Monday, January 28, 2013

My “Thing” for Stan Musial

I was never part of the screaming crowd when a rock idol was performing.  Or sobbing when a movie star passed away or grieving when an athlete announced his or her retirement.  But the death, at 92, of Stan Musial, one of baseball’s greatest stars and a St. Louis Cardinal for 22 years, got to me in a way that no celebrity event ever has before. 

Just the very mention of his mellifluous name, Stan “The Man” Musial, always caught my attention.  To me he was the epitome of  cool — everything about him:  his swing, his unique batting stance with the crouch and the wiggle, his remarkable performance  and his moral demeanor on and off the field.  He was a guy’s guy, a girl’s guy.  In fact, Stan was everybody’s guy.  I have never seen anyone in all my life who was revered the way Stan was in St. Louis.  He was an icon’s icon.

He was also my boyhood hero, as I grew up as a Cardinal fan in my hometown city; he could do no wrong, and he was the personification of glamour and decency.  Although I never met him, short of getting his autograph once after a game, a piece of me was taken with his demise.

What was it about him? Perhaps it is summed up in the inscription on the statue of Stan Musial in front of St. Louis’ baseball stadium:  “Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior.  Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.”

Stan most likely would not appraise himself that way, but that legend was written for a reason.   It communicates his value and the esteem in which he was held.  Stan was as humble as he was great, noted Bob Costas, the sportscaster, in his emotional eulogy at the funeral. 

In broadcast interviews, Musial always diminished his achievements. It was always, “thanks” and “aw, I really appreciate that,” rather than anything leaning toward self-glorification.  I remember that kind of response, particularly, after he hit five home runs in a doubleheader, at a game I attended as a child.  His seven batting titles, his 3600 hits, his three Most Valuable Player awards (and the list goes on and on) never seemed to have an ego impact.  Stan was just passionate about what he did; at the same time his kindness and caring for others runneth over.

After the color line broke in baseball, when there was still chiding by the fans and some players and there were already black stars like Willie Mays,  Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks, the black players  were often isolated socially.  At one All Star Game, the latter guys were all sitting together playing cards, when Stan Musial walked over and said, ”Deal me in.”  It was Stan’s way of saying “I accept you,” when many others did not.  Stan was never kicked out of a game and never argued with umpires.  Hank Aaron, one of the greatest players of all time and the all-time career home run leader, said, “I didn’t just like Stan Musial, I wanted to be like Stan Musial.”

Many of Stan’s fans felt that, despite his major national records  and the acclaim for him in St. Louis, he was undeservedly not as well regarded nationally as, say, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio, because he was from the Midwest, away from New York, the media capital of the world,  and therefore was not as celebrated.  They began a movement to change that, and last year President Obama presented Stan with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  George Vecsey, former sports editor of The New York Times, came out with a biography on him in 2011, furthering his national standing.

My life has been touched by Stan Musial.  His graciousness, his good nature, his success as a player and in life have all made him a role model among role models. 

Bob Costas alluded to a statement about Stan made by the now-deceased broadcaster for the Cardinals, Harry Carey, at the time Stan played his last game.  Stan had hit a single, and Harry said: “Take a look fans, take a good long look. Remember the swing and the stance. We won’t see his like again.” 

Said Costas, “Harry was right.  We never have and … we never will.”

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