Special Report

Play It Again, Stan

A medal for the Man -- from the current President.

By 2.16.11

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It's an appropriate time of year for Stan Musial to receive yet another honor in a life of honors, coming as it does the week that Major League Baseball players report to spring training camps in Florida and Arizona (one of the happiest weeks in my calendar -- signaling an end to the baseball-free months). But this latest distinction comes awfully late for fans of the Man, who showed millions not only how baseball is to be played at the very highest level, but also how an all-star life can be lived. 

"I wish he'd received this award about 30 year ago," said the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's long-time go-to writer on the Cardinals, Rick Hummel, when we talked about the 90-year-old Musial receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom Tuesday at the White House. "He's very deserving of the award. Fans in St. Louis still get excited when he shows up at the ball park."

The Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian honor. Hundreds have received it over the years, including many truly deserving, great Americans. Also some political choices of questionable achievement, as well as some outright humbugs, have crashed the proceedings.

Billy-Bob Carter and his astringent wife Rosalynn have the award. This year's class of 15 includes Warren Buffett, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, George Herbert Walker Bush, AFL-CIO's John J. Sweeney, Holocaust survivor and author Gerda Weissmann Klein, poet Maya Angelou, et al. TAS readers can separate the wheat from the chaff in this lot.

The world of sport was also represented Tuesday by Bill Russell, who along with the late Boston Celtics coach and then general manager Red Auerbach, invented professional basketball (and is in no way responsible for the slough the NBA has periodically found itself in).

In the 1950s, when the NBA was still less than a decade old, Auerbach added defensive specialist Russell to an already dominant offensive team led by Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman. Russell quickly became the game's best rebounder and shot blocker. He functioned, to mix sports a bit, as the team's defensive quarterback. And he helped lead the Celtics to an amazing 11 NBA championships in 13 years, winning five league MVP awards along the way.

But while these two men dominated their sports, their off-the-field, off-the-court performances have been very different. Musial before, during, and after his athletic stardom, was always the friendly, gracious, humble but confident man, who was always there for family and teammates, for his community, and for his many fans. He may be the nicest man ever to play any major league sport. From the Man, there was never heard a discouraging word.

"He checks off all the boxes in what make a good man," Cardinals director of media Brian Bartow told me. "He's a true gentleman. Not afraid to laugh at himself. He likes to play his harmonica for people. He puts smiles of people's faces."

Russell on the other hand, has been a scratchier and sometimes sullen business, prone to nurture grievances. But withal a great athlete who contributed a lot to his sport, and gave his fans many glorious moments. Not the least of which came when Wilt Chamberlain was in the court for the opposing team. And it surely was not easy to be the first black head-coach in any major sports team.

Musial remains very popular in St. Louis, one of the nation's outstanding baseball towns, even though it has been 47 years since the Man swung at a Major League pitch (September 29, 1963, an RBI single in the 7th in Busch Stadium against Cincinnati's Jim Maloney).

Busch Stadium was packed at 2010's final home game for Stand Up For Stan Night, when Stan took the grand tour in a golf cart and soaked up, yet again, the love that Cardinals fans still have for him. It was those same fans who, with the encouragement of the Cardinals management, lobbied the White House to correct the oversight and give Stan the long overdue medal. The Man certainly can keep company with previous baseball players who've receive the award: Ted Williams, Roberto Clemente, Joe DiMaggio, Henry Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Frank Robinson, and Buck O'Neil.

Doubtless it was a good week for Musial, who needs a bit of help to get around these days, which he often gets on the arm of his grandson, Brian Musial Schwarze. But now it will be back to St. Louis, and more trips to the ball park once the baseball season begins.

"He doesn't come to the clubhouse as often as he used to," Bartow said. "But when he comes he captivates the room. The players always look forward to seeing him. He's part of the fabric of life around here."

Musial's gaudy stats over a 22-year major league career qualify him for any baseball accolade anyone can think up. Consider a .331 lifetime batting average, 475 home runs, 3,630 hits, three MVP awards, and five batting titles. But the way this son of hard-working immigrants has led his life, along with Lillian, his bride of 71 years, suits him for awards beyond the fame his baseball prowess earned him.

Those who've followed Musial's career and life don't need Barack Obama to tell us about Musial's talent, integrity, and decency. Tuesday's award was plainly deserved and way overdue. Musial certainly deserved to receive it from a better president. But it appears that Stan enjoyed the day. The proceeding got great ratings in St. Louis, where Cardinal fans are pleased to see their Man on the national stage again. So I guess I'm happy about it too.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.