Sunday, January 20, 2013

Stan Musial: An Appreciation of the Man

I have no memories of Stan Musial smashing baseballs across the National League, having arrived on this Earth more than sixteen years after he collected hit number 3,630 in the final at bat of his career, September 29th, 1963. While I would love to have seen him play, the record books are emphatic about his greatness as a player. The stories told of him also make clear he was quite a man. The news that Musial passed away yesterday has saddened many, but we should also reflect on the knowledge that at 92 years of age and surrounded by family, he went about as well as anyone can hope to.

UPDATE: Before I wrote this, I tweeted a line from near the end of this piece. CNN picked up that line and included it in their obituary for Musial, which is pretty cool. Anyway, back to my blog post...

At some point when I was a boy, I would guess I was ten years old or so, my dad took me to St. Louis on a long-weekend trip. I remember that we stopped in Springfield on the way. We must have seen some of the historical sites there, the Lincoln Home, the Lincoln Library, the Lincoln Laundromat... I don't really recall them (sorry, Dad). I do remember visiting the State Fair, where my dad humored me by allowing me to play a carnival game long enough to win a stuffed green rabbit. I remember that by the time for bed that night, the rabbit was already falling apart, losing stuffing at the seams.

In St. Louis I remember going up in the Arch, and seeing the brewey, but most of all I remember Busch Stadium. We had tickets to a game that night, the yard lines were still visible on the turf, a reminder of the city's football team, who'd recently moved to Phoenix. Already an avid baseball fan, I'm sure I was champing at the bit so we arrived hours before the game began. I don't recall if there were other statues outside the old stadium at that point, but there was certainly one of Musial. My dad pointed him out to me, and in an album somewhere is a picture of me standing at its base, squinting in the sun. Musial has been an icon in my mind ever since.

Musial's numbers boggle the mind. A .331 batting average, .417 on-base percentage, and .559 slugging percentage, 3,630 hits (4th in history), including 725 doubles (3rd), 177 triples (19th), and 475 home runs (28th) Musial scored 1,949 runs (9th) and drove in 1,951 (6th). He was the National League's Most Valuable Player three times and finished among the top five in voting in nine different seasons.  From 1943 to 1963 he played in every single MLB All-Star Game, save 1945, when we was serving in the U.S. Navy. Musial played in more than 3,000 games in his career, not once was he ever ejected.

I have too few memories of my Grandpa Larkin, but from stories my mom and many aunts and uncles have told me, I know he was a great baseball fan. The Cardinals were the team he listened to most often and Musial would have been about his age, so the two have always been linked in my imagination. When I picture my granddad in earlier years, I see him wearing overalls, his pipe tucked into the side of his mouth. He was a railroad man, and oftentimes in my mind he's aboard a train. Other times he is working in the garage or around the house, or just resting in his easy chair. The Cardinals are on in the background and Musial has just stroked a double to right field.

St. Louis is a baseball town and Musial is it's greatest hero. He not only played his entire career with the Cardinals, he lived there for the rest of his life as well (with his high school sweetheart, Lillian whom he married in 1940), and appeared regularly at Busch Stadium and at local high schools and neighborhood parks as well, watching his children and their children play. You might bump into him at the grocery store or while walking your dog. It is said that everyone in St. Louis has a baseball autographed by Musial, famous for signing for hours at a time. In a Sports Illustrated cover story from a couple years ago (filled with good stories), Joe Posnanski passed along a line from Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts, speaking of kids and signing autographs, "We all disappointed someone from time to time. Well, all of us but one." Musial, of course. I doubt there is any bond in American sports between a city and player as close as that between St. Louis and Stan Musial.

Stan Musial was one of the dozen or so greatest players ever, a legend with a deserved place in the uppermost realm of whatever stratospheres hold baseball's history. After a week in which the Lance Armstrong and Manti Te'o stories made clear the dangers in deifying athletes, Musial's passing serves as a reminder that every once in a great while, there's a man worthy of the cheers and adulation.

Rest in peace, Stan.

2 comments:

  1. What an awesome tribute Jason. When you talked about Grandad and the pictures it conjured in your mind it brought me back to a fond memory myself. Thanks for writing this!

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