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Musial a model on field and off sports may never see again

Photo: /AP

Even after leaving the game in 1963, Stan Musial maintained the values that made him so beloved.

Stan Musial played his last baseball game on Sept. 29, 1963. Thousands gathered in the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis that afternoon to watch various groups present the 42-year-old with various gifts -- he received a neckerchief from the Cub Scouts, a statue of Louis IX of France from the Chamber of Commerce, a diamond ring from his teammates -- and to watch him circle the field in a salmon-colored convertible, and to watch him accumulate hits number 3,629 and 3,630, still the fourth-most ever. Among the people in attendance was W.C. Heinz, who was the Musial of sportswriting, a quiet producer of beauty for a very long time.

We are fortunate that Heinz was there. There are stories in the Oct. 11, 1963 issue of Life magazine that focus on such things as the strange circular postage stamps issued by the island nation of Tonga, and the ascension of Mount Kilimanjaro by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, and the increasingly messy situation in Vietnam, which seemed as if it might get even worse.

The story that has endured, though, is Heinz's three-page account of the day of Musial's retirement, headlined, simply, "STAN MUSIAL'S LAST DAY." Musial died on Saturday at the age of 92, meaning that he had nearly five decades to damage the portrait that Heinz painted of him, more than half a lifetime to undercut, or at least complicate, his image, the way that so many of his contemporaries did through their drinking or womanizing or just their general haughtiness.

He never did, not once in those 50 years to come in which he remained in the spotlight, beloved in his red sportscoat in St. Louis, respected nationwide. There are probably not many people about whom you can read a piece written so long before their deaths and be sure that their lifelong essence has been captured, but really, almost all you need to know about Musial -- all that Musial would likely care for you to know -- is in Heinz's three pages.

Also in those pages is a model for all those who are, like him, blessed with great athletic gifts, as far as how to act, and how to be, when those gifts lead the public to want to shower you with attention and adoration. It is a particularly appropriate lesson this week, in which the ugliness that fills the heart of one of the sporting world's greatest heroes of the past two decades was laid bare, and in which another, more recent hero proved himself at the least unprepared to properly handle the public's desire to deify him.

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The central theme of Heinz's piece is that Musial is -- was -- a good man. We can tell that from the very beginning, in which, at 10:29 a.m., he walks out of his house to head to the ballpark for the final time. He is dressed plainly: "black suit, black shoes, a white shirt and a dark tie." He has already been to Mass that morning, with his family. His wife, Lillian, and the youngest of their four children, four-year-old Jean, follow him out the door. He asks Jean where she is going to be that day. "On the field," Jean says. "Good, honey," Musial says.

Heinz also reminds us just how unusually gifted Musial was. His talents were obvious to everyone from the moment he joined the Cardinals as a 20-year-old in 1941. "You fellas will win it," Boston Braves manager Casey Stengel said to a group of beat writers for the World Series-bound Dodgers after Stengel had gotten his first look at the rookie, "but those Cardinals got a young kid in leftfield you guys are gonna be writin' about for 20 years." Stengel was close. It turned out to be 22.

CORCORAN: Musial deserves to be remembered as one of game's greatest players

The brilliance of Heinz's piece, though, lies in its subtle examination of a third theme: that it is hard to be a good man when you are a star. Musial was both. Throughout the story, people approach him, wanting just a piece of him, and we get the sense that this is not something that happened only on the day of his retirement, but every day of his life. As he is driving to the ballpark in his Cadillac, a man calls out to him. "Hey Stan!" the man yells. "I hope you go out with a homer." "I'll settle for anything today," Musial replies, with a laugh.

He passes St. Louis University, and the friend with whom he is driving suggests that perhaps he'd now have time to take some classes there. "I can't do anything like that in public," Musial points out. When he gets to the stadium, fans swarm him, each desperate to make some connection. A television director wants him to make his final entrance into the clubhouse a second time, through a door that is better for the camera. Cameras encircle his locker as he is getting dressed, and the director tries to tell him how to do it -- slowly. "How come you got all these guys following you all the time?" a teammate asks. "I don't know," Musial replies, joking. "I can't figure it out."

By the end of the day, grown men have cried behind their sunglasses because they'd been close to him. And yet, Musial has never acted like anything other than simply who he is, and, for the rest of his life, he never would. It seemed easy for Musial, but then again even things that are very hard for most people seemed easy for him. "Hitting is like swimming," Heinz quotes Musial as saying. "Once you learn the stroke, you never forget it." Of course, there are several orders of magnitude more people who can swim a passable freestyle than can hit a 90-mile-per-hour fastball.

The life of a professional athlete is, quite obviously, very different than it was on that September afternoon 50 years ago. The glare of the klieg lights is brighter, the money is bigger, the circles of cameras around lockers are deeper, the temptations are more tempting. So it is even harder than it was back then for stars to be like Musial. Which was someone who was actually (not just professedly) humble; someone who actually did value his family (he was married to Lillian for 72 years, until her death in May of last year); someone who was above all else decent, despite how easy it would have been to be otherwise.

Sports would be less interesting were everyone like Stan Musial, were they devoid of their miscreants and thugs and cheaters and drunks and the rest. There will always be plenty of room for them. But we can also hope that there is room for more Musials, men who are treated as gods among us but have the strength of character to know that they are, simply, one of us. While other athletes might come close, the reality is that we have only ever had one athlete who was as great as he was, and as good as he was, too. After 92 years, he is gone now.

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