I’m not much of a baseball fan, but I miss the days when I was -- a few decades ago, when the sport was indeed the national pastime and was the primary topic of conversation whenever boys of any age -- from 7 to 70 -- got together.
These days, the National Football League is the most popular professional sport; if you doubt it, just observe the hoopla surrounding Sunday’s Super Bowl. The NFL is glamorous, fast-moving and violent. Baseball often pales in comparison.
But back in the heyday of the game -- the 1950s might have been the finest baseball decade ever -- baseball was center stage. There were only 16 Major League teams, all of them located in the East and the Midwest. Baseball was indeed king.
Only superstars made lots of money, and even then it was peanuts compared to today’s mega-salaries. In order to make ends meet, many players had off-season jobs driving trucks or selling insurance or working on assembly lines.
What a confounding notion that is today -- a professional athlete working in a factory to feed his family.
All this is on my mind because of the recent death of Stan Musial, one of the greatest players of all time.
Musial was an outstanding baseball player, a Hall of Famer, but here’s the deal: he was an even better man. When he died a couple of weeks ago at age 92, he had endeared himself to his city -- he spent his entire playing career with the St. Louis Cardinals -- in a way that perhaps no other athlete has ever done. Anywhere.
Stan the Man, as he was nicknamed by awed Brooklyn Dodgers fans, embodied all that was good about the game. During a career spanning 22 years, his statistics were startlingly good.
But it was a story in Sports Illustrated a few years ago that drew my attention back to him. It chronicled Musial’s perpetually pleasant nature, his good deeds, the endless autograph signing, his completely selfless existence.
Listen to teammate Bob Gibson, himself a Hall of Famer: “Stan Musial is the nicest man I ever met in baseball.” Gibson said. “And, to be honest, I can’t relate to that. I never knew that nice and baseball went together.”
The aura surrounding Musial -- not by his own urging -- was so impressive that I began asking every St. Louis resident I met about him. I work in the tourism business near a national park, and I see lots and lots of people from that city each year.
It became a game with me, a pleasant one: “How is Stan Musial doing?”
And I never met a single person from that city -- not one -- who didn’t know something about Musial. He was nearly 90 when I started doing this, so it wasn’t like he was still making sports page headlines.
Teenagers 16 years old -- who weren’t even born when Musial retired in 1962, whose parents weren’t even born then -- knew who he was. They all had a Musial story.
Over time, I began to look forward to those encounters. The stories I heard about him were legion. Everyone had a different Stan the Man tale, all of them pointing to a single fact: “What a great guy.”
One day it dawned on me: I’ve never even seen Stan Musial, yet he makes me feel good.
Dick Zittman, a business associate of Musial’s after his retirement, said a few years ago, “He loves making people happy. Maybe there have been a handful of better ballplayers. Maybe there have been a handful of more important baseball players. Maybe there have even been a handful of more memorable players.
“But no baseball player, none, worked so hard to make people happy. He hit the ball hard into the gaps, ran hard out of the box, signed every autograph, shook every hand. And, all the while, he kept telling us that he was the lucky one.”
I won’t be able to play my “How’s Stan Musial doing?” game anymore -- I’ll miss it -- but perhaps one day I’ll find myself in St. Louis standing at the Musial statue just outside Busch Stadium and reading the inscription, one that reflects the feelings of all 3 million residents of metropolitan St. Louis:
“Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.”