Saturday, January 19, 2013

RIP Stan Musial (1920-2013)

The greatest Cardinal of them all passes at 92.

Posted By on Sat, Jan 19, 2013 at 10:14 PM

click to enlarge stan-musial.jpg
Stan Musial (1920-2013)

Among the countless charms of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the engraved nicknames on the plaques of honored members are the most endearing. After all, these are the names we fans came to know our baseball heroes by, so much so that a plaque honoring Willie Mays would be incomplete without “Say Hey Kid” engraved for perpetuity. “Iron Man,” “Mr. October,” and “The Wizard” are as much a part of baseball history as Ripken, Jackson, and Smith. The finest nickname to be found on a plaque at the Cooperstown shrine, though, belongs to Stanley Frank Musial: “The Man.”

The greatest St. Louis Cardinal there has been or ever will be, Musial died at his home in St. Louis Saturday. He was 92.

My dad shook hands with a young Elvis Presley (in the basement of Katz Drug Store, September 1956), a story I heard a few times at the dinner table. But it was Dad’s reflections of an encounter with Stan Musial — at Russwood Park, on April 9, 1953 — that made him smile like a boy every time he shared the tale. Since Dad’s no longer with us, I’m telling it one more time.

The St. Louis Cardinals were playing an exhibition game against the Memphis Chicks that day, the Cards on their way north from spring training. Musial left the game after a few innings (St. Louis drubbed the home team, 12-5). During a break between innings, an 11-year-old Frank Murtaugh Jr. left his seat in the bleachers to get a hot dog or go to the restroom . . . this detail was lost over the years. The clubhouse was a short walk — underneath the bleachers — from the dugout at Russwood, and Dad happened to take his stroll just as Musial was on his way to the showers. As my father told the story, Stan the Man tapped him on the head, smiled, and asked, “How ya doin’ kid?” Who knows if those exact words were spoken. If my dad heard them, they were incidental to the colossal moment.

When Dad returned to his seat and told my grandfather about his meeting with the Man, Granddad grabbed his hand and escorted him back to the very spot, hoping to catch lightning twice within minutes. Alas, my grandfather never got to meet his hero.

And that’s what Musial’s passing represents to thousands (if not millions) of baseball fans: the loss (in mortal terms) of a hero. A contemporary of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, Musial never attained their celebrity, not playing a thousand miles from the country’s media center in the northeast. He merely hit the baseball better than any other man, save four or five who belong in the debate (Williams, DiMaggio, Cobb, Hornsby, maybe Wagner).

Dad and I saw Musial together at Ozzie Smith’s Hall of Fame induction in 2002. Musial delighted the crowd by playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on his harmonica. Then in 2004, at Game 3 of the World Series in St. Louis, Dad and I watched Musial throw out the first pitch (to none other than Bob Gibson). These were enriching moments, surely shared by thousands of fathers and sons in each crowd. They were the kind of moments Musial created most of his life.

Stan the Man played for three world champions with the Cardinals and was named MVP three times. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility (in 1969, the year Frank Murtaugh Jr. became a father). He collected exactly 1,815 hits on the road and 1,815 hits at home, his total of 3,630 trailing only those of Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, and Hank Aaron. Visit BaseballReference.com and look at the Hall of Fame Monitor, a statistic that weighs a player’s achievements collectively and measures his chances for election to the Hall of Fame. Stanley Frank Musial is number-one in baseball history.

When my daughter Sofia was assigned a book report in third grade, she chose to read a biography of Musial. She wrote a fine piece on her grandfather’s hero and actually sent a copy to Musial, courtesy of the Cardinals. About a month later, an envelope arrived in the mail from Stan the Man, Inc. Inside were two autographed postcards from Musial. The fact that my dad didn’t live to hear this story squeezes my heart to this day. He would laugh and cry, out loud.

The famous statue of Musial in front of Busch Stadium says, “Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.” What we came to learn over the 92 years Musial blessed this earth is that he may well have been a perfect human being. Whatever protocols may exist in heaven, I know my dad’s jockeying for a long-awaited reunion.

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