Some years ago, on one bitterly cold afternoon I will always treasure, I made a deliberate trip to the deserted baseball park in St. Louis and, standing in the gray shadows of winter, stood alone in front of a statue for about 10 minutes. The life-sized monument was of Stan Musial, who was easily one of the greatest players in the history of the game before he died at age 92 on Saturday, and I had memorized the lines underneath the sculpture long before I got there: “Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior. Here stand’s baseball’s perfect knight.”
The words were part of a tribute made to “Stan The Man” by baseball’s commissioner at the time, Ford Frick. When Musial retired in September of 1963. I was barely a teenager on the last day he played for his beloved Cardinals but every boy in the United States grew up knowing who he was because “Stan The Man” was easily one of the greatest of all our heroes, an unbelievably short list hardly confined to sports. No, it was more about who you prayed that you would one day grow to emulate.
To appreciate that list, you had to know that growing up in the ‘50s was to be without a cell phone, an Xbox, a computer, your own TV and other trappings that are partially to blame for why obesity is among the biggest threats to kids today. We played outside all the time – every day until it got dark – and then you’d nestle down by an RCA radio or table-model Philco and listen to baseball or “Pick of Dixie” football (or whatever time of year it was) into the night.
Countless thousands of guys my age or older can – to this day – recite the starting line-ups of their favorite teams but it was also a lot more than that. For instance, we knew, even back then, that Stan Musial wouldn’t dare pose for cigarette ads and that, in a career that spanned 22 seasons and 10,972 at-bats, he never – ever – got thrown out of a single game. He was “class” personified, always the ultimate gentleman, and that was bigger than 475 home runs and 3,630 hits.
When word got out late Saturday afternoon that Musial had died, thousands began making the same trip to “The Statue” at Busch Stadium that I once did and never let it become forgotten that Stan Musial was not “that man,” as sports writers at first erroneously reported back in the late ‘40s, but, in all reverence, “The Man.”
Are you kidding me? Many years later, when the St. Louis fickle tried to label then-star Albert Pujols as “El Hombre,” the Dominican Republic star knocked the notion down quicker than a stand-up double. “There is one man that gets that respect, and that’s Stan Musial. I know El Hombre is The Man in Spanish. But he is The Man.”
Oh yes he was. Musial played in 24 All-Star games and, on the day he retired, he held or shared 17 major league records, 29 National League records, and nine All-Star Game records. His 3,630 hits are ranked fourth in today’s record books and he stuck out just 696 times on 10,972 at bats. He was probably the most consistent player of all time – 1,815 hits at home and 1,815 hits on the road. He drove in 1,951 runs and scored 1,924. Heck, he once hit five home runs in a double-header.
“I’ve figured out how to pitch against Musial,” one rival manager quipped, “Walk him and then try to pick him off first.” Another, the legendary Leo “The Lip” Durocher, said, “The only way to pitch to Musial is ‘under’ the plate.”
Last year, just three months before his story-book wife of 70 years passed away, Musial was accorded the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest award a civilian can receive – and as the frail Hall of Famer beamed in his Cardinal-red sports jacket, President Obama rightfully called Stan Musial "an icon untarnished, a beloved pillar of the community, a gentleman you'd want your kids to emulate.”
Here is something you may not know. The rumor was in early 1953 that the Cardinals were about to be sold so Musial got in touch with his duck-hunting buddy, Gussie Busch. The brewery soon acquired the franchise and, as a result, “Stan The Man” never wore another team’s uniform, which is virtually unheard of in such a long career. And no Cardinal has ever worn No. 6 since Musial – Mr. Busch promptly retired the number for eternity the same day “The Man” called it quits.
But my favorite story of all is what propelled me to Busch Stadium about 30 or so years ago.
Right after World War II, professional baseball was in its zenith. Remember; this was a day when there were no TV cameras, lighted ball parks and scant room for any jerks in the game. The teams still travelled by train and, back in the golden era, the players would gather at the lobby lounge for refreshments after they would arrive in a new city.
When a team would get to St. Louis, it was not uncommon to see Stan Musial, usually with his buddy Red Schoendienst, show up at the bar and share a toast. Everybody loved it when Musial would chatter, “Whatyasay! Whatyasay, kid!” And to hear him play “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” on his battered harmonica was for ball players akin to St. Peter saying, “C’mon in!”
You gotta’ remember, this is back when things were classy and real. Before he would leave, Musial would ask one of his many friends in the big leagues who would be pitching against him tomorrow.
Somebody would point out the pitcher and Musial would approach in his ever-humble, gentlemanly manner and introduce himself before making a strange request: “When I come to the plate tomorrow, I’d like to ask a favor. I’d appreciate it if you’d throw me the best you’ve got. I know you’ve got some good pitches – it’s obvious if you’ve gotten this far – but I want the very best you can muster. In return, I’m going to promise you I’ll do my very best – the best I’ve got – so at the end of the day we’ll know … you and I will know …”
Don’t you adore that – my best against yours. Sports at its best, uncut and pure. Johnny Antonelli, a great southpaw pitcher for the Giants in the late ‘50s, once said, “Stan was such a nice guy that I was probably happy when he homered off me!”
Stan Musial, who died on Saturday, was indeed baseball’s perfect warrior, baseball’s perfect knight.