I met Stan “The Man” Musial once. It’s one of the family legends.
Can’t remember if it was 1973 or ’74, but it was an old timers game at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Almost every old ballplayer who was still alive that we’d ever heard of was there, including Musial. My dad, brothers, cousin Matt and I were there. And thanks to a crumpled business card in my father’s possession, we all got to meet the one and only, original The Man.
Dad worked for Brunswick Corporation at the time, flying or driving up and down the East Coast, helping bowling alley managers from Buffalo to Miami spread the Gospel of League Bowling, thereby improving their bottom lines.
On one trip – to Donora, Pennsylvania (yes, that Donora) – he stayed in the 2,271st Holiday Inn of his business career. An old friend of Stan’s owned this one. She gave Dad our golden ticket, the business card, and said if we presented it to Stan, he’d meet with us. I feel like a dinosaur for typing this next phrase, but — can you imagine such a thing today?
A feeding frenzy of kids with pens and balls and scraps of paper crammed the tight angles around the Braves dugout before the game. With my older brother Steve plowing through the bodies, we made our way to the railing that separated all of us plebeians from the heroes on the field. We flagged down one of the field crew guys and begged him to take the card to Stan, who was chatting with the other immortals in the dugout.
We pleaded, then the other kids around us pleaded, and finally the field crew said, “Alright already!” and approached Stan, pointed us out, and Musial looked at us, squinting, then the famous smile, and he walked over.
“Hiya boys. How’s my friend Rose?” We explained about Dad and Donora, and he waved up at my pop, flashing that business card in the air. He shook our hands, signed autographs, then got stuck signing for the million other kids who were giddily stunned that we could summon a clean-up hitter from Mt. Olympus.
I like to think that I remember him signing every one of those autographs. Maybe he did. Probably he did.
Can’t remember who the Braves were playing that day, but I’m pretty sure Mickey Mantle hit a tape-measure foul ball in the old timers game, and Johnny Mize played, and Eddie Mathews and Robin Roberts. The next year, Joe DiMaggio played. But Dad didn’t have any connections to Joe D. I don’t think anyone did.
It occurs to me as I try to remember this Musial story (which is relevant because Stan received the Presidential Medal of Freedom today) that the Man was the topic of the last conversation I had with my father. It was probably 13, 14 years after that day at the ballpark, and Dad was just about through with this side of eternity. He must have been listening to a ballgame on the radio, or overhearing some happy shadow from his past, because he wanted to talk baseball, the Braves, and how terrible they were playing that year, 1987.
Eventually, we got onto the subject of that old timers game and Stan Musial, and Dad went off on how Stan used to murder Brooklyn Dodgers pitching, especially at Ebbets Field. Dad was a Yankees fan, but he’d lived in Brooklyn (saw an effigy of Casey Stengel burned outside his apartment after one of the Dodgers’ annual autumn tragedies). He knew the nooks and crannies of Flatbush.
“He feasted on Dodger pitching,” my father said a couple of days before he died. “And those Brooklyn fans, they could be tough on the visiting club. But they loved Musial. Hated the Cardinals, but loved that man.”
That’s how Dad remembered it. Basically, those Dodger fans hated Musial a lot less than they hated any Yankee or Giant. They definitely respected him, probably even loved him a little. Most important, they gave him that perfectly appropriate nickname, and to this day, at 90, Musial remains The Man.