They were the Greatest Generation’s Greatest Ballplayers, born within six years of each other in another time and place.
Nicknames are sufficient identification. Am talking about the Yankee Clipper/Joltin’ Joe (born Nov. 25, 1914), The Thumper/The Kid/Teddy Ballgame (born Aug. 30, 1918), Rapid Robert (born Nov. 3, 1918) and The Man (born Nov. 21, 1920). Throughout the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, they were the living icons carved into baseball’s mythical Mount Rushmore, the absolute créme de la créme of baseball players, each with a remarkable record and each with a specific persona.
What was once four is now zero. The Yankee Clipper/Joltin’ Joe (Joe DiMaggio) died in 1999. The Thumper/The Kid/Teddy Ballgame (Ted Williams) died in 2002. Rapid Robert (Bob Feller) died in 2010. The last one of the four standing was The Man (Stan Musial), who died at 92 last Saturday. New living icons (Yogi, Willie, Hank, Ernie, Whitey, etc.) move up a notch.
DiMaggio’s saga is in some ways the most interesting, given that his body of work was so much smaller than the others. He missed three full years during World War II (they all served), and averaged only 126 games in his final six seasons because of injury. He played 556 fewer games than Williams and a whopping 1,290 fewer than Musial.
But, whoa, what a fabulous first seven prewar years!
In that span, DiMaggio twice led the league in batting (including .381 in 1939), twice led the league in total bases, and four times had an OPS in excess of 1.000. Then, of course, there was the 56-game hitting streak in 1941 that captivated a nation and even produced Les Brown’s hit record, “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.” In addition, he was acclaimed as the consummate center fielder, the consummate base runner, the consummate all-around ballplayer, period.
But his aura far transcended the numbers. He was acknowledged as the Next Great Yankee, the man to whom The Babe and the Iron Horse had passed the torch. And as time went on, he reveled in the image, constructing his own legend by his reticence or his haughtiness, however you prefer. It was abetted by a worshipful New York press corps led by the highly influential Jimmy Cannon, who became a friend and confidant during their postgame get-togethers at Toots Shor’s.
Marrying Marilyn Monroe at the peak of her fame was a perfect adjunct to the story line. The marriage lasted nine months, but the Yankee Clipper’s public pining for her during the remaining 45 years of his life stoked the legend.
DiMag loved being DiMag, going so far as to demand it be written into any appearance contract that he be introduced as “The Greatest Living Ballplayer.”
I doubt I need explain Ted Williams to a Boston audience. Perhaps you’ve been to his tunnel.
It’s down to Ted, The Babe, and The Big Head (that would be Barry Bonds) as the greatest hitter in history. Each played in a distinct era. Babe never played a night game, made a West Coast trip, or competed against athletes of color.
Ted never had to face a nightly roll call of nasty situational relievers. He and his contemporaries got to feast on a tired starter in the seventh, eighth, or ninth inning on countless occasions. And Barry never had to hit without wearing a pseudo suit of armor against pitchers who threw at batters with impunity in order to stake their claim to the plate.
I could go a gazillion ways with Ted, but I’ll sum it up with a few career stats. On-base percentage: .482 Slugging percentage: .634. OPS: 1.116.
I said career stats. And here’s one more for you modern stat guys: Career OPS-plus (with 100 being the norm): 190.
Ted’s stormy relationship with the press during his playing days gave way to a Feisty Grand Old Man portrayal as he aged. As difficult as it would have been to believe when he retired in 1960, by the time he died 42 years later, he could be well-described as “beloved.”
Feller’s back story involved being an Iowa farm boy, a 17-year-old major league whiz kid, and the man who may have thrown as hard in his prime as anybody ever. Like his fellow Rushmorites, he spent his entire career (1936-56) with one team, in this case the Cleveland Indians. He was 23 when he went to war, and was coming off a three-year period in which he went 76-33 while averaging 320 innings and 256 strikeouts.
When he retired, he was the leader in no-hitters with three and the leader in one-hitters with 12. He may very well have peaked at age 27 when he went 26-15 (48 starts!) while striking out a then-record 348 men, but he was a well-respected pitcher for a full decade before he quit. He retired with 266 victories, and a conservative estimate is that he would have had at least 70 more, absent the war.
In retirement, he became well-known throughout baseball for his, um, forthright high-decibel opinions on anything and everything. We’ll let it go at that. Respected he was, but beloved he was not.
Musial’s career twist was simple. He was a lefthanded pitcher right through 1940 until he hurt his arm. By late 1941, he was in the Cardinals lineup as an outfielder, breaking in with a .426 September BA. When he retired 22 years later, he was the all-time National League leader in everything meaningful, including Best Musician (harmonica). My favorite Musial stat: 3,630 lifetime hits — 1,815 at home and 1,815 on the road. No Coors Field effect for him.
A Brooklyn fan supposedly gave him the nickname in 1947 or so, sighing, “Here comes that man again,” as Stan strode to the plate.
The Man was the least touched by WWII, serving only in 1945 in a non-combat role.
The Yankee Clipper spent all of 1943, 1944, and 1945 stateside, and, according to one commanding officer, he did so moaning and groaning every single day. His official job was phys ed instructor. He did not want to play ball, sign autographs, or give interviews.
The Thumper went in kicking and screaming after the 1942 season, trying to get a deferment on behalf of his widowed mother. The Naval Corps folks quickly deemed him too valuable to be sent to the skies because he was far more useful to them as an instructor. His celebrated combat missions (37 of them) came in the Korean War.
Rapid Robert was the true WWII icon. Enlisting with the Navy in January of 1942, he adamantly refused any celeb status, demanding a real assignment. And so he served as a gunner on the USS Alabama for three years. He was proud of his service to his dying day, as he should have been.
Each of these icons had enormous followings. But there was only one among the four of whom no bad words were uttered or negative thoughts broached, and that was The Man. There are two statues of him at Busch Stadium, and the inscription on the first pretty much sets him apart from his fellow Rushmorites. The words are attributed to former National League president Ford Frick, and they read as follows:
“Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.”
Sounds like a life well-lived.
Bob Ryan's column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.