Stan Musial was before my time. But in a way he is the reason I fell in love with the game of baseball. You see, Musial was my father’s baseball hero. My Dad was living in Missouri during those all-important years in a baseball fan’s life, the pre-teen years when lifelong fans are molded from the clay of boys and girls. Musial played for the St. Louis Cardinals during those years. In fact, he played for the St. Louis Cardinals his entire 22-year career.
They called him Stan The Man, and he was probably the greatest Cardinals player ever, and one of the greatest all-time, period. The numbers are golden: seven National League batting titles, lifetime .331 hitter, 475 home runs, 24 all star appearances.
In 1963, Musial was 42 years old and almost done, and my father had recently moved his young family from San Francisco out to the suburbs that were then metastasizing in the walnut groves of Contra Costa County. Musial had announced his intention to retire at the end of that season, and fans in every National League city turned out to bid the future Hall of Famer adieu. And that was the moment that my father chose to introduce me to the game that would be a part of my life thereafter.
Who knows? Maybe my Dad really just wanted to see his hero Stan The Man trot out to the field one more time, to look out onto the field and somehow see his own boyhood in Musial’s batting stance, his swing, a tip of his cap. Baseball does that to men, I know that now. So, surely my baptism into the church of baseball wasn’t the only reason we went to Candlestick Park that summer of 63 to see the Giants play the Cardinals.
I was five years old that summer. I don’t remember the exact date. I don’t remember Stan Musial. I remember what every five year old remembers from his first big league baseball game—that first bright glimpse of impossible green as you ascend from a dark stairway to your section of the stands, holding your Dad’s hand—and suddenly the diamond takes shape in front of you, the white lines glinting in the sun so perfectly, almost painfully true.
And I remember Willie Mays. How could you not remember the first time you saw Willie Mays play baseball? I don’t remember exactly what he did that day. I just remember looking out and seeing him in centerfield, like a shining Lamborghini, looking fast just standing still. I was instantly in awe of the man.
Looking through the box scores from that year, I like to think it was July 5. On that day, the Giants were down five runs to four, but tied it up in the bottom of the ninth inning, and won it in the bottom of the eleventh. Mays went two for four, Willie McCovey hit one out, and Musial got a hit too. Nice day at the ballyard.
But it doesn’t really matter what game it was. It was my first game, that’s what matters. As my father was watching the hero of his boyhood take a final bow, I was experiencing the first day of my formative years as a baseball fan. I was new clay ready to be molded by the grand old game.
Baseball wasn’t on the television all season then. Nothing was on the television then as much as everything is on the television now. Baseball then was a game that happened on transistor radios with telescopic chrome antennas, set out on workbenches in garages with the doors open to the summer streets of the neighborhood.
Baseball happened in the sports section of the San Francisco Chronicle. It was too big for me to open and hold up, but after my Dad was done with it, I would spread out the pages next to my trucks and my green army men on the big corded rug in the living room, and try to decipher the secret code of the box score.
Baseball happened on the backs of cards that smelled like bubble gum sticks and lived in shoeboxes under the beds of children. Entire seasons were played out in the whirring minds of sick boys sitting cross-legged on blue plaid bedspreads covered with carefully arranged baseball cards. Teams were formed, stats were compared, winners were declared.
And, when you turned on the radio, or spread out the sports section, or when you opened up that shoebox, the memories came out. You could see the flashing green of the outfield in the sun, and smell the salty foam on the beers of the men in sport shirts. You could hear the fat guy yelling at the ump, “Hey Blue, try using both eyes.” You could see Willie Mays rounding third base and heading for home as a roar climbed up the throat of the crowd. Or you could see Stan the Man stepping up to home plate, smiling out at the pitcher.
Stan Musial died Saturday, at the accomplished age of 92. Somehow, sadness doesn’t seem to be that much in order here. Rather, it feels like a moment of recognition and gratitude. Thanks Mr. Musial, for all the memories you gave to the game, and for being the biggest reason I went to Candlestick Park for the first time. Thanks for being the one tipping your cap for my father while I couldn’t take my eyes off Willie Mays in the on-deck circle.