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Musial's death stirs memories of storied life

| Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
The Mid Mon Valley All Sports Hall of Fame Museum at the Best Western hotel in Bentleyville features this tribute to Stan Musial. SUBMITTED
Stan Musial (standing, third from the left) was a member of Donora High School’s baseball team in 1938. The Dragons were coached by Dr. Michael “Ki” Duda, shown here seated at the left. SUBMITTED
Joe Margoneri of Turkeytown (West Newton) faced Stan Musial many times during his career as a pitcher with the New York Giants in the 1950s. SUBMITTED
This composite image of Stan Musial was created by Tim Urda, owner of Badzik Printing in Donora, and graphic designer Mike Mino of Johnstown when the Donora-Monessen Bridge was renamed in Musial’s honor in 2012. SUBMITTED

Reaction to the death of baseball legend Stan Musial on Jan. 19 was what one might expect – poignant recollections of “The Man” who brought attention to the Mon Valley in general and his hometown of Donora in particular during a 22-year Hall of Fame career with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Much was said and written, of course, about his accomplishments on and off the field, but other stories also surfaced.

For instance, there's the one the late John “Scissors” McIlvain, the legendary baseball figure from Charleroi, often told about scouting Musial for the Detroit Tigers. “Mac” was a scout for the Tigers in the 1930s and went to Donora on Tuesday, May 10, 1938, to watch Musial pitch against Charleroi.

The word was out long before that game about Musial, who would be pitching for Donora. Knowledgeable observers including professional scouts proclaimed “ ... the kid has all the tools for a bright future in baseball.”

Musial, described as “a lanky lefthander,” outlasted Charleroi hurler Peck Dooley. Both went the distance as the Dragons nipped the Cougars, 9-8. Dooley struck out 12 and was tagged for 12 hits while Musial scattered nine hits and fanned eight Charleroi batters. Musial also went 4-for-4 at the plate, but McIlvain wasn't completely sold on him as a major league prospect.

Reflecting on Musial's “lack of control” as a pitcher, McIlvain always laughed at himself when he recalled the experience.

“He was really wild (as a pitcher) and I told him, ‘Son, you'd better get a good job in the mill. You're not a bad hitter but you'll never get anywhere in baseball.' Was I ever wrong! I was lucky the Tigers didn't fire me.”

Early encouragement

Vance Bunardzya of Rostraver, son of the highly respected sportswriter and newsman John Bunardzya, who was instrumental in calling attention to Musial's talents as a high school athlete when he was working at The Herald-American in Donora, has personal memories about Musial.

“In the wake of Stan's passing, I still think of the story my dad told me, and probably hundreds of others, about how he encouraged Stan to play hooky from Donora High School one day so they could travel to Pittsburgh to see the Pirates play a day game.

“The occasion would be the first time Stan would see Forbes Field. Upon entering the stadium, he said to my dad, ‘Gee, Johnny, what a beautiful park! Maybe I can play here some day.' Little did they know at that time.”

Vance also recalled that when the Cardinals were in town to play the Pirates, “Stan would get us tickets in the same box as his mother, who attended almost all the games at Forbes Field.

“We used to get an autographed Christmas card from Stan every year for many years,” he said. “That meant so much to us, especially my dad.”

Home run derby

John Bunardzya also was instrumental in having Musial participate in a special event to help the Caramel Kids from Bentleyville win a new park in a national contest sponsored by Kraft Foods Co.

That was on Saturday, Aug. 13, 1960, at the Charleroi High School stadium.

Musial, a future Hall of Famer at the time, was not alone in bringing major league talent to Charleroi. He and St. Louis Cardinals teammate Ken Boyer, one of the National League's top sluggers, joined forces to participate in a benefit home run contest against Bob Skinner and Dick Stuart of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Dick Groat, the Pirates' captain and All-Star shortstop, also was there to handle the pitching duties.

The Charleroi Mail billed the event as “A Million-Dollar Home Run Derby” involving four of the top sluggers in baseball.

The Cardinals were in Pittsburgh for an important weekend series with the Pirates, and Musial, Boyer, Groat, Skinner and Stuart were available for the evening exhibition because the teams played an afternoon game that day.

