A gentleman and a ... ballplayer

Those of a certain age may remember following baseball on AM radio. (It used to be the national pastime.) Many a summer afternoon, the play-by-play coverage of the St. Louis Cardinals provided accompaniment to whatever folks in these Southern latitudes were doing. Or trying to get out of doing.

The batter, the pitch, the swing, the hit or miss, the roar of the crowd in the background, the final score and end-of-game round-up, the color commentary and the stats. ... They all came out of 50,000-watt KMOX in St. Louis.

. . .

A man named Harry Caray became a comforting voice and steady presence, not to mention darned good company, every hazy, lazy summer afternoon. Which may explain why there are still so many Cards fans this side of Mason-Dixon's line.

. . .

Even those who don't follow baseball may have heard of Stanislaw Franciszek Musial, aka Stan the Man. He wasn't just good. He was a good soul. And beautiful to watch. He always seemed to be smiling. As if he knew he was making a living playing a game he loved every spring and summer. And, often enough, deep into the fall, too.

Stan the Man won so many awards they all wouldn't fit on his Hall of Fame plaque, which had to settle for 'Holds many National League records ...' (They had to stop counting at 55.) The man was an All-Star 24 times. And he only played 22 seasons.

Yes, kids, a 24-time All-Star who played 22 seasons. (Some years the majors played more than one All-Star game. Maybe just to give people a better chance at seeing Stan Musial in ever-smiling person.)

Stan Musial won seven -- seven! -- National League batting titles, was a three-time Most Valuable Player, and led the Cardinals to three World Series titles in the 1940s. He racked up a career 3,630 hits, including 475 homers. With a .331 batting average, he ranks sixth in all-time RBIs. He did miss the 1945 season. (There was a war on and the Navy needed him.)

Naturally, which was how Stan Musial played the game, he was a first-ballot choice for the Hall of Fame. To quote one pitcher, the best way to retire Stan Musial was to walk him in four pitches, then try to pick him off at first.

In these big-money, fast-changing, ever-fickle times, when the lifespan of an institution can be just a season, or maybe just a week, what really set the life and character of Stan Musial apart was this: He spent his entire career, 22 major league seasons, with one team.

In a day when even a Peyton Manning can leave the Colts, when LeBron James can leave his native Ohio, when professional sports figures have no more loyalty to their teams than their teams have to them, let it be noted that the one and only Stan Musial played for more than two decades in the same uniform. And kept fans cheering all across Dixie.

They even loved him in Brooklyn -- Brooklyn! That's right, St. Louis' archrival in those years. Dodger fans liked their ballplayers loud, tough and Leo-Durocher obnoxious. But they admired this mild-mannered Midwesterner who played the harmonica ("Take Me Out to The Ball Game") and respected everybody. Some say his sobriquet Stan the Man even originated in Brooklyn.

Stan the Man Musial died over the weekend. At the age of 92. The sporting world mourned. But not just the sporting world.

For this man, The Man, wasn't just a world-class athlete, but a gentleman. (Another disappearing breed.) Lest we forget, that beautiful game, The Game for some of us, has given us not just beautiful ballplayers like Stan Musial, but ugly types like Ty Cobb. For the record, Stan Musial was never once thrown out of a game by an umpire.

. . .

Mr. Musial was a good citizen off the field, too. A kind of one-man civic club, he helped everybody from the Boy Scouts to the Senior Olympics. At his death, those who knew him -- or just those of us who followed him -- had to scour our thesauruses for synonyms for beloved, untarnished, respected, honored, trusted ... and integrity.

Stan Musial brought back the meaning of sportsmanship. (Remember it?) Willie Mays, a legend and a gentleman himself, issued a statement that said, in part: "I never heard anybody say a bad word about him, ever."

. . .

Stan the Man wasn't just a beautiful ball player, he was a beautiful man.

When fans of old spoke of Dimaggio's beauty as he loped across center field or took that wide, wide stance of his at the plate, they meant a kind of classical, Italianate, almost Greek beauty that the old Athenians would have recognized.

When fans in Boston spoke of Ted Williams as beautiful, they meant a beautiful hitting machine.

But when baseball fans of a certain age spoke of Stan Musial as beautiful, they weren't just talking about that corkscrew stance of his at the plate, like a coiled spring, or the way he had of moving forward as the throw left the pitcher's hand to meet the ball with his own springing momentum. ... No, when fans used the adjective beautiful about Musial, they were also talking about his character.

. . .

Mister Musial, you're going to be missed. Your kind is already missed. Maybe the rest of us should just buy a bunch of those many books written about you, and make it required reading for all of today's athletes. They might just learn something.

(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. David Barham, an editorial writer there, contributed to this column.)

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