In his first spring training as a big-league player, Stan Musial felt the pressure of high expectations, went into a slump and nearly lost a starting spot in the Cardinals outfield.
Seventy-five years ago, in 1942, Musial, 21, reported to spring training at St. Petersburg, Fla., as the favorite to join veterans Terry Moore and Enos Slaughter as outfield starters.
A year earlier, Musial had faced an uncertain baseball future when he converted from pitcher to outfielder at the Cardinals’ minor-league spring training camp. The transformation was a spectacular success, with Musial rapidly rising through the Cardinals system and reaching the big leagues in September 1941.
Based on his strong but brief trial _ .426 batting average (20-for-47) in 12 games with the 1941 Cardinals _ Musial was firmly in the club’s plans entering spring training in 1942.
The 1942 Cardinals were seeking to fill a gap at first base created by the departure of slugger Johnny Mize, who was traded to the Giants in December 1941.
The Cardinals entered 1942 spring training expecting Johnny Hopp and rookie Ray Sanders to compete for the first base job. Hopp had platooned in left field with Don Padgett and Coaker Triplett in 1941. With Hopp shifting to first base, the Cardinals pegged Musial to take over in left field.
“We lost a little strength in Mize, to be sure, but Johnny Hopp, Stan Musial and others will help to make it up,” Cardinals executive Branch Rickey told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in its Feb. 22, 1942, edition.
Musial reported to Cardinals camp on Feb. 27. The next day, the St. Louis Star-Times reported, “You can take it from Billy Southworth, who manages the St. Louis Cardinals and has been in organized baseball for 30 years, that Stan Musial … is the best-looking young left-handed batter to come up to the major leagues since Paul Waner jumped from San Francisco to Pittsburgh in 1926.”
Southworth told Sid Keener of the Star-Times that Musial “is destined to become the rookie of the year” in the National League in 1942.
“He does everything well and looks like he’s been doing it for years the way he runs the bases,” Southworth said. “What is even more amazing is the fact that only a year ago he was a pitcher, just out of the Class D ranks. He hits straightaway like a seasoned veteran.”
In the groove
Musial did well at the start of the Grapefruit League exhibition season. In the opener, on March 6 against the Yankees, Musial hit an inside-the-park home run off Hank Borowy and also produced a RBI-double and a single. Four days later, Musial had two singles and a RBI against the Reds.
Analyzing Musial’s batting stroke, J. Roy Stockton of the Post-Dispatch observed:
“He has an impressive style at bat. He keeps that left arm stiff and swings in a flat arc, which undoubtedly accounts for the fact that he hits so many line drives. Occasionally, he will get under the ball, driving it over the right-field barrier … Musial seems to take a short swing, but his timing is so excellent and his coordination so good that he gets unexpected distance with his drives. His swing reminds you of the drives of a golfer whose game is well-grooved.”
Said Southworth: “Much depends this year on Stan Musial. I’d say he already was one of our key men.”
Facing a challenge
Musial, however, went into a skid the last three weeks of March and his batting average dropped to .194.
In his 1964 book “Stan Musial: The Man’s Own Story,” Musial said he had trouble adjusting to the poor hitting background at Florida ballparks.
While Musial struggled, another rookie left fielder, Harry Walker, 23, hit consistently well for the Cardinals that spring. Unlike Musial, Walker didn’t have the burden of high expectations and the pressure that came with it.
Entering April, the Cardinals conceded Walker was a contender for the starting left field job. “Walker seems to have found himself,” Southworth said. “He has quit pressing and is just about a 100 percent better ballplayer than he was last spring.”
In his book, Musial said, “If I hadn’t come up to the Cardinals in the fall of 1941 and hit so hard, I’m convinced I would have been sent down in the spring of 1942 because I hit so softly … I was a lemon in the Grapefruit League.”
Blessing from boss
On April 3, near the end of the Cardinals’ time in Florida, Musial broke out of his slump with an inside-the-park home run and a single against the Tigers.
Soon after, when the Cardinals left Florida to return to St. Louis for a set of exhibition games against the Browns before opening the regular season at home, Southworth approached Musial and said, “Don’t worry, Stan. You’re my left fielder. You can do it.”
Said Musial: “Billy had a way with young players. His confidence when I was hitting under .200 helped.”
Musial was the 1942 Cardinals’ Opening Day left fielder. He went on to have a strong first full season in the big leagues, batting .315 with 147 hits in 140 games. Musial produced 32 doubles, 10 triples, 10 home runs and had a on-base percentage of .397.
Musial was a key contributor to a Cardinals club that clinched the NL pennant with a 106-48 record and went on to win four of five against the Yankees in the World Series.
Previously: Why Cardinals traded Johnny Mize to Giants