The Man

January 27, 2013 at 6:07 pm (Uncategorized)

I was born a few years too late to have ever seen Stan Musial play baseball.  By the time I was 9 or 10 and discovering what would become a lifelong love of baseball, Stan had long since retired.

Despite that, though, as a kid I knew who Stan Musial was.  Our elementary school library was chock full of these books with titles like “Greatest Baseball Stars” that were saccharine-sweet, kid-friendly anthologies that would do these hagiographies of ballplayers that never quite told you that Ty Cobb was a racist who bet on baseball, or that Pete Alexander was an alcoholic, and maintained the fiction that Big Ed Delahanty “disappeared into the night” when he was put off a train near Niagara Falls (rather than “he was stumbling drunk and fell into the river”).  All of those books had chapters on Stan Musial.  That’s how I knew who he was–I’d flip through those books in the library and look for chapters about Cardinals, my team.  Stan was usually the one sure bet to be in one of those survey biographies.

In the 1990’s I found myself waiting tables in an upscale suburb of St. Louis while trying to scratch out a few pennies as a freelance writer.  The restaurant I worked at was located such that it got it’s share of local celebrities, and in St. Louis “local celebrities” is usually a synonym for “famous athletes, current or retired.”  I’ve waited on Brett Hull, Bob Costas, Vince Coleman and Willie McGee together, the 1996 Rams offensive line (that was a fun check; everyone had a 1 1/4 lb lobster as an appetizer!), etc.   One busy Saturday night, Stan and Lil Musial came in and were  seated at kind of an out-of-the-way table in my station.

The image of Stan in the past few years is one of a rather feeble old man.  A heart condition and the ravages of age left him looking frail and weakened.  That first time they came into the restaurant and I waited on them, though, it was 1996.  Stan was 76 then, but still moved like a kid.  See, Stan didn’t so much walk as he bounded.  It was fun to watch a guy that old move with the jangle in his step of a twenty year old.

Another thing you’ll read about Stan Musial was that Stan didn’t like speaking in public.  That’s true, but it creates an image of Stan as a shy and retiring wallflower.  Stan was about as shy and retiring as Dean Martin at Caesar’s.  If Musial didn’t particularly like to talk, his very presence seemed to be larger than life.  I remember that first encounter vividly.  I approached the table and Stan, with his ear-to-ear crooked smile greeted me before I could greet them.  “Hey hey!  Howyadoin Howyadoin?”  They were incredibly nice folks; I told them “It’s nice to see you, Mr. and Mrs. Musial”, and Stan asked if I played ball (badly, and not in years i told them) while Lil wanted to know how long I’d worked there, was I from the area, etc.

There were other employees who wanted an autograph, as well as a few tables of guests.  I promised I’d get them signatures…but only after Stan and Lil finished dinner.  (I’d learned–and this is just good advice–if you see someone pretty famous in a restaurant, they’re going to be much happier with being approached if you don’t interrupt their meal.) While having coffee, I told Stan that there were some folks who’d like his autograph, and Stan–with a big smile, as if expecting it–reaches into his blazer pocket and pulls out a small stack of custom-made baseball cards and a Sharpie and signs them all in a practiced motion that took all of two minutes, and I went and dutifully distributed them.  Over the next 18 months that I worked there, I waited on Stan and Lil maybe four or five other times.  A host told me “Oh, they always request you,” but I have no idea if that’s true.  What I do know is that Lil always at least pretended to remember me, and that Stan always greeted me with a “Hey! Whaddya say!”

I tell this story not because I’m particularly special to have crossed paths in my life with Stan Musial.  Rather, I think I was one of thousands, probably tens of thousands, of St. Louisans who ran into Stan Musial in a lifetime.  I also think my story is pretty typical, actually.

And that’s the point.  Stan, by his very gregarious and welcoming presence, always made me feel great.  He lit up a room.  As his grandson said at his funeral yesterday, he had a knack for making nobodies feel like somebodies.  A whole bunch of folks have cherished memories of meeting Stan while The Man pumped gas at a filling station or hung his own Christmas lights or did his own grocery shopping.  He was of his community, even as that community elevated him to royal status.

Thanks for my own memories, Stan and Lil.  I hope there’s a heaven, and I hope that right now you’re both holding hands there.


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