An idol gone

I hadn’t thought of Stan Musial for a long time.  I was startled last weekend to learn he had died.  I don’t know why I was startled.  Maybe I thought he was already dead.  But most likely I was startled because I thought he would probably live forever.

It’s unclear when I first heard the name “Stan Musial.”  It was sometime in grade school though, not long after World War II.   Listening to the radio, I suppose, and picking up a St. Louis Cardinals baseball broadcast for the first time.

In those days, baseball was king.  Television hadn’t arrived.  You couldn’t even find an NFL score in the newspaper.  And pro basketball, well, I barely knew it existed except for the occasional mention of the bespectacled George Mikan, who looked more like a scientist than a ballplayer.

Musial was not only the best player on the Cardinals but a perennial baseball All-Star in a sport that was called “America’s favorite pastime.”

My home was in a small Kansas wheat town, an hour’s drive south of Wichita into what the rest of the world might call nowhere-ville.   I lived in a flat land where nothing much stood out except the local Co-Op grain elevator and the water tower.   There were only two or three big happenings in a year or two.  Like the unexpected death of so and so, or the high school team winning a big game.

But “Stan Musial” and the Cardinals, now that was excitement.  The Cardinals were the only pro team west of the Mississippi, so they were “our” team.

Two nearby radio stations carried almost every Cardinals game.  KSOK (kay-sock) in Arkansas City and WBBZ in Ponca City, Oklahoma.   The stations had decent audio reception during the day, but for night games you had to fight with static to even hear a few words from Harry Caray, the play-by-play guy.   My friend Fid and I would sometimes score the games together, listening in front of the big console radio-record player in my dining room.

For a year or two, I kept Cardinals stats on tablet paper using a pencil and eraser.  If I missed scoring a game, I couldn’t wait to open up the morning Wichita Eagle’s sports section and find the box scores of the previous day’s games and update my entries.  Two problems.  One, the Eagle would invariably screw up and not run a box, so I would be forced to spend some of my allowance on a Sporting News, which carried all box scores.   The second and ultimately fatal problem was the tablet paper.  After numerous erasures and new pencil marks, the paper would wear through, and I would be faced with the big job of copying all the stats down on a fresh piece of paper, which I often was reluctant to do.

Although Musial did not play every game in spring training, it was wonderful to hear those games in Florida while stuck in the house due to snow or rain or frigid air in February and March.  I can still recall Caray’s intro to those games.  Something like “This is Harry Caray with Gabby Street (or later Gus Mancuso) from beautiful Al Lang Field in Tampa . . . .”  And Harry would go on to describe the warm sunshine reflected on gorgeous Tampa Bay, transporting you out of the harsh and glum Kansas winter.

I became a fanatic over Cardinals baseball in a very short time and remember crying bitterly one Saturday night in the bathtub after St. Louis lost a doubleheader in what Harry called “The Blood on the Moon Series” in Brooklyn against the hated Dodgers.

Remembered too was the doubleheader in the Polo Grounds in New York against the Giants when Musial hit five home runs, a record at the time I believe.

In the summer of 1952, my dad gave me the best gift a father could.  He took me to St. Louis in July to see the Cardinals play the Dodgers and Giants at old Sportsmans Park.

We left early and arrived in St. Louis in the evening during a torrential rainstorm.  I feared every game would be postponed.  But the Cardinals, no doubt, knew there were kids like me on their way to the ballpark and got all four games in.  One against the Dodgers, without Jackie Robinson and three versus the Giants and Dusty Rhodes.  It was one of the highlights of my life.  We traveled by trolley to the ballpark and one morning got up early to visit the famed St. Louis Zoo.

For a while I had decals of Musial and other Cardinals players like Country Slaughter, Slats Marion, Red Schoendienst and Harry The Cat Brecheen pasted to a mirror in my bedroom.  I was living and dying with the Cardinals in those days.

It said a lot for my allegiance, I think, since it was a team that seemed to struggle always to rise above mediocre.  Everyone except Musial.  He hit for average, had power and would knock in runs when they counted.  If only he had played somewhere else beside St. Louis, for the Yankees or Dodgers, or had he been less the gentleman, he would’ve been the toast of the world, even more famous than Mantle or DiMaggio.

I no longer remember when I lost complete interest in the Cardinals.  It was a slow process.  I stayed with them well into adulthood.  But I always vividly remembered Musial and the excitement he brought to my life when I was a boy.

Stan Musial died last Saturday, the 19th, in Ladue, a St. Louis suburb I had never heard of.  He was 92.

While it’s true he’s gone now in one sense, Stan the Man will live on in my mind until the last breath.  He is like a synonym for my childhood.

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