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A Rare Bird
Theodore M. O'Leary
November 08, 2006
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November 08, 2006

A Rare Bird


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FOR BASEBALL, September is the saddest month. The sun moves south, and the shadows crawl quickly across the infields. A chill touches the air at night, and hopes born in the spring slip away. Two teams will win, but the rest must lose, so melancholy is multiplied 18 times. In September 1963, however, melancholy was multiplied a thousand times. Stan Musial was making his last swing around the National League.

In the context of a world almost perpetually in crisis, the retirement of an athlete, no matter how great, can hardly be considered tragic, and tragedy has never been a part of Musial's life. He has been one of the happy elements of the game, a friendly, charming boy who grew into a friendly, charming man, set apart principally by the fact that he might at any time hit .376.

In the case of Musial's retirement there was melancholy only because millions upon millions of baseball fans knew that the slender figure with the weird wiggling stance would never again pop up before their eyes or on their television screens, wearing the two redbirds on his chest and the big number 6 on his back.

He would remain in baseball, true, a vice president of the Cardinals. But no one was kidding himself. Musial in a Cardinals uniform, swinging a bat under a blue sky on a June afternoon, was one thing. Musial in a dark business suit and sober necktie, with a sharp pencil in his pocket and a squad roster in his hand, was something else. It would be like making Paul Bunyan vice president of a lumber company.

As Musial made his way around the league for the last time, the old love affair between the ballplayer and the American people began to overflow even as it drew to a close. There were times when Stan was in danger of being drowned in treacle. He was heaped with gifts and honors and awards, in San Francisco and Houston and Los Angeles, in New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and Cincinnati. Moist eyes blinked from coast to coast. Then, just when the whole retirement threatened to sink beneath a sea of sentiment, two things occurred to help people remember that baseball is still baseball and that even Stan Musial still plays for the other side. In San Francisco, Alvin Dark refused to present a plaque ordered cast for Musial by the Giants' owner, Horace Stoneham. "When the season is over," Dark said, "I'd go anywhere for Stan Musial. But I wouldn't give anything to anybody on another team during the season." And in Philadelphia, while Stan was walking to the dugout after a home plate ceremony in his honor, a Philadelphia fan bellowed from the upper deck, "Musial, you bum, I hope you strike out every time you come up." Musial smiled. It was somehow comforting to know that Philadelphia fans would never change.

Musial's response to all the tribute was, to put it mildly, reserved. He rarely has much to say, least of all about himself. He is a perfectionist in his batting, in his relations with the public, in his style of dress. He is even a perfectionist in his manner of celebration. On Sept. 10, the day he became a grandfather, the first time he came to bat in Busch Stadium against the Cubs he did not hit a single; he hit a two-run homer.

Musial's perfectionism carries over into his use of the language. He cannot use words with notable precision, and he refuses to fake. He will start a sentence, see it heading toward fuzziness--and stop. But sometimes he lapses into the articulate, even the eloquent. One day he was flying with the Cardinals from San Francisco to Philadelphia, where, unexpectedly, they were to launch their late-season challenge of the Dodgers. "I'd feel worse about this last swing around the league," he said, "if I were getting out of baseball completely, but I'm not. I'll still be in the game next year and many more, I hope. Still," he said wistfully, "the best thing about baseball is the actual thrill of playing it. That's the part I've cared about most. But I've liked other things too. I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say that I've liked the fact that so many people have made such a fuss over me. I've never quite got over a kind of wonder at the fact that they have made that fuss because I was simply doing what I loved doing more than anything in the world--playing ball.

"One of the reasons I don't mind retiring is because I've been able to play about four more years than I had any right to expect. If I had retired four years ago--and the idea did cross my mind--I would have kept torturing myself, wondering if I hadn't quit too soon. Now I know I haven't.

"The main reason I decided to retire was that I never wanted to be a liability to a ball club. I was listening to Willie Mays the other night recording for a documentary about his life, and he said, 'When I get too old to play, I'll know it by my arm.' I couldn't understand that. I never worried about my arm. What you lose is your speed and most of all your concentration. Concentration is what has enabled me to change my mind at the last instant and not take a pitch I thought was going to be a ball but to swing at it instead when I realized it was going to be a strike. That ability has been leaving me in the last couple of years. Somebody told me that by retiring this season I was just barely going to miss breaking Ty Cobb's record for most games played--3,035, I believe it is. But tell me this: What's wrong with being second to Ty Cobb?"

Ten days later in Pittsburgh, when he was the last player left in the clubhouse before a game, Musial made another try at introspection. Asked how he was always able to give the appearance of being a completely serene and happy man despite all sorts of stresses and strains and provocations and demands, he said, "I suppose it's because I'm a you-only-live-once type, and I figure I might as well enjoy everything that happens. It's also with me pretty much a matter of putting myself in somebody else's place. So what I try to do is never to hurt anybody else and figure if I don't, then I'm not likely to get hurt myself.

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