“Set the bar, Albert.” This is the new mantra in baseball news. Albert Pujols, perhaps the best hitter in baseball, completes the final year of his contract with the St. Louis Cardinals this year. Contract negotiations stalled on the day before spring training began. Both sides agreed to delay them until the end of the season, at which time the Cardinals will have five days of exclusive rights to resign the hitting star.
The bar refers to the salary package. Alex Rodriquez netted the highest package in history, signing with the New York Yankees in 2008 for $275 million over 10 years. Rumors indicate that Pujols wants $300 million over 10 years, a price many teams will gladly pay for a hitter of his caliber. Rumors, again, place the Cardinals’ offer at $160 million over 8 years, quite a distance from the bar. Both sides remain silent on the actual figures.
Those who know baseball will not contest the value that Pujols brings to a team. His statistics are comparable to the man considered the best hitter to ever play the game, Ted Williams. After 10 seasons with the Cardinals, Pujols is on pace to surpass many of Williams’ totals of his 19-year career.
During negotiations, Pujols agreed to a request by the Cardinals to extend the deadline by one day so that the Cardinals management could give attention to another Cardinals player, Stan Musial, known as Stan the Man. Musial played 22 seasons for the Cardinals between 1941 and 1963, missing the 1945 season to serve in the Navy during WWII.
Musial ranks among the best hitters in MLB history. Some argue he is in the top five, with Williams, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. He is fourth on the career hits list. He led the league in batting average seven times and won three MVP’s.
On February 15, Musial received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama, along with 14 other distinguished individuals. A president can bestow this honor on any person who makes “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” It is the highest civilian award in the U.S.
Musial did not receive this reward for his baseball achievements, but for his character. His 90-year life has displayed humility, honesty and integrity. On the field and off, he earned the highest respect from players and fans. He never refused an autograph request and never eluded a fan who wanted to shake his hand.
In 1947, when Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play major league baseball, was called up by the Brooklyn Dodgers, many players protested the integration. The Cardinal players threatened to strike when the two teams met for a series in May. Commissioner Happy Chandler promised suspension for any player who struck. Always a private person, Musial revealed his opposition to the racism of his own teammates and always offered quiet support to the maligned Robinson, which Robinson appreciated.
For his 22-year career, he earned $1,261,400. His annual salary reached $100,000 for two seasons, setting the bar in salaries those years. In one of those years, Musial was disgusted with his productivity and asked the owners to reduce his salary to $75,000. That will probably never happen again in professional baseball.
As a boy, U.S. Representative William Lacy Clay watched Musial play at Sportsman Park. After getting to know him as an adult, Clay said, “Stan Musial is a national treasure. His remarkable life represents the very best of America.” Missouri Governor Jay Nixon praised Musial, commenting that the medal “was appropriate for a man who is both a baseball immortal and an extraordinary American and gentleman.”
I may be biased in my opinion of Stan the Man. On the night I was born, Musial hit a home run that helped the Cardinals win a game. My father had a great admiration for Musial as a man and decided to name his firstborn son after this baseball hero. I have always worn the name with great esteem for my namesake.
Most authorities on baseball lament that free agency nurtured greed, which has produced shameless salaries. Arguably, the money ruins the game and the players. Character gets lost in the cluster of zeros in salary packages.
What if a different bar was revered in baseball, a bar that Musial may have set? What if players aspired to integrity rather than income? What if reputation won more accolades than records? What if the league slashed salaries, putting major league players in the same tax bracket as teachers?
Job set this kind of bar in his generation. God boasted to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.” (Job 2:3) This commendation cannot be equaled by any salary.
Seven former MLB players and three Negro League players have won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, including Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Buck O’Neil. Musial joined elite company. I can’t help but think that the legacies of these players have outlasted their salaries by decades. It begs the question, Which bar would you prefer to set?