That’s no surprise to those who know me. And being a sportswriter in a previous life, I was lucky enough to have some amazing experiences that, as a fan, I knew I’d never forget. I’d tell myself again and again that despite the pay, being a sportswriter was the best job in the world.
One of those moments is when I got to sit down with Stan Musial in 1993. But to get to that point at the Columbia (Mo.) Convention Center, we have to first back up to 1989 and Cooperstown in New York.
As I mentioned, I am a Red Sox fan. Growing up at the tail end of Carl Yastrzemski’s career, and being an avid reader of all things Red Sox, I had always said that when Yaz was inducted into the Hall of Fame, I would be on the lawn watching him give his speech.
In 1989, I was in the Navy, stationed in Norfolk, Va. My uncle was as big a baseball fan as my father and myself. With my dad having moved to Japan, my uncle – who lived on Long Island – welcomed me and my quest. I drove up to his house, and we picked up my cousin and hit the road for Cooperstown.
The day of the induction, I had cameras strapped around my neck – two cameras, various lenses, because as a Navy photojournalist, I had access to all sorts of gear – and looked every part the professional, except for my Red Sox shirt and casual shorts.
Looking around for a good vantage point in the already-crowded lawn at Cooperstown, I wasn’t having much luck. Until a fan said “Hey, just go over there to the photographers’ scaffold. With all that gear, they’ll never think to ask for a pass.”
Never one to back down from a challenge, I did. And the guy manning the gate opened it wide and welcomed me. So up I climbed, a perfect place to see Yaz, Johnny Bench, Red Schoendienst, and Al Barlick get inducted.
For those unfamiliar with the ceremony, former Hall of Famers are introduced and come out to sit on the dais behind the inductees. Ted Williams. Roy Campanella. And Stan Musial. When Musial came out to one of the largest cheers, he smiled, waved his hand, and momentarily dropped into his unique batting stance. And I snapped a picture.
Five years later, I was a junior at the University of Missouri studying journalism, and the Cardinals Caravan was coming through town. Bernard Gilkey was there, as was Tracy Woodson. And of course, Stan Musial.
Planning ahead, I had a copy of the photo I made at the Hall of Fame and headed out to cover the event, just hoping beyond hope that I could actually meet and talk with him, let alone get an autograph. Yeah, it wasn’t very professional of me, but this was STAN THE MAN.
I flashed my credentials, went in and chatted with Gilkey and Woodson about what it meant as a Cardinal to go through the state in the off-season, and then I saw him – Stan Musial was sitting not five feet away.
Heart thumping, anticipation rising, voice recorder at the ready, I steeled myself and walked up to the greatest Cardinal of all-time.
“Mr. Musial, I’m a reporter with the local paper and was wondering if I could get a few minutes of your time, please.”
He turned, looked at me, smiled and said “Of course. Sit down, young man.”
We chatted for a bit, and then at the end of my questions I said “Oh, just one more thing. I was wondering if you’d mind signing this for me – I took this at the Hall of Fame a few years ago.”
He broke into a big grin, signed it “To Andy, Best Wishes, Stan Musial” and spent the next 10 minutes talking about what an honor it is to go to the Hall of Fame every year and see the guys, as he called them, and just catch up. Then he had to excuse himself to get up on the stage and say a few words before breaking out his trusty harmonica and playing “Take Me Out to The Ballgame” and “Orange Blossom Special.”
He had the crowd eating out of his hand.
To this day, sitting down with Musial in a crowded convention center remains one of the highlights of my life. But I think that’s what makes Musial such an iconic figure – it wasn’t limited to just me. You ask anyone who was lucky enough to have a brush with The Man, and they all come away saying the same thing: “What a gentleman. A truly nice guy.”
He truly loved the city. He loved the fans. He never left, living out his years in a suburb about 20 miles away from the ballpark where he thrilled millions. He signed every autograph, he posed for every picture, and if you asked nicely, he’d even play you a song on his harmonica, with which he never left home without.
Musial died Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013. And he will be missed. Not because he’s the greatest Cardinal of all time. Not because of his numbers – 3,630 hits and 475 home runs. But because of his love of St. Louis, his love of the fans, and his civic-minded approach to his adopted city. He may have been born in Pennsylvania, but no city in America identifies as much with a ballplayer as St. Louis does with Stan Musial.
Musial’s wife, Lil, died less than a year ago – May 3, 2012 – and it was such a large community event that her funeral was held at the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis. Details haven’t been announced yet, but surely a similar celebration of life will be held for Stan.
Because he IS St. Louis. He always will be St. Louis. When my 13-year-old daughter asked me today “Who was Stan Musial,” I didn’t know where to begin (aside from accepting the fact that I’ve failed as a parent.) I could have told her to ask any baseball fan. I could have pointed her to the history books. I could have repeated the oft-mentioned lines on the statue outside Busch Stadium, lines that read “”Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight,” attributed to former commissioner Ford Frick.
Instead, I just said “He is St. Louis. And he will be missed.”