26 January 2013, St Louis, Missouri, USA
My name is Bob Costas. I’d like to thank all of you for being here for Stan. But in truth, in a certain sense, we’re all here for ourselves because, as the Pride of the Hill, that great sage Yogi Berra, once astutely advised, “Always go to your friends’ funerals. Otherwise, they won’t come to yours.”
I was very touched that toward the end of his life, Stan asked that I’d be one of those to speak today; and his family followed through on that request. But in a perfect world, we know that Jack Buck would be standing here now, representing the longest possible connection to Stan and the Cardinals.
Stan’s career and life were both too vast and too meaningful to all of those here today and to millions more here in spirit for any one person to sum it all up. But, like all of you, my own life was touched by Stan Musial. And like all of you, I have my own thoughts and memories. So, here are a few.
In recent years, and in the days since his passing, the point has often been made that outside St. Louis, through the years, Stan Musial had somehow receded from the national consciousness. That somehow, he had become Baseball’s least-celebrated, truly great player. Although, thankfully, it seems that over the last few days, the outpouring of appreciation has largely corrected that.
But still, there were reasons why, for so long, that was so. And one was the absence of any easy Musial hook or label or single signature moment as though the thousands of picture-perfect baseball moments weren’t enough. DiMaggio had the 56-game hitting streak. Paul Simon immortalized him in song; and his conflicted, sometimes brooding nature fascinated biographers. Stan won seven batting titles, but Ted Williams was the last man to hit .400; and his tempestuous personality and obsessive perfectionism made for drama and conflict. Mickey Mantle was, in a way, the embodiment of Roy Hobbs, “the Natural” of the book and the movie but flawed and star-crossed, simultaneously heroic and heartbreaking. Willie Mays was the Say Hey Kid, and it didn’t hurt that his career began in New York. He had a natural flare and electricity and he had that single indelible moment: the back-to-homeplate catch in the 1954 World Series, the hat flying off, that play forever set in memory.
Stan, by the way, played in three World Series. The last–wouldn’t you know it?–in 1946, was the last year before they began televising the Fall Classic. So aside from his perennial All-Star appearances, a national audience seldom saw him play.
Hank Aaron, a man who, like Stan, stood for something beyond athletic excellence, earned the title of all-time homerun king by chasing down Babe Ruth and staring down stark racism in the process.
Those are all vivid and valid storylines, but also easy for casual fans or those too young to have seen them play to grasp. But what was the hook with Stan Musial other than the distinctive stance and one of Baseball’s best nicknames? It seems that all that Stan had going for him was more than two decades of sustained excellence as a ballplayer and more than nine decades as a thoroughly decent human being. Even Ty Cobb, who apparently didn’t like anybody, once said that Musial was as close to a perfect player as he had seen.
They made a movie about Cobb’s life. Of course they did. It was a life filled with extraordinary achievement, but also filled with demons, rage and conflict. Where is the great conflict in Stan Musial’s extraordinary life? Where is the single person to truthfully say a bad word about him? You can picture the studio head reading that screenplay.
“What do we have here? 3630 base hits and the all-time record of autographs signed, spirits lifted and acts of kindness large and small? What are we supposed to do with that?”
Well those who know and love the Game, and especially those who knew and loved Stan, would trade two hours on the silver screen for 22 years of baseball brilliance and 92 years of a truly great American life.
Long after we’re all gone, the numbers will still show a good part of what Stan Musial meant to the Game. But what may be harder to understand is what he meant to us.
In the late 1960s, the great Paul Simon asked, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” It was the right metaphor at the right time and he picked the right player to make his point. But no one in St. Louis ever had to wonder where Stan Musial had gone. He was right here. Right here at home. Our greatest ballplayer sure, but also our friend. Our neighbor. And that is why our bond and attachment between this player and this city is unique and lasting. Other great players may have had an aura about them; a mystique that made them seem unapproachable. Not Stan.
Every one of us, and through the years countless others, have their own personal stories not just of seeing him play but of running into him at the grocery store, the hardware store, a grandchild’s soccer game or high school graduation and having been touch by his good-naturedness, his graciousness, his buoyant personality.
He came out of an era when the Game provided not just excitement but romance. And he remained the perfect embodiment of baseball in the city where baseball matters most. The genuine hero, who as the years and decades passed and as the disillusionments came from other directions, never once let us down. And here at home were it mattered most, we got it. We understood that it’s more important to be appreciated than to be glorified, to be respected than to be celebrated, to be understood and loved than to be idolized, and that friendship is more important than fame.
As the remembrances poured in this week, I was struck by one in particular. In the early days of integration, more of the significant black and Hispanic players came to the National League than to the American League. Some were met with open hostility. In fact, they all were by some ballplayers. Some players were openly hostile. Others kept a wary distance.
Stan was not an “activist” by nature. He was just a thoroughly decent human being. Willie Mays and Hank Aaron have each, many times in the past and again this week, told the story of how, at an All-Star Game in the 1950s all the great black players–Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks–were kinda gathered in a corner of the National League clubhouse playing cards. No white players anywhere near them. Then Stan just walked up and casually said, “Deal me in.”
That was his way… of letting those players know that they were welcome.
When the right-handed pitcher Joe Black, who was one of the first to follow Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, was heckled from the Cardinal bench–it’s not an episode we’re proud of–there were some things said that we wish we could erase. Some were said while Stan was in the batter’s box, not by him but from the dugout. He stepped out of the box and he kicked at the dirt. And when the game was over he saw Joe Black out in the tunnel and he said, “I’m sorry you had to hear those things. But you’re going to have a great career, and I just wanted you to know that.”
