From the moment I first saw Stan "The Man" Musial play, I fell in love with baseball, and I expect millions of St. Louis Cardinals fans can say something similar. After joining the Cardinals on Sept. 17, 1941, Musial became the face of St. Louis and its baseball team.
We knew the day would come — he was, after all, 92 years old and suffering from Alzheimer’s — but his death Saturday still came too soon. It’s almost like losing a bit of your childhood.
I can’t tell you when I saw my first Cardinals game; I hadn’t even been to school yet. But my step-grandfather Tommy was from St. Louis, and my grandmother need to go there occasionally for treatments of the lung cancer that would eventually take her life. They often took my sister Linda and me on the train trip from Hot Springs to St. Louis.
Tommy made sure I was introduced to baseball when I was 4 or 5 years old in the late 1940s. By then Stan was already a superstar, and he would rewrite the team and National League record books by the time he retired in 1963.
In the process Stan and the Cardinals became one and the same. Countless baseball fans who grew up in that era will tell you of listening to the Cardinals over KMOX radio or one of its affiliates. There was no television coverage in the early years and then only the "Game of the Week," which invariably included the New York Yankees and whoever they were playing.
But with announcers like Harry Caray and Jack Buck, you could "see" the action on your radio.
However, it was so much better to experience a game from the stands of old Sportsman’s Park, especially for a kid learning the wonders of baseball. Tommy had to explain what was going on, of course, and he made sure I knew about Stan the Man, his favorite player, and therefore mine.
I don’t remember if it was the first game I saw or a later one, but the greatest thrill was seeing Musial hit a grand slam over the pavilion in right field and onto Grand Boulevard. That alone was enough to make me a lifetime fan of baseball, the Cardinals and Stan the Man. It also meant that I would play the game as soon as I was old enough.
I won’t recite the statistics that made Musial great enough to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot. He certainly earned his nickname on the field, but what made him "The Man" went much further.
By all accounts he never tried to tell anybody how good he was, and he never "trashed" an opponent. He didn’t deliver fiery speeches in the dugout or locker room. He led by example; he competed on the field and let his ability speak for itself. He played more than 3,000 games and was never ejected.
When he left the stadium, he would stand by his car and sign autographs until everyone was satisfied, and he never charged for one.
He played baseball for the love of the game, and he lived comfortably as a result of his success. Although the Cardinals organization struggled financially during much of his career, in 1958 at the age of 38 he became the first player to earn $100,000.
But after his first bad season (by his standards) in 1959, he tried to give some of the money back. And in 1960 he voluntarily took a $20,000 pay cut.
Can you imagine one of today’s superstars doing anything of the sort?
He was married to the same woman for 71 years until she died last year, and he was never involved in a scandal or controversy. He stayed with the same team his whole career.
After Musial retired, he was hired as the team’s general manager in 1967. That season the Cardinals won a World Series championship But after that, Musial, not wanting to be tied to the rigors of a GM, held a public relations role with the Cardinals for the rest of his life.
A contemporary great, Willie Mays, tells a story that illustrates what kind of man Musial was. At an All-Star game in the late 1950s the National League team included seven black players.
"We were in the back of the clubhouse playing poker and none of the white guys had come back or said, ‘Hi,’ or ‘How’s it going?’ or ‘How you guys doing?’ or ‘Welcome to the All-Star Game.’ Nothing," Mays told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "We’re playing poker, and all of a sudden I look up and here comes Stan toward us. He grabs a chair, sits down and starts playing cards with us. And Stan didn’t know how to play poker! But that was his way of welcoming us, of making us feel a part of it. I never forgot that. We never forgot that."
That was one of many reasons why Stan Musial died without an enemy.
A Post-Dispatch sports writer, Dan O’Neill, said he was the "last American sports hero." I hope not. The many athletes now praising him would do well to emulate him.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.