When we look at people who lived into their 90s, we often like to say they have lived a full and prosperous life.
That couldn’t be more true of Stan Musial, who died Saturday at the age of 92.
People often throw around glowing words about the recently deceased, such as “He was a great guy” or “She was loved by all,” even if they don’t necessarily mean them.
But when it comes to Musial, the glowing epitaphs couldn’t possibly do him justice.
When your nickname is simply, “The Man,” and everyone knows who you are talking about when you say it, you transcend all normal bounds.
Yet Musial, without a doubt one of the top five baseball players of all-time, was as humble and down to earth as anyone you could meet.
When Musial returned to his native Donora in 1994 when the baseball fields at Palmer Park were dedicated to him and another native son, Ken Griffey, I had the opportunity to be the reporter assigned to the story.
At just 25 years old, I was born five years after Musial had played his last baseball game in 1963 and a year before he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969. Being something of a baseball historian, I had heard of Musial.
But in doing more research for the story, I came to have an even greater respect for what “The Man” had accomplished.
From 1941 through 1963, Musial accumulated a National League-record 3,630 hits, despite missing the entire 1945 season while serving in the U.S. Navy.
His NL hit record stood until 1981, when it was broken by Pete Rose. Ironically, Musial’s final hit came past a diving Rose in 1963.
Despite having good power – he had 475 home runs and 725 doubles – Musial was a remarkable contact hitter. He batted above .300 in 17 seasons and yet never struck out more than 50 times in a single year.
Think about that for a moment.
Had Joe DiMaggio and Musial swapped teams, it would have been Musial that Simon and Garfunkle immortalized in “Mrs. Robinson,” instead of Joltin’ Joe.
But Musial wasn’t that kind of guy.
At the ceremony honoring him in 1994, Musial not only signed autographs for everyone in attendance, he chatted with them as well. He genuinely cared about these people, even though he hadn’t lived in the valley in years.
His wife, the former Lil Labash, was at his side, as the childhood sweethearts – married 71 years, perhaps his greatest statistic – spoke with friends, acquaintances and others who were just there to spend a moment with “The Man.”
He even led a rendition of “Take Me out to the Ballgame,” playing his harmonica while others sang along.
Fame was something he had become accustomed to, and always seemed to embrace.
On another occasion, during a trip to St. Louis, I had an opportunity to stay at a hotel adjacent to the new Busch Stadium.
The hotel is decorated with dozens of old photos of baseball players from the past. None was more prominent than Musial, who played his entire career with the Cardinals.
He is so beloved in St. Louis, they have not one, but two statues of him outside of Busch Stadium.
As much as Musial loved the Cardinals, he loved baseball more. He was perhaps the game’s greatest ambassador until old age robbed him of the ability to get around the way he was accustomed.
But he and Lil always were proud to be from Donora.
While dedicating the field in his name – and also donating $10,000 to the Donora Baseball Association – Musial took the time to talk about what baseball meant to him.
“I want this field to be a symbol and inspiration to young ballplayers, that somewhere along the line, something like this might happen to them,” Musial said.
It was a heartfelt thought.
If young baseball players truly want a symbol of what can happen to them, they need to look no further than Musial. Look up video of him on Youtube or check out his stats on the internet.
Not bad for a skinny kid from Donora.
F. Dale Lolley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.