This week, I spoke with Hank Aaron. He said, “I didn’t just like Stan Musial. I wanted to be like him.
And then, like for most of you, there are the smaller but still significant things. My daughter Taylor went from kindergarten all the way through high school, all twelve years, with one of Stan’s grandchildren, Lindsay. And when Taylor was just a little girl, she let us know that, “Lindsay can stay at our house any night of the week except Saturday, and she can stay at any of her friends’ houses any night of the week except Saturday, and we can all stay at her house on Saturday. But she has to stay home on Saturday night because on Sunday morning, Grandpa Musial brings McDonald’s.”
And so a seven- or eight-year-old girl would come home and you’d say, “Well, what did you do?” ”Well we stayed up late, we had a pillow fight, we played videogames and then in the morning Stan the Man brought us Egg McMuffins.”
Once or twice when I would cross paths with his daughter Jeanie, which I did many many times, but once or twice I made the mistake that I think almost anyone would’ve made. When someone is as famous and renowned as Stan, it’s just kind of a natural thing, a conversational ice-breaker to say, “How’s your dad?” I mean after all he was my friend, I knew him. ”How’s your dad?” And each time, without the slightest rancor (and I got it after the second time), each time Jeanie said, “Oh, he’s great,” or, “Oh, he’s fine, and my mom is too.” One way of indicating that while Dad and Grandpa and Great Grandpa was a national and local icon, each member of the family was just as important.
In the late 1980s or early 1990s, Mickey Mantle stayed at our house in St. Louis for a few nights. Mickey was having a very tough time in his life. It was before he went to Betty Ford. He was drinking heavily.
We had a dinner and I decided that it would make Mickey comfortable if people he knew were there, so we invited Stan and Lil for dinner; and Mickey said, “I don’t know how I’m gonna do it, but I’m not gonna have a single drink all day today or all night out of respect for Stan. I don’t wanna do anything foolish when Stan is here.”
And the night went on and many laughs were had and stories were told. And then after everyone left and everyone else had gone to sleep, it was just me and Mickey sitting there talking well after midnight. And Mickey Mantle, who was a flawed but somehow always lovable man, said something that was searingly honest and also in its own way eloquent. He said, “You know, I had as much ability as Stan, maybe more. Nobody had more power than me, nobody could run any faster than me. But Stan was a better player than me because he’s a better man than me. Because he got everything out of his life and out of his ability that he could and he’ll never have to live with all the regret that I live with.”
Years later, ironically only a year after Mickey had turned a corner and gone to Betty Ford, part of the life he had lived had caught up with him and he died of liver cancer. I gave the eulogy at his funeral. It was a much different occasion than this one, tinged with much more sadness because of all the regret and all of the sadness that had been a part of Mickey’s life; and he was only 63 years old. It was an extremely emotional occasion, and people often asked me in the aftermath, “How did you avoid breaking down when up there talking?” or, “Did you come close to breaking down?” And I told those who asked that, yes, there was one moment, and the moment was this.
As you stood there, you look out, and I tried not to make eye contact with his family. But everywhere you looked across the church, there would be Whitey Ford or Yogi Berra or Duke Snider or Reggie Jackson or Commissioner Selig, who is here today. Everywhere you looked baseball luminaries who had been connected to Mickey’s life as teammates or those who shared New York or some portion of baseball history with him; and they sat in a special VIP section. (Billy Crystal, who idolized him, was there.) And they were in a little section down to the right. And at one point, midway through, I just kinda looked up to glance around the room the way you do when you’re not looking at anyone in particular and you’re looking out over the crowd, and I saw against the wall at the end of a pew about a third of the way back by himself Stan Musial. And in that moment I was struck by the sheer decency of that simple act.
Nobody would’ve marked Stan Musial absent that day. Never played with Mickey, except in All-Star games never played against him, wasn’t in the same league, wasn’t linked with him like Willie Mays was. No one would’ve marked him absent. And it struck me in that split second as I turned away, because I didn’t want to continue the eye contact because I knew what would happen to me, it struck me that a 74-, 75-year-old man who had battled prostate cancer had gotten out of bed that morning and gone to Lambert, got on a flight by himself and flown out with no special treatment to pay his respects to a man who respected him so much and to try and comfort a family that was in a great deal of pain.
None of us are perfect, but Lincoln once called us to heed the better angels of our nature. I think it’s always meaningful when you see someone who does that; who more often than not heeds the better angels of their nature.
It was yet another moment of simple decency and generosity of spirit in a life brimming with them.
And so today, we say goodbye to this great ballplayer and good man. But we don’t give up the memories. How many of you of a certain age will put your head on a pillow tonight and hear the voices of Harry Caray and Jack Buck–the soundtrack of your youth–describing another musical double off the screen or homer into the pavilion? How many of you, perhaps too young to have seen him play in person, will nonetheless remember the first dates and all the family gatherings that were arranged appropriately with those familiar six words: “Meet you at the Musial statue”?
As was noted earlier, inscribed on that statue are these words:
“Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.”
Well Stan, as humble as he was great, would probably be the first to say, “Ah, c’mon, nobody’s perfect.” Fair enough. But there are some who come a lot closer to that unattainable ideal than most of us.
Some of you here may remember Stan Musial’s last at-bat, part of a two-for-three afternoon in 1963 against the Cincinnati Reds: a single to right field. Other may’ve heard the radio call of Harry Caray that day. And as Stan settled into the box, Harry said, “Take a look, fans. Take a good, long look. Remember the swing and the stance. We won’t see his like again.”
Harry was right. We never have and we never will.