For Cardinals fans of the past 15 years, the greatest player they’ve ever witnessed wearing the birds-on-a-bat jersey obviously is Albert Pujols. For fans such as me who grew up watching Whitey Herzog‘s runnin’ Redbirds, it was Ozzie Smith. A generation before that, it was Bob Gibson or Lou Brock.
But the greatest St. Louis Cardinal of all time undoubtedly was Stan “The Man” Musial, who passed away Saturday at the age of 92.
Musial was the definition of what it means to be a Cardinal, the epitome of striving for success in that classic Midwestern manner. For the Simons family, our Cardinals fandom goes back at least to the beginning of Musial’s career, as it and my father’s early life matched up quite nicely.
Dad was born in the spring of 1940, and the next season Musial made his major league debut. At that time, no one knew what to expect from either of them, my dad because he was just learning to walk, Musial because he was fresh-faced, 20-year-old kid with all of 239 plate appearances in Double-A.
By the time my father turned nine years old, “The Man” had earned three Most Valuable Player awards and a trio of batting titles. While Musial would win another four batting championships, he could muster “only” four more second-place finishes among his 18 seasons of receiving MVP votes.
Dad was too young to appreciate the three World Series titles the Cardinals brought home by the time he’d started first grade, but he had another 17 seasons to follow the greatness of Musial. Consistently, relentlessly, Musial portrayed excellence year after year, batting well over .300, walking a bunch, striking out very little, and clobbering plenty of pitches over the walls of Sportsman’s Park.
When Musial’s career was complete, he had compiled a .331/.417/.559 BA/OBP/SLG line with 3,630 hits (an NL record at the time), 475 homers, 1,951 RBI, 1,949 runs scored and 24 All-Star Game appearances (thanks to a stretch of seasons with two games a year). His strikeout-to-walk numbers were an astounding 696-to-1,599, his OPS was 976 (13th best all-time), and his OPS+ stood at 159 (15th best all-time).
When Musial’s career was complete, my dad’s childhood had officially ended, as he married my mom in the summer of 1963, Musial’s final campaign. I don’t think she knew it at the time, but my mom was being indoctrinated into the Simons family Cardinals fan club. Lucky her.
One of the greatest attributes of Musial’s career was his balance, his consistently. See those RBI and runs scored totals up above—1,951 and 1,949, respectively? Put those on a scale, and it will hardly sway one way or another. And then there’s his home and away hit totals of exactly 1,815 each. Recalling those near-perfect pairings reminded me again of my parents, matched together so well that they’ll be celebrating 50 years of marriage this summer.
It might seem odd that a player’s passing immediately brings to my mind thoughts of my family, but the Cardinals are ingrained in us, part of the ebb and flow of our everyday lives. A large majority of the conversations my dad and I have touch on the Redbirds at least briefly. I was granted full membership in the club before I was even born, and I’m forever grateful for it.
My family has loved the Cardinals for over seven decades, and Stan Musial was the ideal representation of a Cardinals player all that time. There is no one to take his place, but we all have the memories to cherish.
I called home last night to ask my dad if he ever saw Musial play in person, but he was asleep, so I’ll have to check again today. I did speak to my mom, and she told me they did see Musial in spring training a few years ago, and he was ambling around the field, chatting with players and waving to the fans. Another great memory, another delighted fan.
The enduring images of Stan Musial are of him rapping a solid hit, playing his harmonica, thanking the fans. Whatever mental picture you have when Stan “The Man” Musial comes to mind, it’s almost certainly a pleasant one.
For “baseball’s perfect warrior … baseball’s perfect knight,” his enduring legacy will be one of consistently bringing unwavering commitment to the field and joy to the fans, day after day after day. That’s true for my parents, many other family members, and millions of Cardinals fans everywhere.
Thanks for the memories, Stan Musial. You are, and always will be, “The Man.”