(More than) a half-century ago -- Sept. 17, 1941 -- Stan Musial played his first game for the St. Louis Cardinals. He remembers it like yesterday.
"We were playing the Boston Braves at Sportsman's Park, and Jim Tobin was pitching," said Musial, 70, the greatest player in Cardinal history. "First time up, he threw me a pitch I'd never seen before - a knuckleball. They didn't have knuckleballers in the minor leagues back then.
"Well, my first at-bat I popped up, an easy pop fly to third," he recalled. "But the next time there was a couple of men on, and I hit the ball against the screen for a double. I got a couple hits, and we won the game. So that was a big opening day."
A big opening day to a big career -- one that saw "The Man" wear No. 6 for 22 seasons as a Cardinal until his retirement at the end of the 1963 season. He entered the Hall of Fame in 1969, and his contributions to the Cardinals are memorialized in a statue outside Busch Stadium.
"Going into the Hall of Fame, and getting the statue here, it was a dream come true," Musial said Sunday after he was honored at Busch Stadium for the anniversary coming up today. "I always wanted to be a ballplayer."
And what a ballplayer he was. In those 22 years, the Donora, Pa., native rung up numbers reached by no other Redbird before or since: a career .331 batting mark, 475 home runs, 1,951 RBI, three Most Valuable Player awards, 21 All-Star Game appearances and a National League-record 3,630 hits -- since broken by Pete Rose.
"Of course, 3,000 hits was a big moment for me," said Musial, who reached that milestone with a pinch-hit double at Wrigley Field on May 13, 1958. "That was sort of a magical number in baseball -- 3,000 hits -- and not many players had gotten 3,000 hits to that point. I was the first modern player, so to speak, to get 3,000."
Musial led the National League in hitting seven times -- beginning with a .357 batting average in 1943, his second full season. Another great season came in 1946, when he led the league with a .365 batting mark and was given his nickname by Brooklyn fans, who chanted, "Here comes the man," when he approached the plate.
Five more times Musial would be the league's best hitter -- including his last batting crown in 1957, when he batted .351 as a 36-year-old. He had a chance to win the title with a .330 mark at the age of 41 in 1962, but Tommy Davis of Los Angeles hit .346.
The next year, Musial hit .255 and retired, playing in 124 games and collecting his last hits as a Redbird on Sept. 29, 1963. He singled twice in the Cards' last game of the season, then was removed by manager Johnny Keane for a pinch-runner.
"My last game, I had a couple of hits. So I started (my career) with two hits and I ended with two," Musial said, then laughed. "After I got those hits my last game, I said, 'Well, why am I retiring?'"
His roommate of 10 seasons in St. Louis -- fellow Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst -- said Musial was the greatest he's seen.
"Of all the ballplayers I've seen -- and I've seen a lot of them -- Stan was the best at knowing when to take the extra base, knowing who was fielding the ball, and knowing his throwing arm," Schoendienst said. "He was a hell of a hitter, his record shows that -- and everyone knows he was a great ballplayer.
"But he was just a great person off the field as well as on," Schoendienst recalled. "He's a gentleman all the time, you've just got to love the guy. He loves to be around people, and loves to do things for people."
Earlier in 1991, Musial made news when he went public with his successful battle against prostate cancer. Doctors said he was cured of the disease, and Musial talked about the illness openly to try to get older men to have annual checkups to detect the disease.
"I know when he was playing, he tried to entertain the fans as best he knew how." Schoendienst said. "I've said this many times: Stan knew what it took to be a ballplayer, what it takes to be a winner.
"He started concentrating from the moment he hit the clubhouse door, from the moment he tied his shoelaces on his spikes. When he was around, it was all baseball."
But Musial -- a Cardinal vice-president whose duties are largely ceremonial -- remembers the fun times too.
"We had some happy moments; I hit the five home runs in the doubleheader (May 2, 1954, against the Giants)," Musial said. "The Cardinals always had great players and great teams, and the fans were always good here; they're great fans."
If he has one regret as a player, it was that he was never fully healthy with the Cardinals.
"I didn't play in the big leagues with my good arm," he said. "I had a great arm before I hurt it in the minors; otherwise I would have been what you call a really complete ballplayer. Of course, it really didn't bother me much (playing) first -- I played 10 years at first -- but in the outfield I had to make those long throws. That was tough."
Schoendienst, a second baseman, played alongside Musial on the infield -- "I put Red in the Hall of Fame," Musial joked, "scooping up all those low throws."
But the Redhead remembers it differently.
"When Stan moved to first from the outfield, he didn't like ground balls. He hated ground balls," Schoendienst recalled. "He said, 'Why don't you catch everything, and I'll stay close to the bag.'"
That kind of kidding -- the fun times, the long train rides, the camaraderie among genuine friends in the clubhouse -- seems to be missing today, Musial said.
"We had a lot of togetherness, with the train rides and all," Musial remembered. "We'd meet in the club cars and talk baseball, we'd socialize. And when we got to town, we'd meet in the lobby of the hotel, and we'd go out to dinner together, a group of us. We had a lot of fun."
Early in his playing days -- the Cardinals won the pennant four times and finished second four times in his first eight seasons -- Musial even formed a washboard band in the clubhouse.
"We only played when we won," he said. "I played the coat hangers, (Whitey) Kurowski or Harry Walker would play bass on the cover of a 30-gallon barrel with strings on it, and Doc Weaver would hit the medicine bottles.
"We always played an old song, 'Pass the Biscuits, Mirandy.'"
That kind of scene is hard to imagine in this era of million-dollar ballplayers, agents and billion-dollar TV contracts.
Musial, after all, was paid $13,500 in 1946, when he hit .365 with 16 homers, 103 RBI and scored 124 runs. After the season, he was offered a $7,500 pay raise to $21,000, but held out in spring training for $37,000. He settled for $31,000.
In 1958, Musial became the first National League player to earn $100,000 -- the major-league minimum salary for a rookie in 1991 -- and was happy to get that.
"In those days, everything was relative; the owners would say, 'Well, you're going to earn $4,000 or $5,000 when you win the World Series.'"
Musial can't even imagine what he might be paid today.
"(Angels owner) Gene Autry told me today I'd be making a million a month," Musial said, shaking his head. "That's $12 million a year."