When I was a toddler, I played in Stan Musial’s swimming pool.
Yes, I really did.
Stan Musial’s son in law and my dad interned together, and at some point–presumably when the two of them graduated–the longtime Cardinals great let his son in law have a party at his house, which led to the unlikely scenario of me ending up in Stan Musial’s swimming pool.
Somewhere, mom still has a picture of me in Stan Musial’s swimming pool.
Stan “The Man” Musial, probably the greatest Cardinal of them all, died on Saturday at the age of 92.
I don’t tell that story about Stan Musial’s swimming pool very often, but it impresses people. Stan Musial played his final game on September 29, 1963, nearly a half-century before he died this past weekend. Nobody under the age of 50 has any recollection of Stan Musial playing baseball, but you wouldn’t know that in this city. St. Louis is Stan Musial’s town.
When the All-Star Game was in St. Louis in 2009, Stan Musial made a public appearance. His health was declining, so those appearances were becoming much more rare, and I was very disappointed in the players’ reaction to him. Basically, it was lip service. When Ted Williams made an appearance at the 1999 All-Star Game, every player on the field mobbed him. So it was sad to see Stan Musial dismissed as just a local hero while he held court with Albert Pujols and Tony LaRussa.
You see, if Ted Williams was a better hitter than Stan Musial, it wasn’t by much. Stan Musial never hit .400, but Ted Williams hit .328 outside of Fenway Park, his home stadium. Stan Musial hit .331 outside of Sportsman’s Park, his home stadium. Stan Musial hit .331 inside of Sportsman’s Park, too. His consistency was just freaky. If All Stars had something to learn by sharing a few moments with Ted Williams, they had something to learn by sharing a few moments with Stan Musial.
Probably more, because beyond batting averages, Stan Musial was a better all-around baseball player and team player than Ted Williams ever was. Like Williams, Musial was a natural left fielder, but unlike Williams, Musial played out of position a lot to make room for other players so that the Cardinals could field the best team that they could. Musial logged considerable time at first base, right field, and even one full season in center field–at the age of 31–playing wherever the team asked him to play. And unlike many players who moved around the diamond over the course of a career, Musial would play left field one season, right field the next, first base the next, then repeat the cycle again, though not necessarily in the same order.
I would say that today’s players stayed away from Musial because they wouldn’t understand him, but I know that isn’t true. They didn’t even know that much about the man.
I have a few more memories of growing up in and around Stan Musial’s town. Of course his statue–a poor likeness, but it had his name on it–loomed large every time I went to a baseball game downtown.
But Stan Musial was also my first autographed baseball. One day, Dad came home and handed a baseball to me. Inscribed in brown ink, it read, “To David. Best Wishes, Stan Musial.” Dad brought another one for my sister. It’s hard to get a baseball player to write “To [your name]” on a ball, let alone add the words “Best Wishes.” And furthermore, every letter was legible.
I remember Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew saying late in life that players of his generation were taught to do make every letter legible, as a signal that they cared. Players today don’t do that. I know. I have a dozen or so autographed baseballs. Some are legible. Some, if you didn’t know any better, could have just as easily been scrawled by me.
Adding “best wishes” was just going the extra mile. But Stan Musial did that an awful lot. I’ve seen a fair few Stan Musial autographs in Stan Musial’s town, and more often than not, he included those words.
Stan Musial autographs have never been especially valuable in Stan Musial’s town, mostly because he signed so many of them, but the monetary value doesn’t matter to me. That ball is worth more to me than its theoretical monetary value.
That’s not my only Stan Musial memory. Growing up in a farm town in Missouri’s Lead Belt, on special occasions we would drive up to St. Louis for dinner. Stan Musial and Biggie’s was one of our preferred destinations for several years until the restaurant closed in the mid 1980s.
I don’t remember the food nearly so much as I remember the hour-long drive to come up and spend time in the city, sitting in Stan Musial’s restaurant surrounded by baseball memorabilia. To a kid who spent more than a few summer days playing baseball from sunup to sundown–there wasn’t much else to do down there–Stan Musial’s restaurant wasn’t about the food.
Many people have said Stan Musial had no scandals and no enemies. That’s not entirely true. Stan Musial and Biggie’s closed in part due to a business dispute with Joe Garagiola, one of Musial’s former teammates and business partners. Garagiola sued Musial in the mid 1980s, the two parties settled out of court, and rarely, if ever spoke about it afterward. It was the closest thing to a scandal that ever appeared around Musial. And Garagiola was the one name someone could say to get a rise out of Musial.
So that was Stan Musial’s scandal. I think most athletes would love for the worst thing to be said about them is that they were better athletes than they were businesspeople. And it’s hard to call his business ventures a failure–he stayed in business for 37 years. His failure was bigger than many people’s successes.
That was the thing. Musial regarded that as his dirty laundry. When lesser people do something like that, we don’t even notice. They say not to speak ill of the dead, but glossing over Musial’s “scandal” seems like a disservice. What was a scandal to him is just a day in the life of many other athletes.
This was a day that everyone in St. Louis knew was coming eventually. That’s probably why, about three years ago, we started seeing billboards everywhere with Musial’s picture and the words, “Stand with Stan,” as part of a drive to get Musial awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Stan Musial’s town wanted something nice for him while he was still alive.
I’m glad the award didn’t have to happen posthumously, but that doesn’t make it much easier.
I can’t imagine what it’s like right now for the people who actually knew him well.