The contest was held under the rules of the popular Home Run Derby television show. A five-inning “game” was played and any ball not hit out of the park was considered an out.

Admission was one dollar and three empty bags from Kraft Fudgies or Caramels. Cash proceeds were donated to the Children's Hospital Scoreboard Fund in Pittsburgh. The candy bags went to the Bentleyville Boosters to assist their efforts to win a complete $20,000 ball park to be awarded by the Kraft Foods Co. to the winner of the national contest.

Some 3,000 fans made the benefit event a successful venture and watched Musial and Boyer power their way to a 14-1 victory over Skinner and Stuart.

Boyer gave the Cardinal duo a 6-0 lead with six straight wallops over the left field fence in the first inning. He added another in the fifth inning for a total of seven.

Musial cracked three homers in the second inning, one in the third and a trio in the fifth, including one that sailed through the high light standards in right field to match Boyer's total.

Stuart accounted for the Pirates' only tally with a mighty blast over the left field fence in the first inning. Skinner, according to the newspaper, “couldn't find the range and was blanked.”

Musial, Boyer, Skinner, Stuart and Groat signed hundreds of autographs and had cheery words for everyone who approached them.

Musial's participation in the event marked the first time in 23 years that he appeared there in a baseball uniform. He played against Charleroi when he was starring in baseball and basketball at Donora High School.

Asked by Bunardzya how it felt to return to the stadium, Musial said: “Great. I always did say this was a nice stadium and that they do things differently in Charleroi.”

View from the mound

As a pitcher with the New York Giants, Joe Margoneri of Turkeytown (West Newton) faced Musial several times.

Margoneri, a native of Somerset who grew up in Smithton, got his first major league win as a starting pitcher on Friday, July 27, 1956, as the Giants edged the St. Louis Cardinals, 6-5, at the Polo Grounds in New York. Margoneri gave up only five hits over seven innings, including a home run by Bobby Del Greco.

“I struck out Stan Musial in his first at-bat,” Margoneri recalled in a previous interview for the Tribune-Review. “In fact, he went hitless that day. But you never knew what Stan was going to do. He was a natural hitter, one of the best I've ever seen. I struck him out in another game and thought I could get him again the next time he came to the plate. No such luck; he drilled a hard-lined double into left field.”

Another ‘first'

Musial and Rostraver product Bert Rechichar, a college and National Football League star, were the first two inductees into the Mon Valley Sports Hall of Fame. They received the honor before a crowd of 800 on Friday, Dec. 7, 1951, at the Big Six Conference sports dinner at the Twin Coaches supper club.

Harold “Pie” Traynor, the immortal Pittsburgh Pirates Hall Of Fame third baseman, presented Musial with a commemorative plaque after acclaiming him as “the greatest living player in the game today.” Traynor also told the audience that Musial “can't miss becoming an all-time great and member of baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.”

Recounting Musial's brief but sincere acceptance speech, John Bunardzya, then sports editor of The Charleroi Mail and one of the founders of the Mon Valley Sports Hall of Fame, wrote: “Still as humble and modest as he was when he cavorted on sandlots in his native Donora, Musial was deeply touched by the occasion and was at a loss for words during his acceptance remarks. But, as usual, Mr. Musial made it with room to spare. He and Rechichar expressed their gratitude to the Mon Valley in general and the sportswriters in particular for the honors bestowed upon them for their contributions to the national sports scene.”

In summation

Stephen V. Russell, retired educator, well-known historian and general chairman of the Mid Mon Valley All Sports Hall of Fame, offered a fitting tribute to Musial that echoes the sentiments of those who loved and admired “The Man.”

To wit: “Stan Musial was one of those rare noteworthy sports figures who lived an ennobling life with an appreciation of his role as a model to baseball fans. for that reason Mr. Musial was a perfect subject to introduce to my students in how to live a life and what to cherish. As he was noted for the number of mentors in his growing-up years like Mon Valley educators Dr. Michael Duda, coaches James K. Russell, John Clark, Joe Barbao and businessman Frank Pizzica, his life became a model for the young to follow.”

Ron Paglia is a freelance writer.

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