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J. KARL MILLER: A tribute to a legend and role model, Stan Musial

Wednesday, April 17, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:21 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 17, 2013

On April 8, in the home opener at Busch Stadium, and again on April 12, St. Louis paid homage to the greatest Cardinal to play the game. The opener featured a tribute to No. 6, Stan "The Man" Musial, and the unveiling of an outfield wall marker by his four children, while the Friday festivities featured the cutting of a "6" in the outfield grass and the placing of a plaque on the Musial statue located outside the stadium.

Why is it important to remember him with a column in the Missourian some will ask? It matters greatly because Stan Musial was one of the most gifted players to play the game of our national pastime, and if he was not also the greatest role model, he was certainly a most revered contender.

How many of today's professionals, be they athletes, elected officials or movers and shakers in all walks of life, wed their high school sweetheart as a teenager and lived an exemplary life as both a public and private figure? This was a man who was never known to speak ill of another and of whom never a bad word was uttered.

His baseball statistics included seven National League Batting titles, three Most Valuable Player awards, 3,630 hits and a .331 lifetime batting average among his 17 major league records, 29 National League records and nine All-Star Game records. A first ballot entry to the Hall of Fame in 1969, a fitting testament to his character and integrity, he never argued an umpire's call and was never ejected in 3,026 games.

One facet of his character will always stand out in the minds of true baseball fans. The National League's first $100,000-a-year player, he requested and was granted a $20,000 cut in salary following what he considered a mediocre 1959 season. Does anyone really believe that one of today's media-pampered and egoistic athletes would do the same?

In the 2011 baseball season, Albert Pujols, heir apparent to Musial's "greatest living Cardinal" accolades, suffered his least productive season — a .299 batting average and fewer than 100 RBI. Offered a substantial contractual raise, he instead bolted for California and the Angels' better offer. He was an all-around great player in his own right and perfectly within his rights to opt for the more lucrative contract; nevertheless, in loyalty and character, he proved he could never fill Stan's shoes.

I was privileged to see Musial play a number of times, first in 1948, during his greatest year as he led the league in hitting, hits, doubles, triples, runs, runs batted in and finished second by one in home runs. Etched in my memory of that game is the electrifying spectacle of his signature hit — a triple featuring his antelope speed and graceful persona in circling the bases.

In 1953, a kindred spirit and future college roommate and I secured summer employment in Chicago and could be found in Wrigley Field whenever the Cardinals came to town. The last time I saw him play was against the Dodgers in L.A.'s Chavez Ravine in 1963 when I took my bride of a year to see Stan the Man. In the last year of his career, he was still the lithe, sinewy athlete of my memory — he could still uncoil and produce that graceful and powerful swing that made him great.

His teammates, past and present, along with players of opposing teams and the fans are unstinting in their praise of this late, great Cardinal. Always gracious and a gentleman, he made himself unfailingly available to sign autographs and to mingle with the public. Musial was also instrumental in easing the racial tension of the 1947 season — he welcomed Jackie Robinson and treated him as a fellow player.

Stan's nickname "The Man" was acquired in 1946, his first season back from service in the U.S. Navy. Playing against the Dodgers in Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, a fan was overheard to say "Look out, here comes that man again" — the name stuck, and in Cardinal land, he was and is "The Man."

Appropriately also, in one of his last public appearances, he joined former President George H.W. Bush, poet Maya Angelou and basketball great Bill Russell and 10 other luminaries in receiving the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama on Feb. 15, 2011. Mr. Obama described Musial as an icon and a gentleman worthy of emulation by one's children.

Defined by modesty and a self-deprecating sense of humor, when someone noted that he got two hits in each his first and last games, he would remark characteristically, "It showed a lack of improvement in my career." He may not have been baseball's best player, but he may well have been the best man to play the game.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via email at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.


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