There is no way you’re going to understand this story today. Partly because I don’t have the writing ability to properly illuminate and pay homage where it is most appropriately due. But even more than that, we are delving into a relationship here between heroes and boys whose time, sadly in this world today, has mostly come and gone.
Stan Musial died.
He was 92. Unquestionably, he lived an interesting, much decorated and full life. His beautiful wife of 71 years, his childhood sweetheart, had died just this past May and Stan and Lil are reunited now. His baseball legacy, his twenty-two years in the big leagues, the seven batting titles, the three Most Valuable Player awards, the .331 lifetime batting average, the 475 homeruns, the 3,630 hits…..all bespeak of his astounding baseball prowess.
But none of those remarkable records account for the tears I’m shedding this morning. It does not explain the ache in my heart…..half a century after Stan last wielded a Louisville Slugger and dropped into his familiar crouch from the left side of the plate to stare down the likes of Robin Roberts, big Don Newcombe or Warren Spahn.
It started in a small living room with a family huddled around an old floor model Zenith radio in 1952. There was, of course, no television. There was little money for entertainment. Going to town was only for necessities. The world moved at a snail’s pace and any, and everything, of significance had definitely missed our little corner of it. In between “Amos ‘n’ Andy” and “Fibber McGee and Molly” Dad would tune in KMOX out of St. Louis and for an hour or so we would be transported out of the mundane.
Harry Caray, the venerable St. Louis Cardinal broadcaster, would describe old Sportsman Park in minute detail, the fast moving clouds, the mood in the dugout, the high kick of Vinegar Bend Mizell and he’d worry and fuss about an error by third baseman Billy Johnson that had the Cards behind by two runs moving into the bottom of the eighth. Enos Slaughter and Peanuts Lowery would scratch out hits and Stan the Man would gracefully step to the plate for the pivotal at bat in this ball game. He’d take a low and away pitch for “ball one” from Brooklyn Dodger ace Carl Erskine. We’d have our heads literally glued to the radio. I can hear Harry this morning as clear as a bell from 61 years away, “Musial digs in, Erskine gets the sign, hereeeee’s the pitch, swung on…theeree’s a drive, waayyy back, it might be out of here, it could beeeee…..IT IS…. A HOME RUN! The Cardinals take the lead!”
Stan Musial, more than any one else on earth, was selling hope down at the end of Stonewall Street in the 1950’s. If our beloved Redbirds were trailing by six runs late in the game, we expected—we believed with all our hearts—that if Stan could just get one last at bat, he’d hit a seven run homer! We never doubted him. We never gave up on him. We trusted him. We prayed for him. It went way beyond him leading the league in doubles, RBI’s or batting. I didn’t understand consistency, role models or much else in those formative years, but I knew Stan Musial was the real deal…..he was playing for all of us! When he stepped to the plate, all business, festivities, small talk and motion ceased; time itself stood still! And somehow along the way, believe it or not, this unabashed love affair even transcended winning or losing. He carried us way beyond the walls of our little universe.
The fights in the back yard pick up games were not about some advantage gained in choosing up sides, a close call at second or the final score. It was about who got “to be” Stan in that game. Right handed batters would move to the left side of the plate to emulate him. Every little league player in our town wanted to get the number 6 jersey.
My first trip to Sportsman’s Park was in 1955. I’d never seen grass so green. I was a little surprised that Stan was the same size as the rest of the players. He didn’t disappoint this day, getting a couple of hits off a tough Cincinnati pitching staff and driving in, naturally, a key run. That trip is still one of the highlights of my life.
Heroes were real in small towns like ours. Stan never wavered from the top of the list. And we never out grew him. I wouldn’t date a girl that didn’t pull for him and the Cardinals. I bought baseball cards looking for Stan up to the day he retired. My loyalty ran as deep as a Donora, Pennsylvania, coal mine. He WAS family! Bobby Jack, Terry Brown, Jackie, Leon, Bobby C., Mr. and Mrs. Cantrell, Deake, Buddy…... I could list near about the whole town who thought just like I did. It wasn’t so much as the years rolled by, “did the Cards win?” but “how did Stan do?”
He galvanized all of us.
It has been a thrill and an honor to be associated in such a way with Stan Musial over the years. He is an untarnished hero. He was universally loved and respected by contemporary players, kings, paupers and presidents. He truly lived an exemplary life. By all accounts this 24 time Major League All Star was a better person than he was a baseball ballplayer. I’m not sure you can pay a man a higher tribute than that!
As the tears came freely over Stan’s passing, so did my memories of the long vigils around that old Zenith radio with the four most precious people in my life. I thought of Ricky, Squeaky, Emily Scarbrough, Chick, Goat Hayes, J. S. and a hundred others…… Some I’ve already heard from. The others, I promise, rolled my name over when they heard the news. We all thought back to those pick up games or a ride to St. Louis or the Sunday afternoon doubleheader on May 2, 1954, when The Man hit five home runs against the Giants.
Stan has brought us all together again. It’s just like old times.