In a city where baseball is king, and baseball tradition runs deep, there is no greater baseball legend than Stan Musial. That’s saying a lot in a city where Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and so many other great players played baseball.
Musial was adored by our grandparents and parents who got to see the greatest Cardinal ever play in person, and he was beloved by even more people, like me, who’ve never seen him play in person, but can imagine having been in the stands through stories told by older Cards fans, former players and by listening to old broadcasts from KMOX.
The common theme in all the stories told is that Musial was, by all accounts, a great ballplayer and an even better person.
Willie Mays touched on the sort of man Musial was by talking about how, during baseball’s ugly integration of minorities into the game, players like Musial helped reach out to black ballplayers by attempting to reassure them that they belonged and trying to make them a part of the team.
His numbers are staggering. There’s no doubt that Musial is one of the top ten players in the history of baseball. I’d argue that he’s one of the three best to ever play, and had he played in New York or Boston or Los Angeles, there’d be many more folks making this same argument. That he wasn’t a drunk or a womanizer or gambler or addicted to hookers or whatever was cool back then, probably played a part in retarding his popularity on a national scale.
As it is, he played his entire career in St. Louis. He grew into a St. Louisan and became one of the great ambassadors on behalf of the city. He was married to the same woman for 71 years! That’s as incredible as hitting .325 or whatever he hit for 22 major league seasons.
I met Musial one time, when I was a college student working at Grant’s Farm during the summers.
The Cardinals used to have an annual get together at Grant’s Farm, back when the team was owned by Anheuser-Busch.
I don’t remember what it was called, but the Cards came out to the Farm and they all ate and drank with fans who probably paid a bunch of money to cavort with their favorite baseball players.
One of the train drivers at Grant’s Farm, Charlie (driving the Michelob train) gave me a ball and asked me if I’d have as many Cardinals sign it as I could. He was on the train all night, so he wouldn’t be near the players like I would be. It was something he wanted to give to his grand kid.
I told him that I’d be glad to do it and he drove off.
One of my duties was to show some of the VIPs where to park their cars. The first car to pull up was Mr. and Mrs. Musial. I don’t recall what they were driving, but it was something like a Town Car. It wasn’t a Bentley or Cadillac or anything else you’d expect Stan The Man to be driving, that’s for sure.
Anyway, I had the ball that Charlie had given me in my hand and didn’t even realize that I was holding it as I opened the door for Mrs. Musial. She sees the ball in my hand as she’s getting out and says in a snotty old lady voice that “He’s not signing autographs for people tonight…”
Well la di freakin’ da lady! I didn’t ask! I really had no intention of asking him for an autograph, and to be honest, I probably wasn’t going to ask anyone to sign it because that’s tacky. I was working and asking for autographs didn’t seem right.
Well, Stan Musial doesn’t even think twice before he asks me to toss him the ball and signs it. He had his own pen that I guess he carried around on nights when he wasn’t going to sign autographs. Besides that, he asked my name, shook my hand and introduced me to his wife. She turned out to be a pretty pleasant lady and I was sorry that I had considered her to be an old bag after she first opened her mouth.
The Cardinal team circa 1993 consisted of such superstars as Ozzie Canseco, Ray Lankford, Bob Tewksbury, Gregg Jefferies and an aging Ozzie Smith, among others. Yeah, you’ve never heard of most of them, if you’re not a Cardinal fan. There was no way that any of them was going to be signing a ball that Stan Musial had just signed. Those guys were fine players, but not anywhere near the player Musial was (Ozzie Smith was great though).
Anyway, like an asshole, I gave the ball back to Charlie and explained to him that there was only one signature because it was Musial’s signature. He was clearly unimpressed since he was looking for quantity over quality, but I managed to refrain from punching an old man in the face over something so stupid.
From time to time I sort of regret not asking Charlie if I could keep that ball. In spite of losing the ball, I will always remember how cool the greatest player I’ll ever meet in person was to a 20 year old stranger on that summer night at Grant’s Farm.