Today, Stan “The Man” Musial would have been 98 years old. He was born Nov. 21, 1920 in Donora, Pennsylvania. Little did he know that he would become the greatest St. Louis Cardinal in what was a Hall of Fame career. Baseball’s Perfect Knight died Jan. 19, 2013. On his birthday today, here is a look back at what “The Man” meant to St. Louis.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published Jan. 25, 2013.
Words can’t describe what Stan Musial meant to his baseball fans, to his baseball team, or to the region that loved him like no other sports figure in our lifetime.
We’ll try anyway:
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There was never ever anyone like Stan the Man before he came along, and there will never ever be anyone like him now that he’s gone.
“Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior,” his statue reads outside Busch Stadium. “Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.”
Baseball fans can’t really tell you what other good things Ford Frick did as baseball commissioner, but they know he found the 10 perfect words to describe Stan Musial upon his retirement in 1963 - and in the 50 years to follow.
Stan wasn’t entirely perfect - just so we’d be sure to laugh along, he’d start chuckling at his own jokes before he was done telling them - but he was always baseball’s perfect ambassador, a beloved figure known for far more than his remarkable playing career.
“You don’t come across names like warrior, prince and knight by just having Hall of Fame statistics,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said a day after Musial passed away. “It comes from making an impact in people’s lives. I was in that group. Mr. Musial, I say, ‘Thank you. You gave us the perfect example of what it means to wear this jersey.’
“I can’t tell you what an honor it will be to put a No. 6 patch on our sleeves this season, and do our very best to live up to that high standard of excellence.”
Musial was able to pal with presidents — who remembers that Stan helped spearhead President Kennedy’s Counsel on Physical Fitness in the early 1960s, and who can forget that Stan got the Medal of Freedom from President Obama two years ago? - but he was just as comfortable sitting with the fans of the baseball team he came to symbolize for the last 70 years of his life.
“How many people do you know where not one negative word is said about them?” Cardinals broadcaster John Rooney said. “For all the numbers he put up, what he did for (the) community, his greatest legacy will be what a great life he lived.
“He was Stan the Man in every way, shape and form. He will be missed and remembered forever as the greatest Cardinal.”
We’ve all been fortunate enough to see Musial in many settings, at baseball dinners and fan conventions and ceremonies inside and outside of two Busch Stadiums.
Nothing lit up his face like seeing the Cardinal fans; those closest to him late in his life would describe a man looking weary and wan in a hallway outside a fan gathering, only to come to life when the doors were thrown open and the applause began.
He was never without that harmonica. And it took only the slightest of suggestions for him to pull it from his coat pocket and begin in on “Wabash Cannonball” or “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.”
His harmonica was always a highlight at the annual St. Louis Baseball Writers Dinner, even the one in 1991 when the writers were honoring Musial and Ted Williams - Stan on the 50th anniversary of his first game, Williams on the 50th anniversary of his .406 season.
The great Boston Red Sox slugger, never a friend of the writers, said only one thing could have gotten him to St. Louis that night.
“Can you imagine this? Ted Williams at a writers dinner?” he said, then turned to look at the man next to him at the head table. “I’m here for one reason - Stan Musial asked me to come.”
Usually, it wasn’t someone doing something for Musial. Always — always — it was the other way around.
How many people do we know whose favorite baseball memory is getting to meet Stan, or hearing him play the harmonica, or getting a too-good-to-be-true autograph back from him in the mail? Most players past and present guard their autographs like the crown jewels, knowing that scarcity will improve the purchase price; Stan didn’t care about any of that.
Never more true than that night in 1991: As soon as the dinner ended, Williams made a beeline for a back-door exit; Musial stayed at the head table signing every program and scrap of paper put in front of him.
Remarkably, most of his most ardent fans never saw Stan Musial play. Many of them weren’t born when he ended a 22-year career in 1963, with a .331 batting mark, 475 home runs, 1,951 RBIs and 3,630 hits. Some may not know he had exactly 1,815 hits at home, and exactly 1,815 hits on the road.
Told of that almost-impossible-to-imagine statistic, a suitably impressed Albert Pujols once wondered aloud if Stan had planned it that way.
No, of course not. Stan was too busy having fun and being the best ballplayer — and the best guy — any of us baseball fans ever got to know.
The emotion of this week will fade for Cardinal baseball fans. No. 6 will become a memory instead of a presence. And we’ll go about our lives, fashioning other sports figures (some willing, some not) into the heroes we need to adulate.
But every once in a while, we’ll remember all the very real things a very real Stan the Man meant to all of us. And when Opening Day arrives April 8 at Busch Stadium, let’s hope the ceremonies feature an empty golf cart — just to remind us of what we’ve lost.
Joe Ostermeier has written about the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since 1985, and is chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America. He can be reached at 618-239-2512 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.