For baseball, September is the saddest month. The sun moves south and the shadows crawl quickly across the infields. A chill touches the air at night and hopes born in the spring slip away. Two teams will win but the rest must lose, so melancholy is multiplied 18 times. In September of 1963, however, melancholy was multiplied a thousand times. Stan Musial was making his last swing around the National League.
In the context of a world almost perpetually in crisis, the retirement of an athlete, no matter how great, can hardly be considered tragic, and tragedy has never been a part of Stan Musial's life. He has been one of the happy elements of the game, a friendly, charming boy who grew into a friendly, charming man, set apart principally by the fact that he might at any time hit .376.
In the case of Musial's retirement there was melancholy only because millions upon millions of baseball fans knew that the slender figure with the weird wiggling stance would never again pop up before their eyes or on their television screens, wearing the two red-birds on his chest and the big No. 6 on his back.
He would remain in baseball, true, a vice-president of the Cardinals. But no one was kidding himself. Musial in a Cardinal uniform, swinging a bat under a blue sky on a June afternoon, was one thing. Musial in a dark business suit and sober necktie, with a sharp pencil in his pocket and a squad roster in his hand, was something else. It would be like making Paul Bunyan vice-president of a lumber company.
October 6, 1963
As Musial made his way around the league for the last time, the old love affair between the ballplayer and the American people began to overflow even as it drew to a close. There were times when Stan was in danger of being drowned in treacle. He was heaped with gifts and honors and awards, in San Francisco and Houston and Los Angeles, in New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and Cincinnati. Moist eyes blinked from coast to coast. Then, just when the whole retirement threatened to sink beneath a sea of sentiment, two things occurred to help people remember that baseball is still baseball and that even Stan Musial still plays for the other side. In San Francisco, Alvin Dark refused to present a plaque ordered cast for Musial by the Giant owner, Horace Stoneham. "When the season is over," Dark said, "I'd go anywhere for Stan Musial. But I wouldn't give anything to anybody on another team during the season." And in Philadelphia, while Stan was walking to the dugout after a home-plate ceremony in his honor, a Philadelphia fan bellowed from the upper deck: "Musial, you bum, I hope you strike out every time you come up." Musial smiled. It was somehow comforting to know that Philadelphia fans would never change.
Musial's response to all the tribute was—to put it mildly—reserved. He rarely has much to say, least of all about himself. He is a perfectionist in his batting, in his relations with the public, in his style of dress. He is even a perfectionist in his manner of celebration. On September 10, the day he became a grandfather, the first time he came to bat in Busch Stadium against the Cubs he did not hit a single; he hit a two-run homer.
Musial's perfectionism carries over into his use of the language. He cannot use words with notable precision, and he refuses to fake. He will start a sentence, see it heading toward fuzziness—and stop. But sometimes he lapses into the articulate, even the eloquent. One day he was flying with the Cardinals from San Francisco to Philadelphia, where, unexpectedly, they were to launch their late-season challenge of the Dodgers. "I'd feel worse about this last swing around the league," he said, "if I were getting out of baseball completely, but I'm not. I'll still be in the game next year and many more, I hope. Still," he said wistfully, "the best thing about baseball is the actual thrill of playing it. That's the part I've cared about most. But I've liked other things too. I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say that I've liked the fact that so many people have made such a fuss over me. I've never quite got over a kind of wonder at the fact that they have made that fuss because I was simply doing what I loved doing more than anything in the world—playing ball. Sure, sometimes I get tired of the fuss, and when I do I can always go away and hide for a little while. But I've liked the fuss. I've loved it. I'll miss it.
"One of the reasons I don't mind retiring, I tell myself, is because I've been able to play about four more years than I had any right to expect. If I had retired four years ago—and the idea did cross my mind—I would have kept torturing myself wondering if I hadn't quit too soon. Now I know I haven't.
