Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Columns

January 21, 2013

MARK MAYNARD: Musial played at Armco Field in ‘39

ASHLAND — Baseball is still mourning the loss of Stanley Frank Musial, the legendary St. Louis Cardinals great who died Saturday night at the age of 92. He was one of baseball’s all-time ambassadors and a true gentleman of the game.

Musial was simply “Stan the Man” to many who followed his major league career from 1941 through 1963. He was a first ballot selection to the Hall of Fame in 1969 to the surprise of no one.

To those who saw him in Ashland for the first time, though, he was more “Stan the Boy.”

Musial was a 17-year-old whippersnapper who played for the Williamson (W.Va.) Colts of the Class D Mountain State League in 1938 after being signed for $65 a month as a 16-year-old out of Donora (Pa.) High School.

Williamson’s name was changed to Red Birds in 1939 and that was also the year the Ashland Colonels replaced the Beckley (W.Va.) Bengals in the Mountain State League. The Colonels played their games at Armco Field, which is where those in the area first saw Musial play in 1939.

Musial’s first year with Williamson was nothing to write home about. As a pitcher, he was 6-6 with an earned run average of 4.66 in 20 games, seven of them complete. He surrendered 114 hits and 80 walks with 66 strikeouts in 110 innings. As a hitter, Musial was average, too. He went 16-of-62 for a .258 average with three doubles, a home run and only three walks. He struck out seven times.

Of course, don’t forget, he was only 17 and most likely overmatched against these Class D players, some who were on the way down from the big leagues.

Stan the Man really was Stan the Boy.

In 1939, when the Colts became the Red Birds and part of the St. Louis Cardinals organization, Musial began to mature as a man and as a player. The Red Birds were good enough to reach the league finals although losing to Bluefield (W.Va.) Blue-Gray.

Musial started 12 games on the mound and went 9-2 with seven complete games. He had a 4.30 ERA in 92 innings and gave up 71 hits. He did strike out 86 but also walked 85. Pitching wasn’t likely in his future with those kind of numbers.

But he was now starting in the outfield when he wasn’t pitching and he had a .352 average (25-for-71) with three doubles, three triples and a home run. He loved to swing, walking only once while striking out 16 times.

Musial played in the Daytona League in Florida the following year and he injured his shoulder injury while making a diving catch in the outfield ended his pitching career. But with more time to focus on hitting, that’s exactly what he did, paving the way to a Hall of Fame career.

Ashland’s top hitter in 1939 was 44-year-old Ray French, a shortstop who played for three major league teams in the 1920s — the New York Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers and Chicago White Sox. French was a player-manager for the Ashland Colonels. He batted .358 with 32 doubles, three triples and two home runs in the ’39.

French made $5,500 during his best season in the major leagues with the White Sox in 1924. He played 28 seasons of minor league baseball in his career, ending in Ashland in 1940.

Of course, Armco Field — located where the Amanda Blast Furnace sits at AK Steel — was an all-purpose field made for baseball and football. Baseball dimensions at Armco Field were 390 to left field, 422 to center field and 302 to right field. Seating capacity was 4,200.

The Ashland Colonels were the main show from 1939-42 because the Ashland Tomcat football team had moved to Putnam Stadium in 1937. The Tomcats previously played games at Armco Field.

Another baseball Hall of Famer, Yankees great Joe DiMaggio, also played at Armco Field when the Yankees and Dodgers staged an exhibition game there in 1940.

George Stout, who turned 84 Monday, was a bat boy for the Ashland Colonels in 1939. He was the bat boy for the visiting teams, including the Williamson Red Birds, when he was 11 years old. Of course, Stout, or nobody else, knew what a future was in front of Musial.

Sam Spears, who is 86, remembers watching games in the old Mountain State League at Armco Field and watching Musial play for Williamson.

“I was just a kid, real young,” he said. “But I did see Musial play there.”

Spears had a newspaper route with both the Ashland Daily Independent (afternoon) and Cincinnati Enquirer (morning). He remembers winning a contest that included a trip to watch the Reds play the Cardinals in Crosley Field.

Stan the Man was the star on that day, too.

“Stan Musial hit two home runs that day,” Spears said. “I’ve never forgotten that.”

One more bit of trivia: Musial’s last two hits as a big leaguer came against the Reds.

MARK MAYNARD can be reached at mmaynard@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2648.

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