Stan Musial, the pride of Donora
Brooklyn Dodger fans started calling Stan Musial “The Man” in the 1940s, and the nickname became a fitting embodiment of the Hall-of-Famer as a whole, according to Monongahela resident Archie Rodriguez.
“That didn't only fit him as a baseball player, but as the kind of person he was,” said Rodriguez, 83, who grew up a Musial fan and later formed a friendship with the baseball legend.
“You had to know the guy to really appreciate him. The Brooklyn people nailed it. He was ‘The Man' in every sense of the word.”
Mid-Mon Valley residents took time Sunday to remember Musial, the Donora-born baseball superstar who died Saturday evening in Ladue, Mo., at 92.
Stanisław Franciszek Musiał was born Nov. 21, 1920, in Donora, the son of Lukasz and Mary (Lancos) Musiał. He went on to a 22-season career with the St. Louis Cardinals and still ranks fourth all-time in Major League baseball with 3,630 hits and third in doubles (725).
Donora Mayor John Lignelli remembers living a block away from the store owned by the Lubash family in 1940s. Musial eventually married Lillian “Lil” Lubash, who helped her father in the shop.
“He put Donora on the map,” Lignelli said of Musial. “I've met with a lot people over the years coming through Donora, and they would tell me where they were from and that while they were traveling, they wanted to see the town Stan Musial came from.”
In 1942, his first full season in the majors, Musial hit .315, helping the Cardinals to a World Series crown. The next season, Musial garnered the first of his three National League Most Valuable Player awards while batting .357.
“When I was a kid, when I got up every morning, my mom would make me hot chocolate, and I'd read the papers to see what he did the day before,” said Rodriguez, who was friends with Musial's younger brother, Eddie, and often delivered groceries to the Musial household in south Donora.
“Let's face it, we all looked up to him.”
Ink often absent
But, unlike other superstars of his era such as Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, Musial garnered neither the headlines nor accolades in his 22-season career – all with the Cardinals.
Monongahela's Steve Russell, whose father, Jimmy, began his professional baseball career a year after Musial, said the two big-leaguers formed a friendship and shared rides from the Mid-Mon Valley to Pittsburgh when the Cardinals were in town.
The younger Russell, a baseball enthusiast who spent time with Musial in the 1980s in Florida, labeled “The Man” the “ignored superstar.”
“He never took on the aura of being somebody above other people or acted more special, but it also hurt him in sense, because he didn't get the national recognition,” Russell said.
“Those other people seemed to embrace that upper-crust persona, and Stan never pursued that. One of the other reasons he didn't get the hype was St. Louis was the most western team at the time, and it was looked on as being out in the boondocks.
“You didn't have the Boston and New York press that Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio had.”
Russell, a former teacher and administrator in both the Ringgold and Belle Vernon Area school districts, often used Musial as a case study – and role model – for his students. Musial's squeaky clean image was 100 percent legitimate, said Russell, adding Musial was a devout Byzentine Catholic and devoted to his wife.
“There was never a hint of anything other than Lil,” Russell said. “My dad was a little bit of a rougher person, but he admired what Stan did. (Musial) took care of his body. I've been around baseball players all my life, and many of them, after they're in the big league five years, you'll see a change.
“Nutrition, weight, sleep – my dad always told me that's what Stan Musial was all about.”
Former Valley Independent Sports Editor Brian Herman never crossed paths with Musial, but noted an incredible statistic: together with Donora-born players Ken Griffey Sr. and Ken Griffey Jr., the trio amassed 1,257 home runs, 4,646 RBI and 36 All-Star appearances.
Musial actually played baseball with Buddy Griffey, Ken Sr.'s father.
Along with former professional football standout Bert Rechichar, Musial was the first of two inductees into the Mon Valley Sports Hall of Fame in 1951.
Emma Jean Lelik of Donora never cared for baseball – until a chance meeting with Musial in 1953.
Lelik's husband, Bill, who played ball and attended Donora High School with Musial years before, ran into his old classmate in a Cincinnati hotel lobby. The Cardinals were in town to play the Reds.
“We were on the first leg of our honeymoon en route to Mexico,” Emma Jene Lelik recalled. “We got up to the room, and my husband had forgotten his shaving kit and went back to the car to get it. Well he was gone a long time.
“When he got back, I wasn't very happy, but his face was aglow. He said: ‘I met Stan in the lobby, and he wants to take us for breakfast in the morning.'
“We had a nice breakfast that lasted more than an hour. He tried coaxing us to stay for the game, but we had a schedule, and all our reservations were made.”
Later, when Musial bought a small home for his mother, Lelik would walk the short distance to visit Mary Musial.
“The ball he gave us that day in Cincinnati, read, ‘Good luck, Stan Musial,'” Lelik said. “Well, the luck lasted awhile. I still have the ball wrapped in paper in a drawer.
“I wasn't at all big on sports at the time, but from that point on I was a fan and followed his career.”
Musial was notorious for sending autographed collectibles to his Mid-Mon Valley admirers, as he owned a memorabilia company, among other business interests.
“He gave me a baseball on his (to commemorate) his 3,000th hit, and it's a treasure. I'll never get rid of it,” Rodriguez said.
“He sent me four bats in the mail personally autographed for each of my four grandchildren. I said, ‘Stan, I'm going to pay for these bats.' He said, ‘No, you can just send a contribution to my favorite charity and that's what I did.'
“That was his business, and I said, ‘Stan, you're not going to make any money.'”
Rodriguez added that when he heard of Musial's death Saturday, “It was like losing one of the family.”
Lignelli and others finally successfully lobbied to rename the Donora-Monessen Bridge as the “Stan ‘The Man' Musial Bridge” in May 2012, cementing the baseball legend deeper into local history.
“There was only one Stan Musial,” Lignelli said. “There will never be another.”
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-684-2635.