Up in the Hollow: Baseball, the boy and ‘The Man’

It was not just love at first sight; it was adoration, idolization and devotion. I was five years old when I saw the picture of Stan Musial on the cover of a sports magazine. In his famous crouch, his bat high, he was the picture of relaxed concentration. His brown eyes had a twinkle, but there also was the focused determination that he was going to wallop the next pitch off the right field pavilion of old Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis.

It was the summer of 1946 and we were in Petersburg, Va. for the funeral of my Grandmother Jones. It was the first and last time I saw my father cry.

And it was the first time I was captivated by Stan “The Man” Musial. In the years that followed, my morning ritual began with a look at the sports page of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot to search for the box-score of the previous day’s St. Louis Cardinals game. As often as not, it read something like:

Musial, LF: AB (4) R (2) H (3) RBI (3) BB (1)

Which meant, of course, that Stan had been to the plate five times, been walked once, gotten three hits, scored twice and knocked in three runs. Further down would be the information about whether or not he had homered, or doubled, or sacrificed or made any errors.

By studying that box score I could recreate the entire game in my imagination as I walked up the cinder and gravel road to the point where I crossed the big railroad freight yard and walked to school in Pinners Point on the docks of Portsmouth. My feet were in Portsmouth, but my mind was totally in St. Louis, which I imagined as a glistening futuristic metropolis much like the pictures of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City.

I stuck with that ritual throughout grade school and high school and up until Stan retired from the Cardinals in 1963. He played for 22 years in St. Louis, and when he retired with every hitting record possible, the folks there honored him like a king. But Stan didn’t go away. He stayed in St. Louis for another 50 years until he passed a few days ago at the age of 92. Lillian, his high school sweetheart and his wife of over 70 years, passed away last year.

Back in 1946, when Stan became my hero, he was still working in the off-season in a zinc mill in his hometown of Donora, Penn. where his Polish immigrant father Lukacz had found work in the coal mines. In 1945, when he was discharged from World War II service at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, he had hitchhiked home to Donora.

This was a guy who had led the National League in hitting, had been Most Valuable Player in the league, and had played in three straight World Series. But he was a Depression kid from a hardscrabble family, and his big league salary then was about $10,000 a year. With a wife and a young family, Stan just stuck out his thumb. Who wouldn’t pick up a guy with that smile?

It had always been my dream to see “The Man” play in person. But it was a forgotten dream when, in the early 1970’s, I was out at Atlanta Stadium one Saturday to see Henry Aaron and the Braves take on, well, I don’t remember who it was, maybe the Big Red Machine from Cincinnati.

But I do remember that before the game there was a two inning “Old Timers Game” and suddenly before me there was Musial, stepping up to the plate against “Bullet” Bob Turley, the former Oriole and Yankee. Stan was in his early fifties, still lean, and looking great in his Cardinal uniform, then and now the coolest threads in the game. He went into that unorthodox left-handed crouch deep in the batter’s box, his bat held very high as he peeked over his right shoulder. And then came a fat pitch, and Stan uncoiled and hammered it for a double off the right center field wall.  Dreams come true.

When Stan Musial passed away, Willie Mays said, “I never heard anybody say a bad word about him. Ever.”

It was in the years after his retirement that Stan really became a goodwill ambassador for his city, for baseball and for nice guys. He spent his days going to hospitals and playing his ever-present harmonica, or going to schools and doing magic tricks for first graders whose grandparents had seen Stan play ball when they were first graders. He worked at his restaurant and bowling alley and took his grandchildren to McDonald’s and smiled and greeted everyone the same way, whether they were derelicts or bank presidents. “Whadayasay, whadayasay!”

Among baseball lovers, there is always the debate about “who was better” among contemporaries. Without the volatile and gregarious personality of Ted Williams, or the prima donna mystique of the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio, the humble Musial often gets overlooked. (DiMaggio insisted until the end that he be introduced as “the greatest living ballplayer.”) But Musial had a better career than “Joltin’ Joe” by any standard. And though no one was the hitter that “Teddy Baseball” was, Stan was a better fielder, a better base runner and had a better arm.

When he passed away, it was a full front page in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the city “lowered him down as a king.” In an editorial, the Post-Dispatch said what we all were thinking: “If you paid attention, Stan Musial taught you how to treat other people . . . It is a cliche to say at times like this that we will not see this man’s likes again. But we won’t. And that makes us profoundly sad.”

Amen to that.