Rest in peace, Stan Musial. Simple words, and ones we get the unfortunate chance to use more and more often as we too age, but even in their simple beauty the words cannot express the feelings.
Part of St. Louis died on January 19, 2013. Part of the game of baseball left us as well. It’s easy to use hyperbole to overstate the memory and the place in history of nearly anyone who has recently passed, but it’s my heartfelt feeling that such overblown statements about Stan “The Man” do not exist. At his retirement, after 22 years with the Cardinals, baseball commissioner Ford Frick described No. 6 as “Baseball’s perfect warrior. Baseball’s perfect knight.” Say that about anyone else and people will roll their eyes.
Stan and the Cardinals. Stan and Cardinal fans. They are as intertwined and linked as the hydrogen and oxygen in the water we drink. They are as inseparable as identical twins. They are the perfect match.
The St. Louis Cardinals are one of baseball’s greatest franchises, but they are more than that. They are not flashy. They don’t outspend their opponents to buy championships. They are not lovable losers, nor are they arrogant winners. They have exuded class and professionalism over the span of roughly 120 years. Their fans are fervent without being brash or petty. They are not fair weather backers, who slink away and forget their team when times are tough. They know the game, and they appreciate the smallest details. They are such great and intelligent supporters that they themselves are a strong selling point when any free agent is considering a move to St. Louis.
And those players stay. They come from far and wide, all around the world, and an uncanny number of them never leave, staying attached and connected to the community that has become a part of them, just as they have become a part of the city.
Stan Musial was all of that, and more. If described accurately in a novel, any reader would have to think his character was fictitious. He was clearly one of the greatest players to ever take the field, but his humility and demeanor, his class and dignity, and his affable personality might have actually provided a bit of cover for his true statistical greatness. His career batting average was .331, he clubbed 475 home runs, drove in 1,951 runners, and amazingly struck out only 696 times over the course of 12,717 plate appearances. He is in the Hall of Fame, and there was never a doubt. And yet, we refer to him as a kind and gentle person, a fun-loving boy in a man’s body, a great friend and a brilliant teammate. Babe Ruth? 714 home runs. Ty Cobb? 4,189 hits. Joe DiMaggio? 56 consecutive games with at least one hit. Stan Musial? A great man. He is unique in that regard, to have been a certifiable superstar of the highest caliber and yet still be known more for the man he was, rather than the player.
Anyone who watched him play and could see his grace knew all of this. I hardly feel worthy to add my perspective to the overwhelming deluge of brilliantly written obituaries and odes to the man, all of which we’ll have the joy to read so emotionally over the next few days. But I also feel compelled to share all of this because Stan was more than all of this to my father and to the Wilber family. He was a friend. A loyal, happy, supportive friend. Despite the fact I am the youngest of the Wilber clan, and was only seven when Stan retired in 1963, I knew him and I knew he was special.
Big Del Wilber came up to the big leagues after World War II, making his first appearance as a Cardinal in 1946. Like so many others before and after, Dad went on to play for other teams and work for other organizations, but he (and we) remained St. Louisans. There are millions of reasons why I thank my parents for giving me the pure good fortune to be their child, but the decision to put down roots in the Gateway City is near the top of the list.
Those Cardinals were a close bunch, and my childhood was filled with visits to the Musial’s home, Marty Marion’s home, and Ruggeri’s restaurant on The Hill, where Joe Garagiola could often be found while his brother Mickey manned the door as the host and maitre d. Holiday parties were baseball and media bashes in the Wilber house, as well. Growing up knowing that any phone call, or any knock on the door, could have just as likely been initiated by a ballplayer or newscaster as it was by a neighbor was something we all got used to by the time we could walk.
Stan came to Wilber weddings, he stayed in touch, and his lovely wife Lillian remained a dear ally and friend of our mother Taffy for life. The Musials felt more like neighbors, or family members. With nary a shred of self-importance, Stan never seemed like a celebrity to us. He could just as well have been an uncle, and if so he would’ve been our favorite uncle.
When Stan retired in 1963, his final day in uniform was marked by a pre-game ceremony and during the fete he wore a Boy Scout neckerchief. It was a little silly looking, actually, but he never would’ve thought to take it off and he wore it proudly. He was, after all, a perfect Boy Scout. He was self-effacing to the point of sheer humility. For all of his athletic greatness, his grace and sincerity were his greatest attributes.
His favorite musical instrument was the harmonica, and he was rarely (if ever) without one. A harmonica. The most modest of all instruments, and one that can hardly be played without it sounding more like “fun” rather than music. Perfect.
We’ve lost a truly great one, but we had him for 92 years and it was his time to go. Now, he joins Del Wilber, Taffy Wilber, Lil Musial, and so many of their dearest friends in the great beyond.
Rest in peace, Stan Musial. You were, are, and always will be “The Man”.
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