It's difficult, I think, for most of us to understand just how important Stan Musial was to an entire generation of baseball fans across a broad and deep swath of these United States.
Imagine, in your mind, a map of the major-league cities from 1901 through the early 1950s ... There are only 10 major-league cities, because three cities (Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and St. Louis) host two franchises and another (New York) hosts three. Seven of those cities are arrayed along the Eastern Seaboard or the Great Lakes; the only exceptions are Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. And that latter city is both the western-most and southern-most city in the major leagues. Which meant that the St. Louis Cardinals, by virtue of their geographical location and their great success in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, became the closest thing we've ever had to an "America's team". Not all of America, of course. But a huge piece of the Midwest and the South. Including the entire state of Missouri, where all my people were from.
I missed that. By the time I became aware of baseball, the Royals had been born and were actually better and more interesting than the Cardinals. So the Royals were my team. When they battled the Cardinals in the World Series, my loyalties weren't divided by even a single iota.
Nevertheless, if my house catches fire and I can grab just one inanimate object on my way out, it will be a baseball signed by Stan Musial. Everything else is just stuff. I could happily start over tomorrow and, after a trip to the mall for some underwear and t-shirts, be perfectly happy. But the baseball ... Well, that one means something to me.
Growing up, I knew that the Cardinals were important to my mom's folks, and to most of my aunts and uncles. In fact, one of my uncles was named Marty, after the Cardinals' star shortstop in the ‘40s, Marty Marion (or so the story goes). In the late ‘80s, I attended a baseball-card show in Kansas City, where Stan Musial was appearing. I had him autograph a copy of his memoirs. You never would have guessed that he ranked then (as now) was one of the National League's greatest players. A few years earlier, I'd gone to a show featuring another superstar from Musial's era, and it was a terrible letdown; this immortal didn't smile, in fact didn't even look up as he simply signed -- illegibly, no less -- each item placed before him.
Musial, on the other hand, looked up and smiled at everyone. I don't remember if I said anything to him. I just remember that he was pleasant, and didn't make me feel slightly dirty for spending eight dollars or whatever -- yes, those were different times -- for something so trivial as a man's signature. The truth, of course, is that many of us care far less about the signature than the meeting. I own autographs of Musial, and Luke Appling and Bob Feller and a few other Hall of Famers, but my moments with them mean far more to me than the signatures themselves. That illegible Willie Mays autograph on an official National League baseball, though? It meant so little to me that I wound up giving the ball to a kid who used it just like any other baseball.
Meanwhile, at some point I heard a story about a baseball signed by Stan Musial, nestled somewhere in my grandparents' home in southeastern Missouri. Their house was filled with various treasures (to a child), and I spent a fair amount of my visits looking for them: in closets, under sofas, high atop bookshelves ... but I never saw this famous horsehide, nor did I know much about it. And of course the mysteries only made it more appealing.
Fast-forward to 1989. My grandfather, who loved the Cardinals so much, has been gone for a decade. I'd just begun working for Bill James, and it was perhaps then that my grandmother -- also, I should mention, religious about her Cardinals -- first realized how much I loved baseball, too. I was living with my aunt and two cousins, and the next time she returned from a visit to my grandmother, she had a surprise: an ancient baseball, signed by Stan Musial and fellow Redbirds star Whitey Kurowski.
Later, I asked my grandmother for the story. She told me, in a letter, that my grandfather had been in a serious car accident in the late 1940s, and that Musial and Kurowski just happened to visit the St. Louis hospital where Grandpa was recovering. They'd signed a baseball for him, and that ball had been a treasured heirloom -- as far as I knew, the family's only treasured heirloom -- ever since.
And now it was mine. At that point in my life, I had just a loose relationship with responsibility, and it was something of a wonder that I was able to hold down a job. But I had some vague idea of what that baseball had meant to my grandparents, and it was humbling to consider that my grandfather had entrusted it to me, instead of passing it along to one of my uncles, all of whom grew up listening to Harry Caray on KMOX and rooting for the Cardinals. I felt a little guilty about that ... but not nearly guilty enough to send the baseball back to my grandmother, or to one of those uncles. If she wanted me to have it, I would keep it and I would take care of it.
And so I have. I've got a few other signed baseballs, and a few of those have some sentimental value to me. But the Musial baseball is different. I don't consider it mine, really. I don't have any idea what it's worth, nor do I care. I'm just taking care of this heirloom until it's time to pass it along to the next caretaker, preferably someone who's got some idea what Stan Musial meant to Cardinals fans generally, and specifically to my grandparents.
I wasn't there in the 1940s, when Stan Musial paced the Cardinals to four National League pennants and three World Championships. Or in the 1950s, when Musial was the best reason to follow a club that never really competed for the National League pennant. Or in 1962, when Musial batted .330 just before turning 42 (the next year, Musial homered in his first at-bat after becoming a grandfather, then finally retired a few weeks later).
I wasn't there. But thanks to my grandparents and my aunts and uncles and a family heirloom, I've got a notion. Enough of a notion, anyway, to know what a great gift I've been given. By my grandmother, yes. But also by Stan the Man. He'll be missed, both here in my house and across that great swath of America.
Oh, and here's that baseball, along with a photo of my grandfather before anyone had ever heard of Stanley Frank Musial. Now they're both gone, but only in the most literal sense; in a more meaningful way, their spirits will live for at least as long as I do ...