Baseball great Stan Musial died over the weekend. He was 92.
In September 2007, I was invited to make a speech to a civic group in St. Louis. I told the person who invited me I would come on one condition: that I could meet Stan Musial.
“That's no problem,” he said. “We are members of the same sports club.”
I forget what I said in the speech but I will always remember having lunch with Stan Musial.
Stan regaled me with baseball stories.
I asked him how it all began. He said when he was in high school during the Depression, a baseball scout came to his hometown of Donora, Pa. The scout told Musial's father he wanted to sign him to a contract.
Musial said his father rejected the offer, telling the scout, “My son is going to college.” Musial's father worked in a steel mill and never got a college education. Like most fathers, he wanted a better life for his son and believed college would be his ticket to success.
The scout left, but returned several weeks later to again ask that Stan be allowed to play professional baseball. He was rejected again. Musial says the scout then appealed to “a higher authority, my mother” and she agreed.
In 1938, Musial was signed as a pitcher to a professional baseball contract. I asked him how much they paid him. As I now recall, it was about $2,000 to $3,000. With so many players of lesser skill making millions today, I didn't begrudge him selling his autograph on baseballs and memorabilia.
After injuring his arm as a minor league player, Musial was moved to the outfield and then to first base, where he began to hit the ball like few left-handers ever had. He became one of the greatest hitters in Major League Baseball history.
If ever there was a sports role model, Stan was one. A World War II vet and family man, Musial played his entire career with the St. Louis Cardinals, a rarity today when players, like interchangeable parts, are traded often or jump to other clubs for more money.
President Obama touched on Musial's character when he presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 2011. The president said then, “Stan remains to this day an icon untarnished, a beloved pillar of the community, a gentleman you'd want your kids to emulate.”
In our celebrity culture, where it doesn't matter why you're famous, only that you're famous, we don't focus enough on true achievement and the untarnished. Musial's contemporaries Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams received more media attention than he did, but Stan never publicly expressed any bitterness. They were in larger media markets — New York and Boston — which may account for some of it, though it was in New York that Musial acquired his moniker “The Man.” Sporting News reported, “According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Musial earned ‘The Man' nickname ‘by (Brooklyn) Dodgers fans for the havoc he wrought at Ebbets Field.'”
On that one day in 2007, as I had lunch with my childhood hero, I was a kid again. It was better than any politician I have met or dined with. He signed a baseball for me, for free. It sits encased on a shelf in my office.
In so many ways, on and off the field, Stan Musial was indeed “The Man.”
Cal Thomas is a columnist for USA Today.