As the chartered DC-6 roared down the runway, bound for St. Louis, the atmosphere inside was glum enough: the staggering Cardinals had just dropped a doubleheader to the Pittsburgh Pirates. It quickly got worse. Just 30 seconds after takeoff, a portside engine conked out, and Cardinal ballplayers stared tensely at the feathered prop. Only Stan Musial seemed unruffled. Grinning from ear to ear, he turned to a teammate: "I can see the headline now. CARDINAL PLANE CRASHES MUSIAL LONE SURVIVOR."
If Musial's wry jest had come true two seasons back, no Cardinal fan would have been much surprised. At 41 and in his 21st big-league season, "Stan the Man" has survived long past a ballplayer's professional life expectancy. His contemporaries Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Owen, Jackie Robinson are fishing, running bowling alleys, and collecting votes for the Hall of Fame. Yet Musial, his reflexes still sharp and his aging muscles still limber, keeps right on playing leftfield for the Cards with a young man's speed. And each time he uncoils from his familiar, knock-kneed batting crouch to hammer a single over second, he rewrites baseball's record book. Even today, says Los Angeles Dodger Coach Leo Durocher, "there is only one way to pitch to Musial under the plate." Most of Everything. Seven times National League batting champion (lifetime average: .333), Musial already holds 40 league records, for everything from most games played (2,795) to most years leading all outfielders in fielding (three). He has played in more All-Star games than any other ballplayer (21), he has won the Most Valuable Player award three times, and he has led the Cardinals to three world championships. Last week in San Francisco, he collected his 3,430th base hit. He thus tied and is sure to breakthe National League record set by Bonus Wagner 45 years ago in 1917. Nor is that likely to be the end of it. If Musial can maintain anything like his blazing early-season pace.322 batting averagehe will pass two more baseball milestones by the time the season is out: Babe Ruth's record of 1,356 extra-base hits, set in 1935, and Ty Cobb's mark of 5,863 total bases, set in 1926.