"The main reason I decided to retire was that I never wanted to be a liability to a ball club. I was listening to Willie Mays the other night recording for a documentary about his life and he said, 'When I get too old to play, I'll know it by my arm.' I couldn't understand that. I never worried about my arm. What you lose is your speed and most of all your concentration. Concentration is what has enabled me to change my mind at the last instant and not take a pitch I thought was going to be a ball but to swing at it instead when I realized it was going to be a strike. That ability has been leaving me in the last couple of years. Somebody told me that by retiring this season I was just barely going to miss breaking Ty Cobb's record for most games played—3,033, I believe it is. But tell me this: What's wrong with being second to Ty Cobb?"
Ten days later in Pittsburgh, when he was the last player left in the clubhouse before a game, Musial made another try at introspection. Asked how he was always able to give the appearance of being a completely serene and happy man despite all sorts of stresses and strains and provocations and demands, he said: "I suppose it's because I'm a 'you only live once' type and I figure I might as well enjoy everything that happens. It's also with me pretty much a matter of putting myself in somebody else's place. So what I try to do is never to hurt anybody else and figure if I don't, then I'm not likely to get hurt myself.
"Maybe one reason I'm so cheerful is that for more than 20 years I've had an unbeatable combination going for me—getting paid, often a lot, to do the thing I love the most. The love is important, but let's not pretend—so is the money. My old Cardinal coach, Mike Gonzalez, used to say to me, 'Musial, if I could hit like you, I'd play for nothing.' Not me. But I wouldn't play for the money without the fun."
The first two cities Musial visited after he announced his retirement plans were Los Angeles and Houston. In Los Angeles the Dodgers and the local baseball writers gave him the first two of many plaques. Musial said he was glad he was in" the restaurant business because the wall of a restaurant is a good place to hang a plaque. An organization called the Vikings, a convivial group, gave a lunch for him at his favorite Hollywood restaurant, Scandia. The Vikings gave Musial a Cardinal-red rocking chair and a vastly oversized old-fashioned glass on which was embossed, "Stan the Friend."
Milton Berle told his wife by telephone from New York to be sure to visit Chavez Ravine and give Musial a box of the $1.50-apiece cigars that Berle favors. Musial is too restless to savor a big cigar, to sit and smoke and contemplate. He chain-smokes small cigars, only slightly larger than cigarettes. Consequently, Berle's cigars kept appearing in different mouths: in San Francisco, for instance, in that of Chub Feeney, vice-president of the Giants; of Garry Schumacher, the team's public-relations director; and of Jim Toomey, who has the same job for the Cards.
What Musial cannot use he likes to give away. As his longtime friend and roommate, Red Schoendienst, put it: "Musial is the most generous man I have ever known—to everybody but the pitchers. He is not only generous to people who need generosity; he's just as generous to those who don't."
By the time the Cardinals went to San Francisco on August 26 Musial's progress from city to city had taken on all the aspects of a farewell tour. San Francisco's mayor, George Christopher, proclaimed Musial honorary mayor and asked him to come by his office to pick up his commission.
Musial is a household word in America but not a household face. He often goes unrecognized. At a traffic stop on the way to Christopher's office the driver of the cab in which Musial was riding turned, looked him squarely in the eye and told him that if he wanted to see a ball game the Giants and Cardinals were playing that night. Musial was shown into Mayor Christopher's large and deep-carpeted office. Christopher has a public face, the kind to carve on a mountain. He is a large man, with waves of gray hair breaking over a massive head. He had a baseball he wanted autographed—of course. When Musial used his right hand the mayor said he thought Musial was left-handed.
"When I was a kid," Musial replied, "I started to write the way I batted—left-handed. But in those days they had a way of turning left-handed writers into right-handed ones. They rapped your knuckles with a ruler. With me, it worked." Musial told the mayor he should order the Giants to lose. Christopher told Musial that if he got any hits the honorary mayor would be removed from office. He also suggested that Musial come to California and enter politics. "Your politics are too tough out here," Stan said. Musial went hitless against the Giants. He hit two balls hard, but Mays's long, easy strides enabled him to run them both down.
