochester was eliminated from the International League playoffs, Musial returned home to Donora, Pa. After attending Sunday Mass, he was taking a nap when a telegram arrived from the Cardinals, instructing him to report to the big-league club in St. Louis.
Musial walked into the Cardinals’ clubhouse for the first time on the morning of Sept. 17 and was greeted by equipment manager Butch Yatkeman, who issued the newcomer uniform number 6.
After watching the Cardinals win the first game of the doubleheader, 6-1, behind rookie starter Howie Pollet, Musial was put in the lineup for Game 2 by manager Billy Southworth.
In the first inning, Musial stepped to the plate against Tobin.
Recalling the moment in his book, “Stan Musial: The Man’s Own Story,” Musial said, “I’ll never forget … the challenge of the first knuckleball I’d ever seen. It fluttered up to the plate, big as a grapefruit but dancing like a dust devil.”
Musial swung and popped up weakly to the third baseman.
The next time up, Musial took a different approach. “I learned to delay my stride, cut down my swing and just stroke the ball,” Musial said.
With two on and two outs in the third inning, Musial swung at the knuckler and lined a two-run double to right-center field.
The Cardinals won, 3-2, when Estel Crabtree snapped a 2-2 tie with a walkoff home run against Tobin in the ninth. Boxscore
Said Musial: “I was a happy kid all right and pretty lucky.”
In its report on the game, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch cited “some welcome help from Stanley Musial, recruit outfielder from Rochester.”
Impressed, The Sporting News called Musial “a hard hitter” who “packs a lot of wallop in his 5 feet and 11 inches and 158 pounds of muscle.”
In summary, The Sporting News opined, “In addition to his hitting ability, Musial has shown exceptional speed and defensive skill. National League pitchers can expect to see a lot of him in 1942.”
In 12 games with the 1941 Cardinals, Musial batted .426 (20-for-47) and struck out just once.
He would go on to bat .429 (18-for-42) in his career versus Tobin, according to retrosheet.org.