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DUST OF THE FIELDS BEHIND US
Stanley Frank Musial (A Paean)
By Glen Singer
Stan Musial was always there. He played for the Cardinals before I was born and retired when I was a junior in college. His playing career spanned my boyhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. As a child in St. Louis, I had a visual image of Stan before I ever laid eyes on him. By some process of osmosis, every kid on every playground knew how to imitate his famous stance and swing: feet close together, bat corkscrewed above the shoulder, a twitch of the hips, and that smooth, level follow-through that seemed to guarantee a rising line drive. We tried it Stan's left-handed way and experimented with a right-handed reversal. Before we really understood anything more than the barest essentials of the game, each and every one of us clamored to be the schoolyard Musial. He was it: the sum and the total of baseball.
It was not only to children that Stan personified the game at a time and in a place where baseball was treated with near-religious reverence. He was a bright presence whose achievement and character defined not only the team but the entire city. Even my father, a German immigrant who cared not a whit for baseball, and my American mother, who never was interested enough to attend a game, saw him as larger than life. To them, he was a paradigm of the working-class man who, through labor and perseverance, achieved the fame and wealth that such qualities were supposed to insure in melting pot America. They knew about his Polish immigrant origins, his baseball excellence, his successful Southside restaurant, his lucrative investments, and his genuine humility in the bright lights of celebrity. They neither envied nor begrudged him his success and wealth. My first sight of Stan was not at the ballpark, but on the narrow Express Highway when he was returning home from a Sunday afternoon game. Cars were weaving in and out, with hands waving from the windows. We passed a dark Cadillac and my father pointed to the driver. There he is: Stan the Man.
When he was young, some sportswriter dubbed him the Donora Greyhound, celebrating both the intensity and speed of his long stride and his origins in a smoky mill town south of Pittsburgh. When I heard this passČ nickname as an adolescent, it sounded contrived and slightly demeaning, as did much of the florid diction of the writers of that era, but I never saw Stan Musial in this sleek, youthful incarnation. That hokey moniker, however, made it clear that I had missed something.
In the mid-1940s he was rechristened Stan the Man, a more perceptive and respectable epithet, which defined Stan's stature and heralded his greatness. It had its origin in Brooklyn among the fans that he repeatedly awed with flurries of extra-base hits off the walls of Ebbets Field. During this period, one that I learned by rote in later years, Stan was at the height of his prowess. Between 1943 and 1952, he won six National League batting titles, led the league in hits on five occasions, was tops in slugging percentage six times, and captured the NL Most Valuable Player Award three times. In 1948, he hit .376 and fell a rained-out homer short of a Triple Crown. In his first four full seasons, the Cardinals won four National League pennants and three World Series. This was Stan's "golden age," when the Cardinals first fielded a dynasty and then struggled bitterly against the usurpers: the despised Dodgers.
I first saw Stan on the diamond in the early fifties during school trips and Cub Scout excursions that took us to Sportsman's Park. At the time, I was too caught up in the general aura and euphoric excitement of the moment. I remember being giddy with cheers amidst the shrill chorus that echoed around me when he came to the plate, but I didn't learn anything about him as a player. I did, however, discover his grace and kindness as a human being when after the games he would emerge from the clubhouse in an immaculate Palm Beach suit and patiently sign autographs for child after child. He never seemed perturbed or put-upon by the clamor, and he worked patiently until the anxious throng had dwindled to nothing. Somewhere among my possessions I still have the three scorecards that he signed for me in those long ago days.
I remained blind and ignorant for several more years. Musial continued to be a mythical character, a demigod who graced our city and walked among us. Finally, in junior high school, I saw the light. Baseball became a passion. I was suddenly an avid listener to Cardinals radio broadcasts. About this same time, a television mysteriously appeared in our living room, and I became mobile enough to attend ball games on my own. It was a whole different game, a metamorphosis. I listened greedily. I watched the TV screen avidly. I went to the ballpark every chance that I could get. I kept score. I studied the boxes. I would stand in the drug store and read the Sporting News from cover to cover.
To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Fall 2006 issue.
GLEN SINGER resides in Wisconsin, where he works in a maximum-security prison.
He regularly listens to baseball games on the radio, that ubiquitous summer
talk show which has entertained him for the past fifty years and provided him
with a sense of continuity, nourished his imagination, and become an integral
part of his personal literature.
© 2006 Glen Singer
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