On Nov. 17, the president of the United States announced the names of 15 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The honorees include former President George H. W. Bush, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Civil Rights activist and Congressman John Lewis, business tycoon Warren Buffett and two Hall of Fame athletes — basketball's Bill Russell and our very own Stan "The Man" Musial, the greatest Cardinal.
America's highest civilian honor, the medal is awarded to those who have made " especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors," according to the White House's website.
To be considered for this prestigious award along with heads of state, national leaders, artists, scholars and activists is indeed a singular honor, but subsequently to be recognized as belonging in such high company is beyond expectation. Stan Musial, an extraordinarily humble and gifted athlete, teammate, human being and absolutely untarnished role model, earned the right to belong.
His Baseball Hall of Fame credits speak for themselves. A lifetime batting average of .331, 3,630 hits, 475 home runs and 1,951 runs batted in over a career from 1941 to 1963, with a year off for Navy service in World War II, place him with the head of the class. His selection three times as National League Most Valuable Player and named an All Star for 21 years (1943 to 1963 excluding 1945 when he was in the service) are also records seldom equaled.
One of the most revered members of his profession by peers and fans alike, in tribute to his character and sportsmanship, he was selected in 1999 to Major League Baseball's All Century Team. Additionally Stan Musial married his high school sweetheart in 1940, a marriage still intact 70 years later. And, following a mediocre year in 1959, he actually requested a cut in salary from $100,000 to $75,000 for the next year.
When Major League baseball's historic integration began in 1947, Musial was outspoken and visible in his support for and encouragement of the Dodger's Jackie Robinson and Joe Black. Noted author James Hirsch confirms Stan's selfless contribution to racial harmony in describing an incident on an aircraft en route to an All Star game in which he pointedly asked to join a poker game organized by Willie Mays among the other black players.
Among my favorite anecdotal occurrences that I recall was during a game between the Cardinals and the Reds with future Hall of Fame umpire Al Barlick behind the plate. With "the Man" at bat, the rookie Cincinnati pitcher was grumbling over the umpire's strike zone, approaching the plate to complain of a pitch called a ball. Barlick's reply, "Son, Mr. Musial will let you know with his bat when you throw a strike."
When one contrasts this reserved and respectable mien with the bizarre behavior of today's "super stars" Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger, LeBron James, Terrell Owens and Randy Johnson, it is not difficult to think the sports role model is a dead issue. With this selection, Musial joins an elite and respected group that includes Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, Joe Dimaggio, Hank Aaron and Buck O'Neill.
The first time I saw him play was July 1948 in St Louis' Sportsman's Park and the last occasion was in 1963 in Los Angeles Chavez Ravine — the last year he played. I was privileged also to see him in Chicago's Wrigley Field, Philadelphia's Shibe Park and Cincinnati's Crosley Field.
In a career lasting 24 years, Stan Musial was never ejected from a game, beloved equally by fans on the road and at home and, to my knowledge, never booed. A genuinely gracious and elegant man, he is unpretentious to a fault, devoid of the bloated ego and oafish behavior of many of today's professional athletes.
Stan's persona is reminiscent of another equally gifted and humble superstar of yesteryear. I remember when the late Joe Louis, former world heavyweight boxing champion, was chided during the Civil Rights movement for not joining in vocal and visible protest. Louis replied that everyone should contribute by doing what they do best, but he does best by behaving himself.
As was Joe Louis, Stan the Man is a class-act role model for everyone. Stan, you've done us proud.