After the game some 2,000 fans pressed against the wired-off runway through which both Giant and visiting players emerge from their clubhouses. Mays had hit his 400th homer that night and when he appeared there were cheers and demands for his autograph. But when Willie departed no one else did. They all stayed, waiting for Musial. When he finally emerged, moving with his characteristic short, brisk strides, he looked to neither side but headed straight into the Cardinal bus, to a concert of cries of disappointment. But, once seated in the bus, he did what he always does and rolled down his window and started signing balls and programs thrust toward him. He did this for some 10 minutes. When the bus started down Cardiac Hill outside the ball park, youngsters clung monkey fashion to the outside. With an affability that would cause shudders in the National Safety Council, Musial scrawled his name on the assorted blank spaces offered to him until the last of the small fry dropped off.
Back at the Palace Hotel, Musial worked his way through the usual swarm of autograph hunters awaiting the Cardinal bus. Then he and Schoendienst headed for the shrouded dimness of the Tudor Room in one corner of the hotel. Since they first became teammates in 1946, Musial and Schoendienst have been close friends off the field. On the road, they keep to themselves. "Both Red and I have always taken the attitude that we came to a city to play ball," Musial said. "We haven't made any particularly close attachments on the road. But we have certain places we like to go and certain things we like to eat in most of these places. I like the sole amandine at Maxim's, a French restaurant in Houston. In Los Angeles at Scandia there isn't anything on the menu I don't like. I usually eat what Kenneth Hansen tells me to eat. Here in San Francisco there are so many great restaurants, but I guess my two favorites are Doros and the Blue Fox. I ate dinner at the Blue Fox last night and had my favorite thing there—pheasant baked in clay. I've never found it anywhere else. In Philadelphia I almost always eat at the Old Original Bookbinders. You can't beat the steamed clams and lobsters. In New York there are a lot of places to eat but I usually make it to either Shor's or the Pen and Pencil—usually have a steak. When we're in Pittsburgh I often go home to see my mother in Donora. The rest of the time I like to eat at the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. In Cincinnati my favorites are the Maisonette and Jack and Klu's—that's Ted Kluszewski's place. In Chicago I like the steaks at the Singapore. In Milwaukee, Red and I usually eat lamb or beef shanks with sauerkraut at Karl Ratzsch's. I don't really like German cooking too much but it's the thing to eat in Milwaukee. This room here is also one of my favorites—especially when Red Nichols and his band are playing here. I hoped they'd be here this trip. Red Nichols always comes over and we talk."
It is hard work being a hero, but Musial is an obliging man. To almost every demand or request, he has a stock answer. He will pause for a moment, appear to debate with himself and then reply, "Why not?" On a Wednesday afternoon in Candlestick Park he said "Why not?" to a request from Charles Einstein to appear on a television documentary he was making on Willie Mays. He said "Why not?" to Jack Buck, one of the Cardinal broadcasters, who was preparing a documentary on Branch Rickey. He said "Why not?" to a persistent man named Mervyn Goodman, with the improbable title of chairman of the baseball committee of the San Francisco Press and Union League club. Musial said "Why not?" to a stranger in a box seat who asked him to come over and pose for a photograph with his two daughters because "It's their birthday," although patently they were not twins.
And one more plaque
Later, Musial was given still another plaque. It was presented at home plate by the old major league pitcher, Walter (Duster) Mails, now with the Giants' front office. As plaque English goes, it was not bad: "Batting champion, distinguished American, admired friend. All baseball has been enriched by his long association with the game. In grateful acknowledgment this plaque is presented by the San Francisco Giants."
As Mails finished, a few in the stands stood, looked around self-consciously and almost sat down. But before they could, a few others joined them, then a few more, and suddenly all of the 24,000 in the park were on their feet waving and shouting for the slender, capless and windblown figure at home plate, where the bright California sunshine picked up the red lettering and insignia on the front of his gray uniform.
Billy O'Dell, a left-hander, beat the Cardinals that afternoon and Musial did not play. But as he headed across the field at the end of the game, by chance he encountered the entire Giant bullpen contingent at home plate. All of them stopped and shook his hand.
