The July 8, 1957, issue of Sports Illustrated had pictures of Stan Musial and Ted Williams on the cover: "Battle of the Titans: All-Star Game." That was less than a month short of 22 years ago. Musial was 37 years old, and a kid growing up in a corn town in central Illinois had it figured out: "If I get to the big leagues when I'm 21, The Man will be 42 and maybe he'll still be playing."
Musial kept his end of the bargain, but the kid couldn't hit a rising fast ball, among other things, and at 21 the kid was a newspaperman who slipped a Musial mug shot into the paper whenever the old man did somethin. I wanted to tell Musial that yesterday, but he was talking about how his father came from Poland to America in 1910, and Musial spoke of the Pope and how he met Karol Wojtyla seven years ago and gave him a baseball signed, "To Cardinal Wojtyla from Cardinal Musial."
What a glorious laugh that memory gave Musial, and I was happy to just sit there, in the chaird next to him, because the name alone - Stan Musial . . . Stan the Man . . . of the St. Louis Cardinals - evokes so many sweet memories for me: nights in bed listening to the radio . . . days at the ball diamond . . . afternoons on the railroad tracks whacking railbed rocks with an old bat, some of them left-handed in approximation of Musial's swing.
Oh, to have been a left-handed hitter. A step nearer first base. All those right-handed pitchers. I tried it. I would go deep in the batter's box, feet close together, crouching slightly, my torso twisted away from the pitcher. "Like a man looking over his shoulder at the pitcher," someone had written of Musial's hitting stance, and I tried it a lot. I even tried it in real games.
Only problem was, batting left-handed I couldn't dodge wild pitches. For some reason, I just stood there, even when my mind said, "Hey, that one's going to hit us between the eyes." I froze. And the ball hit me in the head. I decided to hit like Harvey Kuenn.
I wanted to ask Musial if that was a phenomenon he had ever noticed, kids imitating his unorthodox style. I really wanted to know, but it seemed a tired question, a question better asked 20 years ago, and anyway, Musial was talking about a cousin he had visited in Poland, in the farm town of Prysml about 300 miles from Warsaw. It was good going to his father's country, Musial said, because when you're old you know how important it is to know your beginnings.
So I didn't ask Musial the tired question, and I remembered what the baseball writer, Roger Angell, once said. He said baseball players couldn't tell you what they did. They couldn't express fully the beauty of their work. Theirs is not a job of words, it is a job of doing. If Fred Lynn, to use Angell's example, says he has done nothing special in running down a fly ball beyond the reach of most mortals, we should ignore his words. His work speaks for itself.
"Stan Musial, my hero," I said to a colleague at the Madison Hotel yesterday.The magazine, Sports Illustrated, had Musial and eight other of their Sportsmen of the Year in town in connection with a new sports exhibit at the Smithsonian. They brought in Bill Russell, Jim Ryun, Jerry Lucas, Jackie Stewart, Pete Rozelle, Ken Venturi, Bobby Morrow, Terry Baker - and Musial, the only one I cared about, the only one I couldn't interview half-well.
How do you interview your childhood dreams? Sociologists today talk about "role models," not heroes, but if you are a kid dreaming, you think of Stan the Man in heroic measurements, not in sociological jargon. Sports figures make poor role models, anyway, for the image they portray inevitably is incomplete and distorted. But their work - their work is there for us to see, and their work can be heroic.
In 22 seasons with the Cardinals, Musial hit 331 and won seven batting championships. He had 3,630 hits, was the National League's Most Valuable Player three times and is in the Hall of Fame. At one time, he held a league record for consecutive games (895), and I can still remember listening to the radio one steamy afternoon when, in a doubleheader, Musial hit five home runs.
Did Musial remember that day? It was in 1954. Was he trying to hit the record fifth home run or did it simply leap away from that coiled-snake crouch? Ted Williams once said, "Musial's the only one who takes his full swing with two strikes." Praise from Caesar. Did records mean anything to Musial, who once said his greatest thrill in baseball is "putting on this uniform every day?"
Good questions. I asked none of them. Musial was talking about his father, Lukasz Musial, and how his father could do this trick where he would stand on one hand on the floor, with the other grasping a chair, and then circumnavigate the chair. His dad was a sturdy man, Musial said, and he talked a lot about Babe Ruth, the American hero who lit up even the dark corners of a Pennsylvania mining town.
Musial had been a high school basketball star, as well as the best baseball player in Donora, and the University of Pittsburgh offered him a basketball scholarship about the same time the Cardinals wanted him for baseball. He was 17, and so had to have his parents' permission to sign the baseball contract.
His father said no.
"He wanted me to go to college," Musial said yesterday. "College for a kid from Donora was an outstanding thing. My dad knew the value of it. I finally had to talk my mother into telling my dad this is what I wanted, to be a baseball player. And so she went to my dad and said. 'This is a free country and Stan can do what he wants to.'"
Stanley Frank Musial signed with the Cardinals for $65 a month and the University of Pittsburgh lost a basketball player. Less than a year later, Musial was in the big leagues to stay, and now, at 59, he is a vice-president of the Cardinals, owns a restaurant in St. Louis and still looks fit enough - "I'm an outdoors guy and I have a garden" - to step in against anyone and, with two strikes, leap from that crouch and make a kid dream. CAPTION: Picture, Stan Musial, left, enjoys a laugh with former basketball star Jerry Lucas. By Fred Sweets-The Washington Post