Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A True Role Model

My admiration for anyone resembling a sports idol dropped to near zero when Lance Armstrong, that “clean-cut American boy” with the heroic sounding name, admitted his international cycling victories were aided by more than tailwinds. He told the world on national TV that he depended on numerous infusions of performance-enhancing drugs. And he didn’t seem especially contrite when he confessed.

But then along came news of the death of a sports star worthy of admiration. “Stan the Man” died at 92. He was nothing like “da man,” a title bestowed nowadays on all sorts of people. He was the real thing--Stan the Man Musial, one of the finest baseball players in the history of the game and probably one of the finest men in the history of anything.

The Man
As a boy, I had many baseball heroes. Before the Braves moved from Boston to win the hearts of Wisconsinites, the Chicago White Sox were “my” team. I cheered for Minnie Minoso, Billy Pierce, and Luke Appling while listening to radio broadcasts of Sox games. Like many other kids, however, I followed all aspects of Major League Baseball to some extent, and had multiple heroes.  When Dad gave me my first catcher’s mitt, a nearly worn out hand-me-down, I carefully wrote on the back of the glove the names of the first-string catchers playing for all teams in the big leagues.

I didn’t know a lot of details about Stan Musial at the time. I did know that he was a terrific hitter for the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards had a radio network in the Midwest. Several of my friends who were St. Louis fans listened to games whenever they could, and I often was present when they did. The Cardinals won a lot of games, and their zany announcer “Dizzy” Dean would break into a spirited rendition of “The Wabash Cannonball” when a St. Louis victory seemed assured.

The usually irrepressible Dean played it straight when Musial grabbed a bat in a crucial situation. He simply announced with a tinge of awe in his voice, “And Stan the Man is coming to the plate.” As I recall, Dean never offered up any funny stories involving Musial as he frequently did for other players.

Other baseball experts seemed to talk about Musial with a measure of respect that went a bit beyond what might usually be accorded a man with superior athletic ability. I didn't understand why, although I heard parts of those Cardinal game broadcasts and read the Chicago Tribune regularly for sports news. Now, reading a sampling of the many tributes issued after Musial’s death, I think I get it.

Unlike today’s “heroes,” some of whom have more penalties for bad behavior than awards for achievement, Musial played for 22 years without so much as berating an umpire. In all that time, he never was ejected from a game.  When The Man retired, the commissioner of baseball referred to him as “baseball’s perfect warrior, baseball’s perfect knight.”

Unlike some of today’s athletes who move in and out of “meaningful relationships” with the ease of Hollywood stars, Musial married his high school sweetheart and stayed with her for 71 years.

Unlike today’s prima donnas who refuse to give a helping hand to younger players, Musial was known to go to great lengths to make rookies feel comfortable in St. Louis. When it was unpopular to do so, he welcomed the first black player, Jackie Robinson, to the major leagues and pleaded with fellow white players to accept other blacks.

Musial’s good will apparently was returned. Willie Mays, a black super-star, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, “I never heard anybody say a bad word about him.”

Unlike today’s jocks who seem intent on setting world records for being arrested after drunken brawls outside night clubs, Musial was a model of decorum off the field as well as on. Asked about keys to success, he advised walking a mile every day for exercise and getting eight hours of sleep every night.

Another super-star during Musial’s career, Ted Williams, refused to tip his cap to fans after hitting home runs, and had a reputation for other self-centered and arrogant behavior. Musial signed autographs for everyone, everywhere. When demands on his time became excessive in later years, he carried a supply of presigned baseball cards so he could give one to any admirer who approached him.

After Musial retired from baseball, the son of a steelworker built a business empire. That might have been enough activity for many, but The Man found time to chair the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports for three years. He also contributed time and money to many causes, including the USO, the Senior Olympics, and the Boy Scouts.

Despite his successes, people who knew The Man well said he had a sort of “down home” manner about him. He carried a harmonica, and often played “The Wabash Cannonball,” perhaps inspired by the antics of Dizzy Dean. Musial also did harmonica performances of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at a number of baseball ceremonies, including opening day events in St. Louis, after his playing career had ended.

Musial was named to the league All-Star Team during every one of his 22 years as a player. If there is an All-Star team for role models, he should be on it as the Most Valuable Player.

R.I.P. Stan the Man Musial. If I ever grow up I want to be like you.


Kay said...

I'm afraid I don't know much about baseball so I had to go to my resident authority who was on his computer. Art was very happy when I asked him about Stan Musial and proceeded to tell me all the stories he'd heard about him. He says Stan Musial was one of the true role models and well liked by everyone. This is so refreshing to hear. Thanks for making my husband's night.

P said...

Ah, those were the days. Micky Mantle did it for me. We Okies stick together, even though I've never been a baseball fan.

Dave Tippets said...

"more than tailwinds," I like that. Professional sports are probably not the best place to look for heroes. I have to hand to Stephen R. Covey for finding heroes in some unlikely places.

Lyn Burnstine said...

I do so enjoy your careful and precise language. Your writing is so good that I enjoy it just for itself even when the topic is sports--something I've never known anything at all about. I did grow up in southern Illinois and was very familiar with the Stan Musial name. Glad to know he remained a good upright person in spite of his fame.

Dan Vitale said...

Great article Richard. I often think of Stan and the other heroes of my youth, and I cringe when I see the antics of some of these hot shot "stars." Thanks for posting this.

Mary Follett said...

Perfect tribute to good hit all the highlights of a great career,but also caught his human side too..

Dan Vitale said...

Great article Richard. I often think of Stan and the other heroes of my youth, and I cringe when I see the antics of some of these hot shot "stars." Thanks for posting this.

Herm said...

One might think you did a lot of research to write this tribute, but the way it reads is like you wrote it right off the cuff. That makes it all the more appreciated by me. I picture you talking to a grandson you just gave a glove to for Christmas.