The conversation was halting at first. The two men had spoken before, of course, but that was usually at a ballpark, where the sounds of batting practice or infield drills filled the silences. Here there was nothing but silence in the silences, and the two great hitters who tended to do their talking at the plate groped for words to express their feelings.
In time, though, spurred by St. Louis Post-Dispatch baseball bard Rick Hummel, the conversation blossomed. Pujols and Musial talked about the weight of their bats, their golf games, umpiring and so on. Pujols asked Musial for his secret to hitting with two strikes. "Know the strike zone," Musial said.
And then Pujols was told about one of Musial's most amazing baseball feats. Musial has so many feats: At different points in his career he led the National League in batting, on-base percentage, slugging, hits, doubles, triples, runs, RBIs, walks, intentional walks and total bases. But if you had to define Musial with one number—the way 755 describes Aaron and .406 gets at Williams and 56 helps explain DiMaggio—then that number is probably 1,815. That is the number of hits that Musial had at home and on the road.
Pujols—who prides himself on consistency—was incredulous.
"I wonder if he meant to do that," Pujols said.
Not long after that, Pujols politely asked people to stop calling him El Hombre. He understood that his own nickname was an homage to Musial. But he still asked people to stop it. "There's only one Man," he said.
Speaking of Hummel—he has been covering sports for the Post-Dispatch since 1971 and has been covering baseball for almost 35 years. Over that time he has grown close to Musial. Certainly no writer in America knows The Man better. Hummel has heard Musial play the harmonica enough times to know his entire repertoire. ("Four songs," Hummel says with a big smile. "He says he knows 50, but I've only heard four. The Wabash Cannonball. Take Me Out to the Ballgame. Happy Birthday. And the national anthem.") Hummel has heard all of Musial's jokes—he thinks there might be fewer than four. Hummel remembers well the first time Stan Musial called him by name and how good it made him feel.
One day during spring training last year Hummel was sitting in La Russa's office with the Cardinals manager, Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst and Musial, and he was listening to the stories when suddenly Musial did the oddest thing. He reached into a bucket next to La Russa's desk. And he pulled out a baseball. He wrote on it, TO RICK. STAN MUSIAL. And he handed the ball to Hummel.
"I didn't ask him for it or anything," Hummel says. "I just took the ball and looked at him and thanked him. And he went on like nothing happened."
Hummel smiles like a little kid. "I know exactly where that baseball is," he says.