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Top civilian honor to cement legend of baseball great Musial

Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011
 

While attending an inauguration gala for Ronald Reagan in January 1981, Steve Russell noticed baseball legend and fellow Western Pennsylvanian Stan Musial walking unattended and unnoticed.

"Nobody was bothering him," recalled Russell, whose dad, Jimmy, was a big league ballplayer and close friend of Musial's. "I could tell people around him didn't know who he was."

Musial certainly could draw a crowd, especially in St. Louis, where he played 22 years for the Cardinals and established himself as a first-ballot Hall of Famer and beloved figure. But at more distant venues, such as a fancy party in Washington, he was just another guy in a suit.

"He didn't have that aura about him because he played in the West," said Russell, the Belle Vernon School District superintendent and general chairman of the Mid-Mon Valley Hall of Fame. "And St. Louis was the West then. He was just kind of constant. He was there. He was dependable."

He was Stan the Man, as modest in size -- 6 feet, 180 pounds -- as in temperament; yet, a towering figure nevertheless. Accordingly, Musial today is back in the nation's capital with Lil, his wife of nearly 71 years, to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. He will be joined at the White House by, among others, former President George H.W. Bush, basketball great Bill Russell and cello virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma.

Not bad for a kid from Donora.

"I don't know how I could put it into words, because I'm so proud of what he has done," said Donora Mayor John "Chummie" Lignelli, 89, who helped lead an effort to rename the Donora-Monessen Bridge that spans the Monongahela River. Pending passage of state legislation, it will become the Stan Musial Bridge.

"All of us were brought up the same way," Lignelli said. "None of us had money to burn. Somebody that elevated himself from a poor family and became the person he is, it's amazing."

According to those close to Musial, he no longer grants interviews.

Musial performed at the highest level without excess color, outspokenness, controversy or personality quirks. "No dark side, no hidden unknown," Cardinals President Bill DeWitt III said.

In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch column offering "90 reasons we love The Man" on the occasion of his 90th birthday in November, Bernie Miklasz wrote as No. 1: "Musial is the nicest person we've known."

It is said that Musial rarely turned down an autograph request. According to one oft-told tale, he played both games of a doubleheader on a scorching Sunday, left the ballpark feeling the effects and still accommodated the fans waiting for him.

Musial played a mean harmonica. He once played the instrument on the TV show "Hee Haw" while wearing bib overalls, and later recorded 18 songs for instructional purposes.

There were no antics, tantrums, scandals or holdouts. In fact, Musial once asked for a pay cut after an uncharacteristically poor season.

His play said it all. As an outfielder and first baseman, with his distinctive, left-handed crouch, he hit .331 during his career. He had 3,630 hits, won seven batting titles and three Most Valuable Player awards, played in 24 All-Star games and did a whole lot more.

Perhaps most impressive, and revealing, was that in a career stretching from 1941 through 1963, minus a year for Navy service in World War II, Musial had 1,815 hits at home and 1,815 hits on the road.

"He could hit .300 with a fountain pen," former teammate and broadcaster Joe Garagiola once said.

He was all steak, little sizzle. Ken Griffey Sr. later came from the same town, but it was Musial -- strictly by his work and the manner in which he respected fans, teammates, opponents and the game itself -- who put Donora on the map.

It became a simple matter of word association: Donora. Musial.

Stanislaus (later Stanley) Frank Musial -- the fifth of six children born to Mary and Lukasz -- played several sports and showed prodigious, all-around talents at an early age, competing against older, bigger kids. He signed a minor league contract as a pitcher with St. Louis in 1938 at age 17 and played his way out of a future that might have led to the U.S. Steel Zinc Works, the town's chief industry.

Lukasz worked there, among other places. Musial has said he believes the chemicals and soot and smoke that blackened the sky and landscape might have contributed to his father's death from pneumonia in 1948.

Although he was happy to leave, Musial through the years was just as happy to return.

"What sticks out the most is the idea of his attachment to Donora and the graciousness he always tended to Donora," said Brian Charlton, curator of the Donora Smog Museum and Historical Society. "To this day, he still pays his dues to the American Legion, even though he lives in St. Louis."

Musial belonged to several other social clubs, including the Polish Falcons, where he started hanging out at age 10 as a Junior Falcon to learn gymnastics and tumbling. "He may still be a member," Charlton said.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom culminates a lobbying effort by the Cardinals, politicians and fans, many of whom posed for pictures with a cardboard cutout of Musial known as "Flat Stanley."

"He just represents everything that's good about the city," said DeWitt, the son of Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. "Stan's career and life were so exemplary.

"The reservoir of goodwill was so deep. He played his whole career here; he stayed here when he retired. Those are two big deals. The way he interacts with people, it's not a nuisance to him. It's what keeps him going."

Additional Information:

The Musial file

Stanley Frank Musial

Born: Nov. 20, 1920, Donora

Resides: St. Louis

Outfielder and first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals: 1941-63

Elected to Hall of Fame: 1969

Three-time Most Valuable Player

Played on three world champion teams

Appeared in 3,026 games, tied for sixth all-time

Hit .331, finishing in National League top 10 in batting 17 times

Fourth in all-time hits (3,630)

Second in total bases (6,134)

Sixth in RBIs (1,951)

Ninth in runs (1,949)

Hit 475 home runs

 

 

 
 


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