"Here stands baseball's perfect warrior. Here stands baseball's perfect knight." - Ford Frick - Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports
Stan Musial was so beloved not because he was the perfect Cardinal, but because he invented the Cardinals.
Every St. Louis Cardinals fan under the age of 47 has never been inside the stadium where Stan Musial played baseball. The first time I saw him he was a giant, slightly ridiculous Soviet-realist statue at the front of Busch Stadium with weirdly broad shoulders.
He was the guy whose name people mentioned when I asked, half-aware of baseball, whether this Ozzie Smith guy was the best Cardinal ever or not.
But you can't be a Cardinals fan and remain ignorant of Stan Musial for long. It's not like any one person has to sit you down and tell you about his exploits; you'll just know, eventually. It's floating around you—Brooklyn seeing That Man again, a superstar going 3000 games without getting thrown out of one, an obvious Hall of Famer, his reputation secure, hustling and competing until he was 42. An old man in a red blazer playing the harmonica and telling modest jokes about his knees.
I don't think that'll change, just like I don't think anyone will make a dent in his collection of team records. So long as we think and talk about the Cardinals as some ideal, we're really thinking and talking about Stan Musial—Stan The Man, Stan the good guy.
It's hard to say anything about Stan Musial, who died Saturday at 92, in part because everyone's said something about him. St. Louis Cardinals fans and writers have been lucky enough to be in the Stan Musial business full-time for something like 70 years. We've talked about—tried awkwardly to imitate—his coiled swing; we've recounted his five-homer doubleheader and his postseason heroics; we've watched him play the harmonica and wave from a golf cart.
We've made deep dives into his stats and come up with weird tributes to his consistency and his determination—the 1815 home and road hits, the 20-triple seasons, the stunning consistency through his late 30s.
But it's also hard to say anything about Stan Musial because there wasn't much, after he was through with it, left to say. I think that's why he was so anonymous, nationally, for so long—there was no need for golden-age myth-making, the full DiMaggio treatment, so nobody bothered. He had the numbers—all those doubles and triples, the 20 years of stinging base hits—to tell us about how he played, and his decades as St. Louis's quiet baseball ambassador to tell us about who he was.
He wasn't superhuman, and couldn't be contorted into superhumanity by eager fans or writers; he just lived his exceptionally long life as we wish sometimes we could, and always hope we might. So all of us—usually so complicit, so necessary in building up legends—were left without anything to do; he'd taken care of it.
He was just the Cardinal; our preferences as a fanbase are just him. Slashing line drives and keeping your head down; playing fundamentally perfect baseball and not making a fuss about it; sticking around forever in the same uniform, which happens to look a lot like the one Stan Musial wore, and looking like you care when Busch Stadium erupts for you.
That nobody—not even Albert Pujols—is quite capable of being Stan Musial doesn't stop us. It's not necessary for everybody to hit 700 doubles or 400 home runs, or win seven batting titles—it's just that the best Cardinals, the ones we want so badly to watch in birds-on-the-bat jerseys and red blazers for the next 50 years, fit into the same mold, or are forced in.
Which can get claustrophobic. Everything about being a Cardinals fan can feel a little rehearsed, eventually. There's an archetype—cheering for sacrifice bunts, radiating Midwest-niceness, caring not only about winning but winning the right way. Even when you're a lapsed Best-Fan-in-Baseball, you're left with that half-formed idea of pure and decent baseball. ("Like it 'Oughta Be," is what my VHS tape of 1996 highlights insists.)
It gets exhausting, sometimes, trying to pretend the trappings of Cardinals fandom are always important, and trying to care about every hard-charging under-talented Bo Hart that comes along. I like the clydesdales well enough, but I don't drink; what am I getting out of trying so hard to appreciate them?
Stan Musial is the antidote. The idea of Stan Musial lets me enjoy baseball like a kid does—not dissecting the value of a play, or the idea of hero worship, just watching athletes play heroically. (When you're a kid, and you have the sneaking suspicion you will eventually be a star baseball player, it's the most natural thing there is to enjoy star baseball players simply for what you're watching them do.)
He renews all the cliches, when I'm just about ready to stop caring, because he didn't really partake of them. He played hard, but it had nothing to do with a dirty uniform, and he seemed humble, but it had nothing to do with obsequious post-game interviews. And he was good. His hustle and humility and gawky grace were the means to a thousand extra-base hits, not a more aesthetically pleasing groundout.
For all of us who never saw him play he was still, somehow, a physical link to the Cardinals who didn't know they were the Cardinals-—who didn't labor under or toward that image of purity and decency but just labored, and labored until they built that image for all of us.
I'm not sure those Cardinals ever existed as a unit. Lots of them must have been mercenaries, or jackasses, or whatever; all of them must have been men, and baseball players, like the baseball players on the Cardinals' 40-man roster right now. But Stan Musial existed, and he showed up—in the flesh and in story after story—as proof there could be something worth keeping in there, buried among all our fanbase tics.
That's why all of us—even all of us who never saw Sportsman's Park larger than the diorama inside the bowling museum—knew him so well, and needed to. Why do we value all these things that don't make a baseball team any better? Why do we pretend an athlete's gait is a window on the soul? Why do we care, in St. Louis, about these ideals we can't quite name, that nobody can really live up to?
It's Stan Musial—it was, and it will continue to be, Stan Musial. Before he was a statue, and a harmonica-playing reminder of the things we've chosen as a fanbase to admire as pure and decent, he was just a guy. What made him worthy of the statue and all the standing ovations was that afterward—after 50 years of unceasing city-wide living-legend treatment—he was still just a guy.