EDINBURG, January 27 - It is interesting how some events from our childhood get so deeply ingrained in our minds we remember them our entire lives even though we remember nothing else from that period--like my great joy in finding a misplaced key to a wind-up car I had when I was about three.
I vividly remember, when I was nine, sitting on our living room floor, reading an article in the Americas, Georgia newspaper about Stan “The Man” Musial. Back then, in the Pleistocene Era, baseball was our “national pastime,” and my favorite sport. The cardinal always has been my favorite bird. After reading the article on what a great baseball player, and what a great person, Stan Musial was, I became a life-long St. Louis Cardinal fan. I have had the great fortune of seeing the Cardinals play many times in Atlanta, Cincinnati and St. Louis. My one great regret as a baseball fan is never seeing Musial play in person.
Cardinal fans everywhere mourned as they learned Stan “The Man” Musial died Saturday, 19 January at his home in Ladue, Missouri, surrounded by his family. He was 92. His wife of 72 years, Lillian, died in 2012.
As a baseball player, Stan is considered one of the greatest hitters and players of all time. Over a 22 year career, Stan had a lifetime batting average of .331, with 475 home runs. Excluding 1945, when he served in the Navy, Stan was an All Star for 20 consecutive years, and played in 24 All Star games (there were 2 All Star games from 1959-1962). Musial played on three World Series championship teams, was the first National League player in history to earn the Most Valuable Player award three times, and won the National League batting title seven times. He remains in the top ten in several batting categories.
In a double hitter against the then New York Giants, Musial hit five home runs. The only time that has been matched was by Nate Colbert in 1972. In 1956, he broke Mel Otts’s National League record for extra base hits. He was the first major league player to have 3,000 hits and 400 home runs. He set a new major league record for extra base hits in 1963, the year he retired. As I said, one of the greatest hitters and greatest players of all time.
He played his entire career with the Cardinals, something unheard of today with players jumping ship for a bigger pay check. Musial once was offered a five year contract at double his annual salary plus a $50,00 bonus to play in the Mexican league. Musial was a Cardinal, and turned the offer down. Also, unlike some of today’s athletes, he earned his records without “doping” or using performance enhancers. He played the game “clean” in every sense of the word.
For Musial, it was love of the game, as anyone could tell simply by watching him play or listening to him being interviewed. In his autobiography, he wrote, “I was a poor boy (from rural Pennsylvania) who struck it rich in many ways through the wonders of baseball.” His smile was infectious. He had the reputation of being a great sportsmanship, unlike so many prima donna athletes today. In over 3,000 games, Musial never was ejected from a game. When baseball began to integrate, Musial was among those white players who accepted African-Americans into the game. Musial wanted to change the game, and helped accomplish precisely that. He always was humble and modest. When Ty Cobb wrote in an article Musial was a better baseball player than Joe DiMaggio during DiMaggio’s prime, Musial responded: “I don’t want to contradict him, but I can’t say I was ever as good as Joe DiMaggio.”
In 1957, Musial was bestowed the third Lou Gehrig Memorial Award (after Alvin Dark and Pee Wee Reese), given every year to the baseball player who best epitomizes the spirit of Lou Gehrig both as a player and as a person. The list of awardees is impressive, to include Gil Hodges, Warren Spahn, Brooks Robinson, Hank Aaron, Willie Stargell, Don Sutton, and five other Cardinals. Only the Dodgers and Yankees have players who have earned the award six times.
In 2011, President Obama awarded Musial with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the nation can award a civilian. In his presentation, President Obama appropriately characterized Musial as “an icon untarnished, a beloved pillar of the community, a gentleman you’d want your kids to emulate.” And so he was.
St. Louis generally is regarded as having some of the best (if not the best) baseball fans in the nation. I love to be in St. Louis when the Cardinals play the Cubs. It is a great rivalry, and many Cubs fans always come in from Chicago and throughout Illinois. There is a lot of ribbing among the fans, but there is a genuine friendship between Cubs and Cardinals fans, a respectfulness that spills over into the game. If a player of either team makes an excellent defensive play, Cardinal and Cubs fans alike will applaud. That’s the way games should be played. Sportsmanship.
Exactly where that civility and sportsmanship comes from, I do not know. It certainly is not characteristic of fans in all baseball cities, or of all fans in other sports. I would like to think fan sportsmanship is part of Stan’s legacy, that St. Louis fans were infected by the civility and sportsmanship of Stan “The Man” Musial.
The unfortunate thing about being fortunate enough to live a long life is we ultimately lose all of our childhood heroes. After my parents, Stan Musial probably was my biggest living childhood hero. The inscription on his statue outside Bush Stadium is a quote from former Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick: “Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.”
Sounds about right to me.
Stan, baseball and the world are lesser without you.
Samuel Freeman is a political science professor based in the Rio Grande Valley. His “Left is Right” columns appear regularly in the Guardian.