Musial and Schoendienst did not ride the bus back to the hotel. Ever since Musial became a superstar it has been an annual custom for him and Schoendienst to have dinner and a drink as guests of Horace Stoneham during the last series the Cards play with the Giants. So they joined Stoneham and drove to his apartment.
"Usually," recalled Musial, "he has me early in the final series, and for some reason the next day I seem to get about four or five hits. I figured I'd be playing in Tuesday night's game, so I called Mr. Stoneham Monday and suggested we have dinner that night. He told me, 'No, you come out on Wednesday.' I said, 'But, Horace, we don't play here any more after that.' 'I know,' he told me. I guess he remembered the time in New York when he took me to dinner the night before a doubleheader. The next day I hit five home runs in the two games."
When the Cardinals arrived at the Philadelphia airport late on the afternoon of August 25, a chauffeur in black livery was waiting for Musial, put at his service by John Taxin, proprietor of the Old Original Bookbinders (there are two restaurants in Philadelphia bearing the Bookbinder name). Musial sent his thanks to Taxin but told the chauffeur he'd ride the bus to the Warwick Hotel along with the rest of the players. That night, with Schoendienst, he went for dinner to Bookbinders. As he did twice more while in Philadelphia, Musial ordered steamed clams and a pound-and-a-half chicken lobster.
"This," said Taxin, "is the last time you'll have to confine yourself to a little lobster like that. No more training rules for you after this year. Next year I'll step you up to a three-pounder and if you can't come here to get it, I'll send it to you wherever you are."
Before Friday night's game with the Phillies, Umpire Ken Burkhart dropped into the Cardinal dressing room to wish Musial well. Later, in the corridor outside, Burkhart said: "In seven years he has never even turned his head to look at me when I've been behind the plate. I've never known him to kick to anyone on a ball or strikecall. He makes umpiring easy. If all ballplayers were Stan Musials, anybody in the United States could be a major league umpire."
Around noon on August 31, as Musial, halfway into his uniform, sat smoking one of his cigarillos and reading a paper, Dizzy Dean came by. "Stan, podner," said Dean, "how about going on with me for a pregame show tomorrow?"
"Why not?" said Musial.
Richie Ashburn, now a Philadelphia broadcaster, walked up to discuss a TV interview scheduled to go on in five minutes. It turned out that through a slipup nobody had bothered to tell Musial about it.
"Why not?" said Stan. "Let's get out there and go to work."
Musial played his 3,000th major league game that day when he pinch-hit in the 10th inning with two out, the score tied and Curt Flood on first. The crowd stood and screamed for a hit but Musial fouled out.
Before Sunday's game Toomey came to Musial in the clubhouse and told him that John Quinn, general manager of the Phillies, wanted to speak to him but didn't want to invade a visiting dressing room. Musial went to the door and Quinn shook his hand. "I've enjoyed seeing you play these many years," Quinn said. "I just want to wish you the best. You are one of the great gentlemen in the history of the game."
Mrs. Musial was in her usual box behind the visitors' dugout for all three of her son's last games in Pittsburgh. Since he joined the Cards in 1941 she has missed seeing him play in Pittsburgh only twice. "I missed those two," Mrs. Musial recalled before Saturday afternoon's game, "after I got sick at the ball park and they had to carry me away to the hospital. They took out my gall bladder, but I left the hospital in a week and was back at the park the next time Stan came to town."
In a nearby box sat Dr. Michael Duda, Musial's old high school baseball coach. Dr. Duda is now president of California (Pa.) State College. "For me he was a pitcher," Dr. Duda reminisced, "but he hit so well I played him in the outfield when he wasn't pitching. The trouble with him as a schoolboy pitcher was that we couldn't find anyone who could catch him. He might strike out 18 men but half of them would get to first on dropped third strikes."
