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Legends never die: A tribute to Stan the Man

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Column by David B. Whitlock

“Heroes get remembered, but legends never die. Follow your heart, kid and you'll never go wrong.” — From the film, “The Sandlot” (1993)

 

A great American legend, and one of my heroes, was buried last week. But “Stan the Man” Musial was more than a hero; he was and remains a legend. And legends live on, influencing those who come behind them, inspiring new acts of courage and goodness.

Though dead, Stan Musial lives on.

Even now I can feel his left hand gently resting on the back of my neck as if he had anointed me for something beyond myself, a budding 7-year-old baseball fan. 

My dad had made reservations for us to eat at Stan Musial and Biggies Restaurant in St. Louis, Mo. My older brother, Mark, and I stood there in our coats and ties, blinking from the photo flash that captured more than simply smiles alongside a baseball luminary: Musial’s taller figure leaned slightly forward over Mark and me, as if he were gracefully bestowing a measure of his greatness on us.

It was the summer of 1963, Musial’s last year as a professional baseball player.

The day before, we had made our way across the prairies of Oklahoma, the tires of Dad’s 1962 Cadillac Sedan de Ville singing along Route 66 as we sped through the foothills of Missouri, finally arriving in St. Louis, the “Gateway to the West,” but more importantly to us, the city wherein back then lay Baseball Mecca: Sportsman’s Park, the home of the St. Louis Cardinals.

“Son, that’s Stan Musial getting ready to bat,” I recall Dad telling me. “He’s a real legend.”

Even though St. Louis lost to the Philadelphia Phillies on that otherwise  perfect baseball afternoon, Aug. 4, 1963, we saw  Musial single to centerfield in the bottom of the ninth.

I didn’t know it that afternoon, but Dad had called ahead and made reservations for us to dine at Stan’s restaurant. I treasure that photograph and the autographed picture of Musial, “To David, Best Wishes, Stan Musial.”

Musial didn’t just sign our baseball programs and pictures. He actually took time to sit down and talk to us.

Kind and considerate, Musial was a true gentleman. Though I was only 7 at the time, I picked up on it: There was nothing brash about him; not even the slightest hint of arrogance could be detected in his demeanor.

Years later, in August of 1986, Mark took his own family to St. Louis to watch the Cardinals. Like our dad had done years ago, Mark called ahead and made reservations for dinner at Stan and Biggies.

Stan, although retired, was still around, and Mark asked if it might be at all possible to meet the legendary Musial.

Having been seated at the restaurant, Mark heard a familiar voice.

“Where’s the family from Oklahoma I need to meet?” Musial inquired.

Then, just like he had done years before, Musial sat down for a visit, taking his time, as if Mark’s family were the only guests in the crowded restaurant.

“There sat Stan Musial, THE Stan Musial, right there at our table, just visiting with us for a full 15 minutes. It was amazing,” Mark reminisced.

Like Andy Griffith, Tom Landry and 15-cent hamburgers, they just don’t make them like that anymore.

It didn’t matter to me that Stan Musial played in three World championships, earned three Most Valuable Player Awards, had 3,630 hits in his career and was selected to a record 24 All-Star appearances.

What mattered to my brother and me that August day in 1963 was that Musial cared enough to sit down and talk, even waiting for Mom to snap a picture.

Standing there in front of him, almost too awestruck to smile, Musial seemed to be saying to us, “Follow your heart, kid, and you’ll never go wrong.”

Sportscaster Bob Costas gave a eulogy at Musial’s funeral last week. He told of Musial’s last time to bat, that year I saw him in 1963. Harry Carey was the radio broadcaster for the Cardinals then. When Musial settled into the box for his last bat, which would be a single to right field, Carey said, “Take a look fans, take a good look. Remember the swing and the stance. We won’t see his like again.”

Costas closed by saying, “Harry was right, we never have and we never will.”

But for the kid that remains in the hearts of some of us, we can still hope that the legend will live on, and that we will never stop dreaming about being our best and following our heart.

For when we do that, we are at least swinging in the right direction.

David B. Whitlock is a Baptist minister and author of the book "Life Matters." He can be reached at drdavid@davidbwhitlock.com.