On a hot day in late August 1974 the Atlanta Braves beat the New York Mets, 4-3, when Norm Miller walked (against Mets reliever Bob Miller) with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 10th, forcing in Darrell Evans. It was a nip-and-tuck triumph for a good Braves team in the middle of a decade when they were terrible most of the time. Energized by Henry Aaron’s Babe-busting home runs the first week of the season, the Bravos cruised to 88-74 that season. They woulda tied the Pirates for first in the National League East, but it was only good for a distant third in the West, dominated (as usual back then) by the Dodgers and Reds.
On this particular day, the Mets took a quick 2-0 lead on a Rusty Staub home run off Braves starter Carl Morton, who pitched a masterpiece the rest of the way, going all 10 innings to win his 13th game. My cousin Matt, a Mets fan visiting for a few weeks from New York, was glad to see one of his heroes, Rusty, go deep. Matt’s dad (my Uncle Sammy) had passed away recently, so this was supposed to be a healing kind of vacation for my cousin. My father wanted to show the kid a good time while he was in town, so we went to the ballgame.
And we were rewarded with a fine contest. We also saw a Ralph Garr home run for the Braves, a decent pitcher’s duel as Morton out-dueled Tom Seaver. Darrell Evans had three hits. But none of that was the highlight of the day, and quite honestly, I’d forgotten all of that stuff — thank you, baseball-reference.com for helping me reconstruct my memory. No, the most memorable thing about that day is what happened before the Braves and Mets took the field — this was the day we all got to meet Stan “The Man” Musial.
The Braves were hosting an old timers game that featured a collection of Hall of Famers, future Hall of Famers, and other legends. In addition to Stan, there was Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Ralph Kiner, Monte Irvin, Johnny Mize, Luke Appling, Enos Slaughter, and a bunch of others, including Braves broadcaster and former pitcher Ernie Johnson and Clyde King, who had pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers and had recently replaced Eddie Mathews as the Atlanta manager. Even though Mays was my favorite player, it was the prospect of seeing Stan “The Man” that thrilled me most, because of the magic business card Dad kept in his wallet.
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. Dad was a genius at selling the game of bowling.
On a trip to Donora, Pennsylvania, Musial’s hometown, Pop stayed in a Holiday Inn owned by an old friend of Stan’s, Rose Calderone (I’ll never forget her name). Dad told her that he was planning to take us to the game in Atlanta in a few weeks to see the old timers, including Stan. So Rose gave him the business card and said we should present it to Stan at the game, and he’d meet with us.
On the day of the game, a feeding frenzy of kids with pens and balls and scraps of paper crammed the tight angles around the Braves dugout, begging for autographs. With my older brother Steve plowing through the bodies and clutching the card over his head like a precious totem, we made our way to the railing that separated us plebes from the immortals on the field. After much shouting and begging, we got the attention of a field crew guy and convinced him to take the business card to Stan, who was chatting with other players in the dugout.
We watched as the guy timidly approached Stan and pointed us out. Musial went to the dugout steps and peered in our direction, squinting in the glare, looking at the card, then back at us, and there was the famous smile. And The Man walked over to us.
“Hiya boys. How’s my friend Rose?” We told him about Dad and Donora, and he waved up at Dad, holding that business card in the air. Dad waved back at The Man from 20 rows up. Stan shook our hands and signed autographs for us, and then got stuck signing for the dozens of other kids who were giddily stunned that we could summon a clean-up hitter from Mt. Olympus.
We thanked Stan, now signing busily for the growing throng, and floated back up the stairs to where Dad was sitting. I like to think that Stan signed for every one of those screaming kids. Maybe he did. Probably he did.
I don’t know about my cousin or brothers, but I’ve kept that autograph, and the story of how we met Stan Musial became family legend. It’s hard to believe that my father died just 13 years (almost to the day) after that event. In fact, Stan Musial was the last thing my father and I ever talked about. Maybe he’d been listening to a ballgame on the radio, or was visited by some happy shadowy memories from his past, or whatever dreams come to a man when he is dying.
He didn’t want to talk about being sick, so he talked baseball. About how bad the Braves were playing that summer of 1987, but how they could still turn it around and finish respectably. Then he asked, “hey, remember that time you guys met Stan Musial?” I told him, “how can I ever forget?” Dad had always been a Stan fan. As he lay there in bed, his voice weak and quiet and earnest, he told me how Stan used to murder Brooklyn Dodgers pitchers 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) and spent some happy hours watching Musial earn his nickname, The Man, from the respectful Brooklyn fans.
Of course, we’d gone over all this ground before, but I wasn’t going to stop my father from revisiting these glorious memories of happier times. “He feasted on Dodger pitching,” Dad said. “And those Brooklyn fans, they could be so tough on the visiting club. But they loved Stan Musial. They hated the Cardinals, but they loved that man.”
That’s how my Dad, the best man I’ve ever known, remembered Stan, one of the best men baseball ever knew. Dad died two days after we had that random conversation, which has only grown in importance with each year, or each telling. I’ve missed him every day since. Both men are gone now, but I’m forever comforted and grateful to be the son of one and a big fan of both.