DICKEY KERR: THE MAN WHO MADE 'THE MAN'
Stan Musial's life was a charmed one, and not just on the baseball field. It was said about the St. Louis Cardinals’ great that he retired from the game with more money and more friends than anyone before him. After a stellar 22-year career, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility and spent the rest of his life entertaining fans around the country with his ever-present smile and harmonica.
But on Aug. 11, 1940, such a blessed future seemed unlikely for 19-year-old Stanislaus Francis Musial as he lay writhing on the ground in the outfield in Orlando, Fla. He was injured, scared and broke. His first-born son was just six days old, and his left shoulder — the one Musial hoped would carry him to the big leagues and a big paycheck — was swollen and in serious pain.
Playing center field for the Daytona Beach Islanders of the Class D Florida State League, Musial had attempted a somersaulting catch on a sinking line drive. His spikes caught in the grass and drove his shoulder straight into the ground.
Although a fine all-around athlete — it is often reported that he was offered a basketball scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, though the story is likely apocryphal — Musial was not an experienced outfielder. In fact, he spent most of his time on the mound with Daytona Beach, posting an 18-5 record and a 2.62 ERA in 223 innings in 1940. With just 14 players in uniform, everyone on the Islanders’ roster played multiple positions when needed.
After the injury, Musial’s prized left arm was diagnosed as “dead,” not exactly a clinical definition but understood well by everyone in baseball. His pitching career was over.
At that moment, the distraught Musial might have entertained thoughts of spending the rest of his life working in a factory in his hometown of Donora, Pa., known mostly at the time for its zinc and steel production. Only later would anyone associate Donora with the production of world-class baseball players. One of Musial’s former teammates back home, Buddy Griffey, sent a son (Ken) and a grandson (Ken Jr.) to the major leagues.
Musial’s manager at Daytona Beach also had spent time in the majors. Richard “Dickey” Kerr, 46, was a World Series hero but not for reasons he or anyone else particularly cared to revisit. As a rookie with the Chicago White Sox in 1919, the wee left-hander pitched and won two complete World Series games against the Cincinnati Reds. It was a tough feat for any rookie, made even tougher because eight of his teammates were conspiring to throw the Series in what became known as the Black Sox Scandal.
Before managing and befriending a young Stan Musial in the Cardinals’ farm system, southpaw Dickey Kerr played for the White Sox. As a rookie in 1919, Kerr won two games for Chicago during the World Series while other members of his team were conspiring with gamblers to throw the Series.
The White Sox lost the 5-of-9 Series in eight games, but Kerr was hailed as one of the “Clean Sox,” an honest man of integrity and character. He was all of that. But he also understood the realities of making a living at baseball, and the fleeting opportunity to cash in on his talent. After winning 21 games with the White Sox in 1920 and 19 more in 1921, Kerr held out for a larger contract, a scrupulous protest that earned him a suspension from owner Charles Comiskey. Kerr refused to sign with the White Sox, instead playing for a Texas semipro team. That action earned him a temporary ban from baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
The ban was lifted in 1925 and Kerr rejoined the White Sox. But after four years out of the major leagues, his left arm was dead, too. He lasted only one season with Chicago and, after two mediocre years in the Texas League, retired as an active player.
By 1940, he was managing in the lower levels of the Cardinals “chain gang” farm system. And as rough as baseball had treated Kerr as a player, he was just the opposite with his own players in Daytona Beach. He was patient, generous and compassionate — and no one was more appreciative of Kerr’s attention than young Stan Musial.
During spring training, Kerr and his wife, Cora, invited Musial to live in their home in Daytona Beach for the rest of the season, in part to help Musial save money before his child was born. Musial was making $100 a month on a minor league contract. As Jan Finkel wrote in his SABR biography of Musial, Dickey and Cora “took such a shine to the young man” that they also served as witnesses when Stan and the former Lillian Labash were married in St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Daytona Beach on May 25, 1940.
To honor Kerr, whom Stan once called “the best friend I’ve ever had,” the Musials christened their son Richard after his birth on Aug. 5 in Orlando. Following the shoulder injury, which caused Musial to miss three weeks of play, Kerr gave him the advice that put him on the path to stardom.
Not thinking highly of Stan’s future as a pitcher anyway — he usually walked more batters than he struck out — Kerr was convinced Musial could make the major leagues as a hitter. With a distinctive stance in the left-handed batter’s box that some observers said resembled a coiled spring and pitchers said resembled a rattlesnake poised to strike, Musial hit .311 with 17 doubles and 10 triples as a part-time outfielder for Daytona Beach in 1940.
Kerr persuaded Musial to stick with baseball as an outfielder, and a healthy and happy Musial responded in 1941 with a tremendous season. He tore up the Class C Western Association by hitting .379 with 63 extra-base hits in 87 games for the Springfield (Mo.) Cardinals. After a promotion to the Class A International League, Musial hit .326 in 54 games for the Rochester (N.Y.) Red Wings. He made his debut with the Cardinals in September, and National League pitchers soon began wishing he could be promoted to a higher league than that.
Throughout Musial’s career, which saw him win three Most Valuable Player Awards, seven batting titles, lead the Cardinals to four World Series, and finish in the top 25 all-time of every major offensive category — the only player to do so — he never forgot the people who helped him get to the top. None more so than Kerr.
Near the end of Musial’s career, after learning that the aging Kerrs were struggling to get by, Musial — by now making $100,000 a year with the Cardinals —quietly bought his former manager a house in Houston. Musial was embarrassed when the story became public, but he was proud to have the opportunity to repay Kerr’s generosity when he needed it most.
Stan Musial was known as “The Man” for most of his career, originally a tribute bestowed on him by Brooklyn Dodgers fans for his prowess on the baseball field. The moniker also spoke to Musial’s character, for he was a man of honesty, integrity and generosity. Just like his minor league manager, Dickey Kerr, whose wise and sympathetic counsel in the summer of 1940 helped a teenage ballplayer from Donora, Pa., become one of the most beloved figures in American sports.
A crowd of nearly 28,000 turned out for Stan The Man’s last game at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field on September 22, 1963. The adored Number 6 was honored with a standing ovation and received gifts from the Reds organization including a huge cake and a small rocking chair for his new grandson.