Before the game a beauty queen from Cumberland, Md. gave Musial a key to that city. The city of Pittsburgh gave him a plaque proclaiming it to be Stan Musial Weekend. There were more certificates and plaques from the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce and the American Ethnic Groups. Mrs. Musial, in pink cotton, stood at Stan's side by home plate, clutching in one hand a new baseball, as if the feel of it reassured her that her connection with the game would remain unbroken. A mail truck rolled up and deposited 16 sacks of mail, sent to Musial as a result of a promotion stunt by KDKA, the radio station that broadcasts Pirate games. Among the letters was one from a small boy saying to Musial, "I hope things work out well for you."
Musial, who hit his first major league homer in Forbes Field in September 1941, struck out, grounded out and flied out in September 1963.
In Cincinnati the night of September 20 it was not so much the years as the days that finally caught up with Musial. He had played in 22 of the Cardinals' last 24 games, a far more demanding playing schedule than he had followed most of the year. The Cards lost that night to the Reds 1 to 0 and it suddenly struck Musial that a brave effort had finally come to nothing. Even after their three losses to the Dodgers the Cardinals had maintained a bold front and some wild hopes, based mostly on mathematics. But the shutout at the hands of the Reds ended all Cardinal pennant chances. The rest of the players knew it—and Musial knew it.
Musial played the entire game and afterward he sat almost motionless for 20 minutes in front of his locker, half out of his uniform, sipping a paper cup of beer. He was silent and he was exhausted. There is no gray in Musial's hair at 42, but that night there was gray in his face, and lines of weariness.
"I never saw a team make a better effort than this one did over the last three weeks," he finally said. "Tonight I'm tired and I feel it, but I don't feel as let down as I would if I were younger. You don't get much keyed up over anything at my age. When we left San Francisco late in August I wasn't even thinking about a pennant. We were fighting to stay out of fifth place. Then, as we started to win, I began to let myself think we had a chance, but I don't think I ever got too excited. I'm too old for that. I was glad to be playing and I just tried to do my job. I got a kick out of hitting that home run off Podres in the first game of the Dodger series but not as big a kick as I would have got 15 years ago. We had a real good shot at the Dodgers at certain points in each of the three games. A hit or two at the right place would have won each game. But we didn't get them and that's that."
In the lobby of the Netherland Hilton the next afternoon Musial encountered a small band of youngsters who had been roaming the lobby and corridors of the hotel since early morning in search of him. He began to sign his name for them rapidly, and then, without warning, an astounding event took place: Musial finally ran out of patience. A tousled boy handed him a pad. "Sign eight times on eight different sheets," he ordered. "Why not?" said Musial.
"And now," said the boy, "one more thing. I want you to come across the street with me and walk down to the end of the block and say hello to my mother and father. They're waiting in the car for me."
"No," said Musial.
The next afternoon 25,706 turned out to see him play his final game in Cincinnati. In high spirits once again he spontaneously struck up a dialogue with Joe Garagiola, the broadcaster and an old Cardinal teammate, burlesquing those ballplayers who bemoan the passing of the good old days.
"Then," shouted Musial in mock bitterness, "we didn't have any radio or any television or any writers following us around. We just played ball."
"That's right," agreed Garagiola. "We didn't have any bats, we just played ball."
"We didn't have ceremonies at home plate," said Musial. "We just played ball and we hit .370. Kids today have it too easy. We just played ball."
"No batting helmets either," snarled Garagiola. "We just let our hair grow long and we just played ball."
Ceremonies for Musial at home plate put an end to this routine. But before that, Musial walked across the field, entered the stands and climbed several rows to shake hands with Maurice Stokes, the former Cincinnati Royals basketball star, long a victim of a disabling illness.
Exhaustion was nibbling at Musial. He played seven innings against the Cubs in a losing effort that mathematically eliminated the Cardinals from the pennant race on September 24. After singling in the seventh inning he left the game for a pinch runner and retired to the clubhouse. There he piled towels on an equipment trunk, pillowed his head on them and dozed, occasionally rousing himself to listen to a radio broadcast of the game.
