The rest of the country must excuse the maudlin melancholy coming from Cardinal Nation this week. Our most beloved hero, legend and greatest Cardinal ever, The Man, left us to go to God.
Last Saturday night, I was sitting in the green room of St. Louis’ most elegant concert venue waiting to line up to go on stage, when a fellow singer and friend looking at her iPhone nudged me and said, “Stan died.” No other words were necessary. Everyone here knows what that means. A gigantic hole was just ripped in the baseball universe.
Not really, but to understand what Stan Musial was and really still is to the culture here, and to an extent baseball as a whole, one has to understand that as a man, not just a ballplayer, Stan Musial never changed even with great success. He was always hard-working, a gentleman, even tempered, smiling, dignified, humble, simple and fun to be around. Stan was a fixture at Busch Stadium, all three of them, and not just because he settled here after he retired.
If any of the 15,000 men who have played baseball in the majors had a right to sit on their accomplishments, it was Stan. It ain’t bragging if you’ve done it, and he held so many records at the time he was inducted into the Hall of Fame – on the first ballot with over 93% of the votes – they couldn’t fit them all on the plaque.
But Stan never talked about any of that. Once he was finished playing he converted to being a fan, and mentor to younger players. (He even was GM the last time the Cards beat the Yankees in the World Series, 1967.) In the last week, Cardinals of all stripes have told story after story of Stan helping them through one aspect of playing or another. Some were in tears, including Stan’s only remaining contemporary with the club, Red Schoendienst. I remember when Paul Molitor, who was with the Minnesota Twins at the time, came to town right after he hit 3,000 in 1996, and the Cardinals went to the Twins’ clubhouse and asked if Molitor would sign for Stan. The answer was, Of Course, of course, and Paul Molitor signed Stan’s Bat, one of the many signatures on an artifact where all the signers are members of the 3,000 hit club. (Afterwards, Molitor is reported to have said, “Me? Sign for STAN?!”) If there’s any one piece of baseball memorabilia I’d love to have, Stan’s Bat is it.
Stan was at EVERY Opening Day from the time he started playing with the Cardinals until last year (over 70 years in a row). And I mean every one if he was not serving our country (1945). One year, he even played the Star Spangled Banner on his harmonica. The fans helped him out when he got into trouble, thanks to Jack Buck’s prompting, and there were smiles and love all around. I was born after he was finished playing and managing, but it didn’t matter what was going on, Stan was there. Every World Series, the McGwire/Sosa summer of home runs, the All-Star game after a 33-year boycott by Major League Baseball until Busch Stadium II was replaced (it really did hold heat well. Cold too, to be honest). Didn’t matter. The first truly huge event Stan missed, was the World Series Parade after the 2011 Eleven in Eleven Championship. It wasn’t that he really wanted to miss it, but as we of Cardinal Nation knew, Stan was completing his circle of life.
For the last few years, we in Cardinal Nation had the privilege of watching this legend, this beloved man, gracefully age and gradually succumb to the inevitable, not all that unlike watching Pope John Paul II follow the same path, albeit with a different ailment. How fitting is it on the day after hundreds of thousands marched in Washington to recognize that the unborn are alive in their own right, we lay to rest a man who died of natural causes after a long life without any interference from government forces threatening to declare that the aged have no place among us, as if there was no dignity. At the same time, how sad that Stan’s knightliness was not recognized altogether until he died.
In the last week, so many people have shared stories of Stan, and just how accessible he was. One singing colleague learned harmonica at his knee. A friend played in a woman’s softball league in the 70’s and at one game, Stan hit a homerun for each team playing, his wife sitting in the stands and whistling with two fingers in her mouth. Another acquaintance used to eat lunch at one of the big clubs once a week and he was always there, and would sit with them. She actually told that story to a bunch of guys from all over the country at a conference and they said, incredulously, “Are you serious?” Stan was a regular at Sunday Mass at his parish and everyone was just used to him being there. He’d sit and talk to anyone at his restaurant. That’s just the way Stan was. He was a legend, but at the same time, just one of us.
Last Saturday night, after the news hit, in a game we are all sure Stan had a hand, our beloved Blues scored six goals in their season opener against Detroit (which is looking old and tired). Several restaurants have had $6 appetizer specials in Stan’s honor. There were condolences and RIPs all over Facebook and Twitter. The number 6 was everywhere.
And so, when arrangements were made for Stan’s final appearance, it was to be public visitation at Busch Stadium, but moved to our ENORMOUS (and downright magnificent) Cathedral Basilica, the Mother Ship, due to a sub-freezing day where those paying their respects would be able to wait in a line that snaked up and down the aisles. Thursday evening, the line on the highway was two miles long, let alone once people got into the church which is almost a block long. There was an honor guard from the Navy standing watch and thousands in their Cardinal best there to say goodbye.
Today’s Funeral Mass is a tickets only event in a 1,500 seat cathedral. As a Funeral Mass is supposed to be public prayer, this is saying something. A friend said that there were more satellite trucks there than when the pope was in town. It’s going to be televised for those of us who do not have tickets (and are not in the Cathedral Choir). No less than three bishops will concelebrate, including Cardinal Dolan of New York (native of STL) and Bishop Stika of Knoxville (also a native and was a pastor at Stan’s parish). Stan knew everybody in baseball, and a good percentage of St. Louis. Only the Cathedral is big enough, and then not everybody will be able to fit.
Stan Musial is one of the last of the legends of the Greatest Generation in baseball to leave us. Ted Williams, Joe Dimaggio, Jackie Robinson – all have gone before. It might just be because of the number of seasons Stan was able to play as so many of them were at war for a lot longer, but none had his stats. Forget the batting average, in 22 seasons, Stan struck out less than 700 times. That’s about 30 a season. How many big names can do that? How many players were given their nickname by the fans of another city, let alone Brooklyn. That’s how good he was. Pitchers didn’t want to pitch to him. Hitters knew he’d chase down their fly balls. Stan was the Man. And that doesn’t touch how he accepted integration without question. Willie Mays made that clear.
From the drinking city with a baseball problem, Vaya con Dios, Stan The Man. You will always be our greatest legend, our greatest knight.
Pitchers and catchers report in 23 days.