The Cardinal Nation’s and the baseball world’s week-long reaction to the passing of Stan Musial was nearly mythical, beyond human scale. An icon, they called him.
Former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said he was “perfection — as a player and a man.” An estimated 1,400 visitors viewed his casket in the first hour of visitation at the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica two days before a public funeral that included a motorcade to Busch Stadium. This was a celebration of the life of 92-year-old man who last played baseball in 1963 — 50 years ago.
Thriving societies need heroes to provide models of esteemed behaviors, as shared references promoting social unity and as markers for generational learning. While American heroes can come from sports, movies, the military, single acts of uncommon feats and public service, it is hard to imagine another person gaining similar sustained mythical status accorded to Stan Musial. Nowadays politics are too polarized, sports are too many and too suspected of condoning cheating, and entertainment is too diverse and packaged to produce another hero on the scale of Musial.
Sadly, a long line of potential heroes have been blemished by drug-related cheating, character-flaws, adverse personalities and media fatigue. Moreover, our culture — due largely to the information and electronic media — can find fault in any human.
Stan “the Man” was a great baseball player whose lifetime average of .331, winning seven batting titles, 475 home runs and three Most Valuable Player awards puts him among the best players of all. By all accounts, Musial was a wonderful person who met presidents and popes and personified the glory of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Within minutes of Musial’s death Jan. 19, several Facebook friends posted that it was indeed a sad day because Musial had served as a link to their own fathers and grandfathers. Likewise, the only major league baseball I ever saw with my dad was Musial’s last game in Pittsburgh in September 1963 at Forbes Field. Musial was the favorite son of Donora (and all other Pennsylvania steel towns in the 1940s). A vivid memory is the pre-game ceremony for Musial when a U.S. postal truck drove to home plate and unloaded bags of mail purported to be expressing Western Pennsylvania’s fans good wishes to Musial.
Musial’s popularity over the decades was certainly aided by the Cardinal organization’s efforts keeping him in the public eye on opening days, All-Star games and championship series. Musial was part and parcel of St. Louis’s reputation as the “best baseball town in America.” Immediately before, during and after World War II, baseball was the national past-time with little competition for the public’s attention. The Cardinals, no one more than Musial, benefited by the lack of geographic competition to the south and west of St. Louis and a strong radio network. Nowadays, the public mind is inundated 24/7 with pleas for fans’ entertainment dollar from not only more baseball games, both live and televised, but from more sports, more leagues and more alternatives to sports from concerts, movies, museums and entertainment magnets such as Branson and Disney World.
Coming along 40 years after Musial was Albert Pujols, who could have been, should have been, but won’t now be, considered the “greatest living Cardinal.” With stiff completion from Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith, he might not have been anyway, but he would have led the discussion if he had remained a Cardinal last year rather than signing with a different team as a free agent.
The saga of Pujols’ rise and fall in Cardinal Nation provides an insight into the impact of heroes and myths in current society. I suspect that deep-down inside lots of fans, and sports commentators, didn’t quite want Pujols to achieve Musial-like status. Likewise, a Washington Post columnist last week advised President Barack Obama to refrain from mentioning Abraham Lincoln because it only makes him (Obama) look small. While tall heroes inspire, they can cast long shadows that dim our assessment of potentially rising stars.
Heroes are not produced by nature; they are culturally shaped and selected by society. Folks must allow themselves to admire, to be inspired, to connect with a myth. Perhaps we have become too critical, too cynical, to embrace heroes in the 21st century. Or maybe baby boomers and our children have all been brought up believing we can be and achieve whatever we want to do. Perhaps Pujols or Obama’s achievements somehow remind us of our own shortfalls. Society must want heroes to have heroes.
David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU where he is currently teaching a course on "Is America in Decline?" He can be reached at email@example.com. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.