This time, Donora hit it out of the park for Stan the Man.
“Baseball has only one perfect warrior, one perfect knight – the one and only Stan Musial,” Steve Russell said Saturday morning at the conclusion of his eulogy for Musial, the Hall of Fame icon who died Jan. 19 at age 92.
Russell, former superintendent of the Belle Vernon Area School District, spoke during a Roman Catholic Mass for Musial at Our Lady of the Valley Church. The service attracted about 150 people – many of them relatives or friends of Musial and virtually all admirers.
Everyone who spoke during Mass, and in interviews before and afterward, acknowleged the Man’s formidable skills on the diamond – he stroked 3,650 base hits and 475 home runs in 22 seasons, all with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Yet each added, without prompting, that Musial was as much of a gem off the field – a gentleman with a perpetual smile who was born in 1920 in the shadow of the notorious zinc plant.
The Rev. Pierre Falkenhan, pastor of the church, celebrated the Mass. He conceded during his homily that “I’m not the greatest baseball fan,” but said he conducted research and spoke to a number of individuals familiar with the standout outfielder.
“I read time after time that Stan believed in charity,” Falkenhan said. “Many people from Donora have told me what an awesome example he was of a merciful person.
“He was a lowly and humble man who was always there for people. You see what some celebrities charge for an autograph now. That wasn’t Stan. He’d say, ‘Thank you for being my fan, thank you for supporting me.’“
John Lignelli, Donora’s mayor for the past 20 years, said “I absolutely knew him. Stan came up the hard way and never forgot it. That’s why he treated everyone so well. No one can say a bad thing about the guy.”
“He was a gift for our town,” said Mary Olivieri, 85, a lifelong Donora resident and longtime clerk at Donora Public Library. “He made a name for Donora.”
Ron Wagner knew Musial better than many others in the church. His mother and Stan were siblings.
“Stan never had a bad thing to say about anyone,” said Wagner, of Bethel Park, who did the first reading during the Mass. He did so with a red fabric No. 6 – Stan the Man’s number – attached to the left lapel of his suit coat.
Being from Uniontown, Tim Urda said he didn’t know much about the Mon Valley and its heritage until he started working at Badzik Printing Service Inc. in Donora. He is now owner and president, and a Musial aficionado.
“I’ve found there is a rich ethnic heritage here, and good people who still have a great sense of community. Stan Musial was part of that. He would never forget this area.”
Urda’s company printed the eight-page program – on quality stock – for Saturday’s service, which mostly followed the order of the funeral Mass held for Musial in St. Louis Jan. 25.
“We had to change some things because of Lent. Obviously, we couldn’t include the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra,” said Urda, who published a fabulous portrait of Musial sitting on the front cover. The back features a photo, circa 1950, of Musial and his woman, wife/high school sweetheart Lil, on the back.
Louis “Bimbo” Cecconi was there to honor a childhood hero turned friend. Cecconi, 84, was an outstanding athlete as well, starting at quarterback and defensive back for the undefeated Donora football team of 1945. He likewise sparkled in baseball and basketball there, then started at quarterback or tailback for four years at the University of Pittsburgh.
It was during his freshman year at Pitt that Cecconi’s admiration for Musial soared. In “Stan Musial: An American Life,” Cecconi told author George Vecsey the Panthers were on a train, heading to a game at Notre Dame that would be Cecconi’s first start. A teammate said someone wanted him.
It was Musial. The Cardinals also were on board, after defeating the Brooklyn Dodgers in a playoff game and were headed to the World Series against Boston. Musial spoke with Cecconi and other Pitt players.
Musial’s humility still resonates with Cecconi.
Following Mass, members of the congregation drove to the Donora Borough building to watch a video about Musial’s life.
Russell, whose father Jimmy played for the Pirates against Musial, knows a lot about that life.
“When you first meet him, you say, ‘It must be an act,’” he said in the eulogy. “But as you watch him and watch him, and see how he performs and how he comports himself, you say – he’s truly one of a kind.
“There will never be another like him.”