LLOYD GRAY: A hero of a different time

By Lloyd Gray

If you are a baseball fan of a certain age, you know the name Stan Musial. If you are a baseball fan of any age, you should.
And if you have forgotten, or if you never knew, what a sports superstar who is more about loyalty to his team, his fans and his community than to his own personal aggrandizement looks like, you need to study the life and times of Stan The Man.
He was my first hero. Fifty-plus years after I decided to look up to him, until his death at age 92 last week, there had been absolutely nothing to regret about the emotional investment I made in him at age 8.
Here’s a story, one I’m sure thousands of others share.
My father took me to St. Louis to see the Cardinals play several times when I was a boy. The first year, 1962, Musial was in his next-to-last season. We saw an afternoon game and went to his restaurant that night.
As we had hoped, he was there, looking dapper in a suit and tie, circulating among the tables and greeting customers. When he got to our table, he looked at me and said, “Hi ya, kid, what’s your name?”
To this day I still have the 8×10 black-and-white glossy photo with the inscription, “To Lloyd, best wishes, Stan Musial.” It didn’t cost us a dime beyond the price of dinner.
It’s hard to imagine a similar scene involving a star athlete today. That autograph would be much too valuable to give away – and the time spent making small talk with kids and adults, well, most today would find that beneath them, a waste of time.
There are exceptions, of course, and even Stan Musial later in his life sold his autograph. But these are different times, a different culture, and our athletes as a rule have a greatly expanded sense of self-importance and entitlement.
Stan Musial was not a complicated man. He grew up in a mill town, worked hard at what he did and became one of the greatest hitters of all time. He had fun while doing it and was universally respected as a gentleman of impeccable sportsmanship who respected both his opponents and the game and would never show either up.
Try to imagine this today: In the late 1950s, Musial became the first baseball player to make $100,000 a year. The year after he signed that contract, he had the worst season of his career. He then asked that his salary be cut to $75,000 the next year, and it was. He had qualms about taking the money if he weren’t performing up to expectations.
That would be heresy today, and not just in sports. Who among us who had a bad year would ask for a pay cut?
There were other qualities to admire about Musial. In the early days of baseball integration, he was among the few stars of the game who went out of his way to make the new black players in the game feel welcome. He stayed with the same team his entire career – in those days players really had no choice – but long after he retired he continued to embrace his adopted city, the Cardinals organization and the fans throughout the Midwest and South who idolized him, and he remained in that mutual embrace all the days of his life.
“Whaddya say,” was his favorite greeting, and playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on the harmonica his trademark well into his 80s. He was a cheerful man, upbeat, always lifting spirits wherever he went.
Uncomplicated, unpretentious, loyal, real. Stan Musial was a hero who didn’t disappoint.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.