Collier: Musial a gem on, off field

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The people who were nice enough to talk with me on this topic the past several months demonstrated in fresh and sincere and often poignant ways one of baseball's most enduring axioms, specifically that you can't say enough about Stan Musial.

All of them told me a baseball story, then a story about the man. All of them then told me another baseball story, and then two or three stories about the man, and the momentum persisted.

Stan "The Man" Musial died Saturday in Missouri, his loss to baseball defying quantification, just like his loss to the foundation of threatened American values like civility, dignity, decency and, yeah, I could go on.

"Here's what kind of man he was," said Dick Groat, the former Pirates great who played with Musial for a time with the Cardinals. "In '63 we were still playing at Sporstman's Park in St. Louis. There was a lounge above the locker room with a window that you could see into the parking lot. I'll never forget this. There must have been a jillion kids in that parking lot after the game. Must have been a Saturday. It was baking in St. Louis that day. Stan walked out, called the kids over to his car. Sat in his car, turned the air conditioning on, and signed autographs for every last one of those kids."

Groat sat in the restaurant at his golf course in Westmoreland County, where it felt almost impolite to ask a gentleman who might be the best athlete to come out of Western Pennsylvania about some other athlete who'd come out of Western Pennsylvania.

But he couldn't say enough about Stan Musial.

"He's the only person I ever heard say this: 'Never do you want to fly out to the center fielder. He's the best outfielder, the best athlete they got. Don't hit it there.' It was easy for him to say. He could hit it anywhere he wanted. He could hit the ball so hard the other way. People overlook how fast he was. He hit a ball to my left at Forbes Field, ground ball, I got over there and got it, looked up and thought, 'This guy can fly to first base.' That's why he led the league in triples.' "

Musial's prowess as a batsman has its own mountain of empirical evidence that helped get him elected to the Hall of Fame this very week in 1969, but the people who played with and against him hold the depth of his excellence in such esteem their minds still see it frame-by-frame.

The great Pirates right-hander Bob Friend remembered one specific at-bat as he pitched to Musial just a few months short of Stan's 40th birthday.

"At Forbes Field in 1960, I was pitching against Ernie Broglio and we both pitched into the 12th inning," said Friend. "I'd had pretty good luck with Musial up to then, but the count went to 3-2, and that's when [shortstop] Groat and [third baseman Don] Hoak came over to me.

"They both said, 'We can't give into this guy.' I said, 'We're not gonna give in to him. I'm gonna throw the sinker, it's gonna move outside and off the plate, and if I walk him, fine.'

"So I started it on the outside part of the plate, it moved away about three or four inches, and that son of a gun pulled it for a homer. He went out and got that pitch. Hit the ball into the seats. He pulled the ball. Like he knew it was coming. I saw him in St. Louis a few years ago and the son of a gun recalled that home run for me.

"He laughed. He said, 'I took a few guys downtown over there.' "

For all the ways Musial could beat you, it's worth pointing out that he clearly took no undue pride in it. It seems archaic today, when so many simple acts of athletic workmanship are accompanied by a floor show, but Musial actually told interviewers for the book "Baseball, An Illustrated History," by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns: "I don't consciously feel any thrill out of any good play or any winning hit. Now don't get me wrong. Sure I enjoy my hits, but what I mean is that I don't get that thrill that makes fellows howl with delight or dance for joy. I can get into the spirit but I don't feel it like they do."

Musial brought to the big leagues all of Donora, Pa.'s working class ethos, all of its humanist decency.

I got to meet him in 1981 while I was covering the Phillies and Pete Rose was about to break Musial's National League record for hits. Stan came to Philadelphia to see Rose on June 10, the night he tied the record of 3,630, and then, after a players strike that lasted nearly eight weeks, he returned in August to watch Rose break it.

I remember thinking on those occasions that this was a person for whom the word "gracious" was invented. Your excitement at meeting him was perfectly matched by his excitement at meeting you, at meeting everyone. He'd grab your hand and shake it vigorously, look you in the eye and say, "What d'ya say?, what d'ya say?!"

Well, that's the thing.

You can't say enough.

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Gene Collier: First Published January 22, 2013 5:00 AM


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