Stan Musial and Rob Rains in Stan's backyard.
By Rob Rains
One of my greatest regrets as a baseball writer, and as a life-long fan of the game, is that I never got to see Stan Musial play. I missed him by one year.
The first game I ever saw at the first Busch Stadium was in 1964 when I was eight years old, making the trip from my home in Springfield, Mo., with my mom and older brother. Musial had retired the year before.
Yet, years later, when I was lucky enough to get the only job I ever wanted in my life, covering the Cardinals as the beat writer for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, I got to meet Stan Musial the man. I cherish all of the times I talked with him, the times I interviewed him and the times we were both in the same place on private social occasions.
That’s why St. Louis and Cardinal Nation cried Saturday night, why it was still crying on Sunday and why it will cry forever. St. Louis knows what it is like to lose somebody like Musial. It happened 11 years ago when we mourned the death of Jack Buck.
As was the case with Buck, you didn’t have to be famous to have a memory of Musial. You didn’t have to be in the stands for any of his special moments to appreciate his talent. All you had to do was meet him once to recognize his humility and grace.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was like all fans when he heard the news of Musial’s death. He remembered the first time he met Musial, and he remembered the last time they talked as well.
Shortly after he got out of college, and was just beginning his baseball career, Matheny – who had married a woman from St. Louis – was introduced to Musial at a party.
“He went out of his way to spend about 30 minutes with me,” Matheny recalled. “I was star struck. Everybody wanted some of his time and he just kept giving it. He treated me like I was a superstar. I was a kid just out of college, probably with not much chance to reach the big leagues at that point.
“How he treated me had an impact. There are millions of those stories and how he impacted people. … I knew that was how I wanted to be, that was how I wanted to treat people. That’s why he won the hearts of people in St. Louis and why this city is in mourning. I never saw a connection like that and I don’t think we ever will again.”
Matheny’s last encounter with Musial came last October, in the Cardinals’ NL Championship Series against the Giants. Musial made an on-field appearance before game four, and presented the game ball to Matheny.
“I have that picture on my wall and it is never going to go anywhere,” Matheny said. “That guy is an icon and he is a hero to me.”
As Matheny pointed out, anybody can look up the statistics and the accomplishments and realize the baseball ability that Musial possessed, more than almost anybody who ever lived. He didn’t hit less than .300 until he had played in the major leagues for 18 years and was 38 years old. He was the MVP of the National League three times and won seven batting titles. He was a 24-time All-Star and was a first-ballot inductee to the Hall of Fame.
Because he didn’t play for the Yankees, or the Red Sox, and played before the era when every game was on television, Musial might be the most underappreciated Hall of Famer ever. He didn’t care.
What he cared about was his high school sweetheart and wife, Lil, who passed away last May after they had been married for almost 72 years, and his family. He cared about his friends. He cared about people far less fortunate in life than himself.
He didn’t seek publicity for all of his charity efforts. He didn’t want recognition. He just made appearances and donations trying to help others because it was the right thing to do. He was always there with a handshake, a smile, a free autograph and a quick song on his harmonica.
That kind of attitude doesn’t exist much in the world of professional sports today, and the world is worse off because of it. If there is a lesson to be learned from the life of Stan Musial, it is the ability to remain humble even in the wake of achieving great success, fame and fortune.
Musial never forgot that. That is why St. Louis, and millions of baseball fans who never had the personal pleasure of meeting him, should never forget him.
He will always be The Man.
“The reason everybody stood at attention when he came in the room was a combination of superstar and a humble man who knew the value of treating people the right way,” Matheny said.
I have multiple personal memories of Musial, including him coming to book signings, and personally inviting me to be his guest at a ceremony in Jefferson City when he was honored at the state capitol.
My most lasting personal memory, however, will be of him and Lil sitting on the couch in my living room, joining in a birthday celebration. Along with a gift I will cherish forever, he played Happy Birthday to me on his harmonica.
Thinking of that moment now, more than a decade later, still brings a smile to my face — and tears from my eyes.