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Stan Musial at 100: When the man becomes the myth

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As we cross the 100th anniversary of his birth, Stan the Man has become more myth than man.

When I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, I checked out a copy of The Baseball Address list, which happened to be published by a guy in my hometown whose son I played Little League with.

I found the listing for Stanley Frank Musial, wrote a letter about how I was a big fan and would appreciate an autograph, and put it in the mail. A month or two later, an envelope arrived. Inside was an autograph on a 3x5 card and the real treasure: A photo on which he’d written “To Ben, a great fan, Stan Musial.”

Through the magic of The United States Postal Service, I had connected with the man himself.

Despite our brief moment as pen pals, and seeing him in person a time or two at something like an Opening Day, for me, Musial was always more of a myth than a man. He retired when my father was only nine years old. He was more the looming statue as we entered Old Busch than he was a real player who scooped ground balls and fouled off 0-2 pitches.

Dan Moore called that statue “Soviet-realist” in his excellent memorial piece when Musial died in 2013. However you describe it, it’s not a great likeness of Musial the man. The shoulders are impossibly broad, leaving his bat just a twig beside his enormous upper body. His iconic, corkscrew stance is suggested, but not quite reflected.

But for any Cardinal fan under 60, that bronze icon is our primary source for Musial the player. We meet there before games, we take our children there and we pay our respects. It’s not so much history as religion. Stan the Man has ascended to Mount Olympus.

But even in my relatively short lifetime, which comes at the tail end of his, and even in the seven years since his death, I can see Musial the man transcend further and further into Musial the myth.

In Derrick Goold’s great profile of longtime scout Mike Roberts just this week, there is of course a Musial story. As a young minor leaguer, Roberts was asked in spring training to throw BP to the then 41-year-old legend. When Roberts bounced his first few pitches, Musial reassured him “That’s okay, Lefty. We’re all right.”

It’s the quintessential Stan Musial story - a God among men who still treated everyone with grace and humility.

In George Vescey’s Stan Musial: An American Life, there is a story of another Cardinal farmhand - who got only a brief call-up to the majors - being taken home by Stan himself to enjoy Christmas dinner with the family. The story is a complete fabrication. And yet, there it is, in print, in one of the most-cited Musial biographies.

That story survives because it feels true to Musial the myth. This week, as we cross the milestone of 100-years since his birth, Stan the Man is more myth than man.

We’ll always have the stats - and thank God for that. For those of us who really know how to absorb a stat line, we can close our eyes and imagine any player of a bygone era as they were on the field. And few will ever spark the imagination as much as Stan Musial.

But beyond the stats, Stan the Man will live on as a good and useful myth for Cardinal parents to tell their Cardinal children, and on down the line. That person memorialized in the giant statue was not only The Greatest Cardinal of All-Time, he was a good and honest and polite person, and you should be too.