Well, it’s January 20, 2013—the Texas Legislature is in session, Washington is debating a mostly symbolic and ineffective response to the Sandy Hook tragedy, and we are about to inaugurate Obama for a second and last time. Being the political junky that I am, this post should be immersed in some political topic of importance, but one of today’s news articles, buried in the back pages of the Sports section of the Houston Chronicle, paused my thoughts. You see, Stan Musial passed away yesterday at the age of 92.
Now, if you’re are like my wife, your reaction to what I just wrote may be, “who’s that?” I guess that is one of the sad by-products of living a long life during a time when your retirement years were overshadowed by a 24-7 news cycle and celebrities that come and go so quickly—some of our greatest public figures disappear over time from our collective memory. But, if you’re like me, and you grew-up following and playing baseball in the last half of the 20th Century, Stan “The Man” Musial was a towering and consequential figure in American society from just before World War II through the 1960s, who also was a gentleman and community leader—and who should be remembered and honored by all of us for his life well-spent, which he shared with so many people.
Even if you are a baseball fanatic like me, it is hard to imagine a time when stars of both the American and National Leagues didn’t exist in at least equal numbers, but if you lived in the late 1930s as the new Baseball Hall of Fame was opening in Cooperstown, New York, you would have looked back on the first four decades of the modern era and see that it had mostly produced stars in one league—the American League. By the late 1930s, the baseball icons that the public knew and followed included Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker, Napoleon Lajoie, Frank “Home Run” Baker, “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, “Babe” Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Walter Johnson, Al Simmons, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane, Lefty Grove and Lefty Gomez, and new stars—Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. Meanwhile, though the National League produced some memorable teams and future Hall of Famers during this era, the names of the truly great stars who had become public celebrities were few: Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, and Rogers Hornsby (and the famous Cub infield of “Tinkers to Evers to Chance”); and by the 1930s, Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell, and Dizzy Dean. But this changed in the early 1940s as one man burst on the scene to level the playing field with the American League; to become an equal in every way of DiMaggio, Williams, and later, Mantle; and to lead the way for Snyder, Mays, Aaron, Mathews, Clemente, Gibson, Koufax, Bench, and all the other great stars of the National League since World War II—his name was Stan Musial.
Musial was brought up to the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals at the age of 21, at the end of the 1941 season, and he would remain a Cardinal for his entire career, ending on September 29, 1963—just two months before the JFK assassination. His impact was immediate, as he would lead the Cardinals to 4 World Series and 3 World Championships in his first 5 full seasons with the team (1942-1946)—beating both DiMaggio’s Yankees and Williams’ Red Sox before and after World War II. In fact, many baseball historians and statisticians count the 1942 team that beat the Yankees in the last full season before so many players went into the military to fight World War II, as being one of the greatest teams of the 20th Century. He stayed on to see both DiMaggio and Williams retire before him; to make the National League All-Star squad in each of the 22 full seasons he played; to be voted MVP of the National League 3 times and be among the top-ten vote getters 14 times; to come within one home-run of the Triple Crown in 1948; to lead the league in hitting seven times—the last coming in 1957 when Mays, Aaron, Mathews and Clemente were in or entering their prime playing years; to lead his team to 17 winning-records in 22 full seasons, finishing no lower than 3rd place in 15 of those seasons; and ending with a lifetime batting average of .331 and with so many National League records that they could not all be listed on his plaque in Cooperstown. Had his life ended on September 29, 1963, he would have been remembered as a giant of his sport—worthy of the two statues celebrating him in front of the current Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
But his retirement was not the end of the story, as he spent the last 49 years living a good life, and giving back to the St. Louis community and the nation. In fact, it was in these years that I remember Musial, as I was only 5 when he retired, and had just begun to follow baseball during the 1963 Season, largely through collecting baseball cards with my older brother. After his retirement, Musial published records and booklets on hitting that, along with Ted Williams’ “Science of Hitting” that was published later in the decade, helped teach a generation of boys, including me, how to play baseball. He served the Cardinals as its General Manager and as Vice-President for 25 years, helping to put together the pennant-winning teams of 1967-68. While owning and running a popular restaurant in St. Louis (which is where I got to meet him once as an adoring teenager), he supported the USO, Senior Olympics, the Boy Scouts, and Covenant House, among many other civic organizations in the St. Louis area; and he served as the Chair of Lyndon Johnson’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sport that created an annual fitness test that many of us of a certain age had to take and pass in elementary school. As a testament to his life’s work, he was given the highest civilian honors from both the Polish Government (the Cavalier Cross of the Order of Merit) and the U.S. Government (the Presidential Medal of Freedom). But, maybe the greatest measure of his life was his marriage of 71 years, and the family he and his late wife produced and raised.
As I’ve tried to say so many times in my posts over the last few years, what this country desperately needs is not more national programs and legislation, nor more controversial athletes or provocative celebrities. We just need a lot more Stan Musials in our neighborhoods.
Stan, here is one man, who was once a young boy in an America that treasured men like you, and who thanks you for your life well spent. May you be at God’s side now, and may you rest in peace.