By Andy Mohler
You never forget your first time.
Certainly, it was true in this case; the case being my initial meeting with Stan Musial.
I was born only a year before he retired as a player, so my recollections of his on-field exploits were built from viewing highlight clips and baseball cards, and through the eyes of others.
But what struck me about this man - no, The Man - was how important he became to people in the generations AFTER he played. And you can't say that about many people.
Growing up, and in the years that followed, it's amazing that, sports fans or not, multitudes of people are familiar with and have grown to love Stan Musial.
I worked on a lengthy piece for television with Mike Bush several years ago - long enough ago that Stan still occupied an office at his old restaurant on Oakland Avenue; a building that is nothing more than a faint recollection to anyone born after 1970. In any event, I interviewed Jack Buck about Stan, and heard him affirm aloud that while he may have seemed too good to be true as a man apart from his sport, he indeed "may have been about the nicest man on the face of the earth." I also interviewed Harry Caray, who described Musial's exploits to Cardinals fans over the airwaves for 17 of Stan's 22 seasons. Harry could be downright unfair toward some players, but he was nothing but reverent when he spoke about Stan that day; in fact, his voice rose into a feverish pitch as he described the day 32 years earlier when The Man hit five homers in a doubleheader and nearly hit more!, an emotional Harry proclaimed.
I went with Mike the day he interviewed Stan. My head was full of his achievements: the 3,630 career hits - amazingly, 1,815 at home and 1,815 on the road - the 24 All-Star games, the homer to win the 1955 Classic, the swan song base hits past a rookie named Pete Rose in 1963. And I was aware of the way others felt about him, but meeting him was an affirmation to what a decent man he was; engaging, a smile that never left his face, full of stories, and though we were there for a while he never once looked at his watch or gave any indication that he had more important things to do. And when we left, it was as if we left the company of an old friend, one you couldn't wait to see again.
My favorite story that he told involved his milestone 3000th career hit. He went on to say that there were only about ten thousand people in attendance at Wrigley Field that day, but since then probably three times as many folks had come up and told him they were there. And then he reared his head back and laughed at his own joke as if someone was telling it to him for the first time.
The comparisons to his contemporaries were inevitable; with Williams, with DiMaggio, with Mays. Willie was flash and boyish enthusiasm but "The Say Hey Kid" could also be prickly. Williams may have been a more explosive hitter but he didn't limit his explosiveness to hitting a baseball: his hate-hate relationship with the Boston media was well known. And the great DiMag was aloof and kept his distance from the admiring throng, as if he walked on a higher plane than mere mortals. But Stan - that man, The Man, embraced everyone in his midst. He made us all as much a part of him as he was a part of us. Those other stars may have flashed more brightly or more keenly, but not one of them - no one, perhaps - carved out heroics as consistently, as steadily, and yes, as decently, as our Stan. Nothing speaks more to his perfection in knighthood as does his 71-year - let that sink in for a minute - 71-year - marriage to his lady fair, Lil. And less than a year after her passing, Stan decided it was time for him, too, to go. He had been away from her for too long. Don't we all aspire to, and so many of us fall well short of, such a tender bond enriched by so many years together?
Whether by giving out autographs by the pen-load, serenading thousands on the harmonica, or greeting everyone in his path with a trademark "Whaddayasay, whaddayasay, whaddayasay!", Stan Musial lifted us up to his level as opposed to deigning us with his presence. It is no wonder that this man , The Man, who lived through the terms of 17 U.S. presidents and rubbed elbows with twelve of them, was embraced by succeeding generations of St. Louisans who learned the legend of his baseball feats from their elders but carried him in their hearts merely by what he did and was long after he retired.
I remember seeing Stan hit a home run in an Sunday Old Timers' game at Busch Stadium - in the highlights on television; my best friend saw it in person. He was over 50 when he did it, and I still recall the thrill I had in seeing it. To my young eye, it was as if this great baseball player could be retired but still come back and hit a home run any time he wanted to. If I was more in touch with my thoughts at that young age (I was ten), I might have had a similar notion to the one Mr. Buck did after he witnessed Musial's five-homer day in Jack's first year calling Cardinal games: Does he do this every Sunday??
Outside of this area, there had to be reminders of his greatness in later years; Baseball commissioner Bud Selig had to use his powers to add Musial to the All-Century team in 1999, for example.
Writer Joe Posnanski wrote a terrific cover story on Stan in Sports Illustrated a few years ago, letting the rest of the world in on our little secret - the greatness and sheer decency that was, is, and forever will be, Stan Musial. He painted a loving portrait, enhanced with stories such as the time Musial rapped a late-inning, bases-loaded double against the Cubs that was wrongly called foul.
Two Cardinals were tossed out of the game for arguing the call and nearly a third. Musial calmly asked what the hubbub was about, shrugged his shoulders, and went back to the plate and stroked an identical double, a ball hit mere inches and yet obviously more fair than the last. Keen brushstrokes were added, such as the amazing note than in over three thousand major league games, he was never ejected. People from in and out of the game of baseball shared to the writer what we in St. Louis have never taken for granted; Stan was a treasure to meet, to know, to be with.
It was a painting that we in St. Louis had in our mind's eye all along, but millions more were allowed in to see and appreciate the masterpiece that had always been in our very midst.
I got to see and talk to Stan several more times over the years; always an honor, never taken for granted, and every time as special as the first. But never quite like the first.
People who have never called St. Louis home wonder how a man can mean so much to one city. Perhaps it will be a secret we'll keep from those outsiders - how The Man will always be so important to this city.