My column about Stan "The Man" Musial, the St. Louis Cardinals greatest baseball player who died last weekend, struck a chord with many readers, several of whom told me in person or by e-mail about their own experiences. Like so many others, they affirm that "The Man" was a great inspiration, more so in life even than in the sport he played so well.
Jonesboro native Jim Pardew, who now lives in Fairfax Station, Va., recalled that going to St. Louis to see the Cardinals play was also one of the thrills of his childhood. Once each summer he went with youth league coaches, who would load a bunch of boys in their car and drive to St. Louis and back, all in a day, to take in a Sunday doubleheader. They would leave at midnight and hang around at Sportsman’s Park till the first game started, staying for the last out before heading back.
On those trips he and the other boys were able to see baseball greats like Musial and Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
"Harry Caray and the Cards were a part of summer life," said Pardew, who went on to become U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria. "The games were on in barber shops and stores and radios everywhere, and kids played the game in vacant lots with balls covered in electrical tape and bats sometimes nailed and taped together."
Even though he didn’t make it as a baseball player in college at Arkansas State, baseball has been a lifelong passion, and each year he attends about 20 Washington Nationals games (who, I might add, lost to the Cardinals in the playoffs last fall).
Curtis Hitt, a Paragould attorney, seconded my comments about Musial’s character: "Nice tribute to such a deserving character. A rare thing — indeed, as rare as it is admirable — for one so transcendent in performance to be so humble in character."
Jimmy Dill, a Pine Bluff lawyer, went a bit further.
"You bring out many valid points about the goodness that was a part of Stan Musial [but] not a part of the athletes today, both professional and amateur," Dill wrote. "It makes my stomach churn when I see a basketball player scream in the face of an opposing player when they score over them or when a football player pounds his chest when he knocks another player to the ground.
"This type of total disrespect and lack of sportsmanship has made the games less enjoyable for me. Sportsmanship used to be one of the main lessons learned from participation in sports. Not any more."
A Hot Springs classmate of mine, Shelta McWilliams Banks, who now lives in Cordova, Tenn., passed along two experiences of family members that illustrate what a great man we’ve lost.
When her future husband Bob was 12, the Cardinals and Chicago White Sox played an exhibition game in Little Rock, and Bob’s dad took him. Before the game Musial was signing autographs and posing for pictures with young fans, as he so often did, and an Arkansas Democrat photographer took pictures.
The one used in the paper the next day featured the boy right in front of Bob, so his mother called the newspaper and asked for a copy of the next picture on the roll. When the picture came, it became a family treasure.
Shelta’s cousin, who lives in Chesterfield, Mo., was a next-door neighbor to Joe Cunningham, a former Cardinal who worked for the organization for many years. On Sundays the families often had brunch together before church, and once a picture was taken. To surprise her husband, Shelta asked her cousin to see if Cunningham would get a copy autographed by Musial. He did.
That wasn’t unusual. Musial was quick to sign his autograph to any item presented to him. In fact, during his playing days and afterward he carried around copies of a photo card that he would sign and give to anyone who asked. During his years as a Cardinals executive, his secretary told a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter, she was instructed to keep a supply of baseballs on hand. When someone came to his office to visit, he’d pull one out and sign it.
"I suppose that Stan Musial was the only athlete that I ever had for a hero," Shelta wrote. "I still cry each time I think of his passing."
That reminded me of the great Tom Hanks line in the 1992 women’s baseball movie, "A League of Their Own." After "Coach" Hanks loudly castigated one of his players in front of the team, she started crying. When he noticed, he yelled, "Are you crying? There’s no crying in baseball! …"
During Thursday’s public visitation for Musial at the Cathedral Basilica in downtown St. Louis, thousands of baseball fans, many dressed in Cardinals regalia, paid their last respects.
According to a Post-Dispatch account, one man turned to his wife, who was crying and repeated the Hanks line; "You know, there’s no crying in baseball."
His wife had the perfect answer: "There is when it comes to Stan Musial."
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.