On Tuesday Stan Musial was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award America can bestow. Musial, the greatest Cardinal, was and remains an "iconic" figure in the team's history.
The word "iconic" has been used to describe Albert Pujols' status with the Cardinals in recent days. It has apparently astonished many that the Cardinals' ownership and management would let an "iconic" player such as Pujols go to free agency. He is the Cardinals' "brand," it is said. He should be a "Cardinal for life," just as Musial has been. (You'll note that Musial is wearing a Cardinals red blazer for the ceremony.)
The problem with this attitude is that times have changed. Musial was paid $80,000 a year from age 30 through age 36 (1951-57), He got a raise to $100,000 per year for his age 37 and 38 years, but then was cut back to $80,000 for his age 39 year, and $65,000 for playing at age 40 to 42. A lot of money for the time, certainly, but it also has to be put in perspective. In 1958, at the top of his earning power, Musial commanded a salary that was roughly 20 times the median family income in America for that year ($5100). A comparable athlete's salary today would be roughly $1,000,000 per year. But Pujols is asking to be paid something on the order of 600 times what the median family makes (roughly $50,000) -- $30 million per year. Where it might have made sense to pay an "icon" like Musial more than he was worth in his declining years, it's a different order of magnitude when you're deciding whether to pay Pujols more than you think he's worth.
And make no mistake... upon reflection, the Cardinals are making the right decision. Consider the comparison of Musial and Pujols. Two all-time great players, no doubt. Musial was an 8.4 WAR (wins-against-replacement) player on average for years 22-31 (this is almost exactly what Pujols has averaged over his first ten years). But beginning at age 32 -- the age Pujols' new contract would start -- even Musial began to slip. He was a 6.7 WAR player from age 32 through 36, but he was only a 2.2 WAR player on average for years 37-41 (years 6 through 10 in the ten-year deal Pujols is apparently looking for). You could pay Musial $100,000, or $80,000 or $65,000 to be an "emeritus" presence on the team. But you can't pay Pujols $30 million if he turns out, like Musial, to be a 2.2 WAR player at the same age. Not in St. Louis anyway. There's just not enough money to waste that much on a player who, once great, has become mediocre.
Some more stats. Between ages 32-36, Musial had five straight 100 RBI seasons; after 36, he never had another one. Between ages 32-36, Musial hit between 27 and 35 HRs a year; after 36, he never hit more than 19. Between ages 32-36, Musial received MVP votes every year, finishing 2nd in the voting in one year and never finishing below ninth; after age 36 Musial still received MVP votes in three years, but never finished higher than 10th.
Finally, it's perhaps worth remembering that, in 1964, the year after Musial retired, the Cardinals won the World Series. In 1963, Musial had gotten nearly 400 plate appearances playing primarily in left field. In 1964, those plate appearances went to a young, unknown left fielder the Cardinals picked up mid-season by the name of Lou Brock, who just so happened to end up being a Hall of Famer himself.
Pujols, being human, is going to begin the decline phase of his career soon. He'll still be great for a few more years, but he won't be as great, and then he won't be great at all, and then he'll be mediocre, and then he'll be gone. I wish all that would happen as a Cardinal, but we can't pay him $30 million a year to be a mediocre 38-41 year old.