After the game he went with Ernie Banks on a long drive through late-afternoon traffic jams to the Better Boys Foundation on South Pulaski Road. Banks had telephoned Musial in Cincinnati asking him to make the appearance at the foundation's clubrooms, situated in the middle of a Negro district. The visit turned into a shambles. For nearly an hour television technicians from two networks fiddled with their equipment. It proved impossible to quiet the children sufficiently to enable Banks and Musial to be heard. By the time he returned to the hotel Musial was too tired to do more than nap for an hour. But then he went to a dinner party at the Club Boyar on East Delaware, one of his favorite Chicago eating places. It was a long and convivial evening. Musial relaxed happily and sang in an improvised quartet when he was not pacing the length of the table to see that everyone was having a good time.
Next day before the game Musial visited in the clubhouse with Erv Dusak, former major-leaguer and now an insurance salesman, who 22 years before, almost to the day, had been called up by the Cardinals, along with Musial, from Rochester. Dusak was considered the more promising prospect of the two. Both men looked pensively at a group picture of the 1942 Cardinals: Mort and Walker Cooper, Terry Moore, Enos Slaughter, Marty Marion, Whitey Kurowski, Howie Pollet, Johnny Beazley.
"What a gang that was," said Musial.
Mayor Richard Daley sent his official car to pick up Musial at Wrigley Field after the game. With a motor escort clearing the way, Musial rode quickly to City Hall. There, in Daley's office, packed with aldermen and city officials, the mayor gave Musial a thick bronze medal, proclaiming him an honorary citizen of Chicago. With it went a Chicago city flag and a certificate of merit. Musial gave Daley a signed baseball and was rushed back to Wrigley Field, where a huge spray of flowers, sent to him by a Polish group, stood incongruously in front of his locker. The flowers went with Musial to St. Louis by bus and chartered Cardinal airplane.
Black clouds and threatening rain were hanging over St. Louis when Musial got up at 7:45 on the last day of his playing career. By the time he had been to Mass at nearby St. Raphael's, finished breakfast and climbed into his blue Cadillac at 10:30 for the drive to Busch Stadium, the skies were clear.
When Musial entered the Cardinal locker room 20 minutes later it was jammed with writers, photographers, TV cameramen. Stan grinned and shook his head. "I've just changed my mind," he said. "I'm not retiring." Manager Johnny Keane walked by. "Hello, John," said Musial. "Am I playing today?"
Musial walked onto the field, into the batting cage, drove two balls into the right-field stands and one against the screen. Returning to the clubhouse, he rested until 1:30. Then, walking briskly along the ramp that leads to the field, he stepped into the sunlight to face a crowd of 27,576 in the stands and a gathering of dignitaries in front of the pitcher's mound that included Ford Frick, Warren Giles, Joe Cronin, Governor John Dalton of Missouri, St. Louis Mayor Raymond Tucker, Cardinal Owner Gussie Busch, Sid Keener of the Baseball Hall of Fame, assorted local officials and the Musial family: wife Lillian, son Dick, daughters Geraldine, Janet and Jeanne. Except for the family, everyone made a speech. So did Stan.
"As long as I live," he said, "this will be the day I'll remember most.... If my baseball career has taught me anything it is this: the opportunity America offers any young man who wants to get to the top of his chosen career. I want to thank God for giving me the talents I have had and the good health so that the 22 years of baseball have been possible." The crowd shrieked itself hoarse.
When Musial came to bat in the first inning, it was exactly 2:25. He took the first pitch by Cincinnati's Jim Maloney and trotted over to give the ball to Sid Keener. "I'll put it in the Hall of Fame," Keener said. Musial then struck out.
In the fourth, Stan singled to center field. In the sixth inning, with Curt Flood on second and the score tied 0-0, Musial singled sharply to right, driving in Flood. Young Gary Kolb went in to run for him, and Musial trotted off the field for the last time. It was 3:47. He had ended his career as he had begun it in St. Louis in 1941, with two hits.
In the clubhouse he pulled off his shirt and hung it up. Then he patted the No. 6 and the name MUSIAL lettered across the back. "Pal," he said, "you're all right. If I do say so myself."