Stan Musial is the reason I have been a St. Louis Cardinals fan since 1963, when I was 7 years old.
Musial died at age 92 on Jan. 19, 2013, but, for me, he always will live on as my model of class, decency and sportsmanship. It’s because of Stan Musial that I developed a lifelong passion for baseball.
My paternal grandfather had immigrated to the United States from Poland before World War I and settled in Bayonne, N.J. He was a proud Polish-American. During the 1940s, when Musial won three National League batting titles and led the Cardinals to four pennants and three World Series championships, my grandfather became a Stan Musial fan.
Stan Musial’s father had immigrated to America from Poland. Stan Musial always was true to his Polish heritage. Poles like my grandfather saw in the talented and humble baseball star a solid symbol of Polish contributions to the American culture.
My father was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, but he, too, rooted for Musial. The Dodgers fans at Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn respected Musial so much that they gave him the nickname, “The Man.”
My grandfather and father wanted me to see Musial play in person. So they purchased three tickets for the Cardinals’ last scheduled 1963 appearance in New York. On Aug. 8, a Thursday afternoon, we were among the 8,309 who went to the Polo Grounds to see the Cardinals play the Mets.
Musial was 42 and speculation was he would retire after the season. Regardless, he would be playing in the Polo Grounds for the final time, because the Mets were moving to brand-new Shea Stadium in 1964. The setting was poignant because, prior to the Mets, the Polo Grounds had been the home field of the Giants before their move to San Francisco.
“There’s something sentimental about this old place,” Musial said in an Associated Press story published before the game. “For one thing, I’ve always been a Giants fan. When I was a kid, Carl Hubbell and Mel Ott were my heroes. I’ve enjoyed playing here because of the short fences and the nice crowds. Now, this is goodbye. It’s a bit sad.”
During our drive into Manhattan from New Jersey, my grandfather and father told me stories about Musial. Then, in a pregame ceremony, the Mets honored him. The crowd gave him an ovation. To a 7-year-old, all this adulation for Stan Musial convinced me then and there that he must be the greatest baseball player. And, because he played for the Cardinals, a 7-year-old’s logic said, they must be the greatest baseball team.
Before a pitch was thrown, I was devoted to Stan Musial and the Cardinals.
When the starting lineups were announced, my grandfather and father were disappointed that Musial was being given the day off against Mets left-hander Al Jackson.
Still, being at a big-league ballgame was thrilling for me. I can recall vividly how the Polo Grounds looked that day from our second-deck seats on the first-base line, and how Jackson and Cardinals left-hander Ray Sadecki were receiving praise from fans around us for their pitching, and that my grandfather and father kept commenting how they hoped Musial would be put into the game.
In the ninth inning, with the Mets ahead, 3-2, Jackson walked Julian Javier. With two out, our wishes came true.
Musial was sent to pinch-hit for reliever Bobby Shantz.
I recall focusing on the figure at the plate. I still can see Musial in his famous batting crouch, the number 6 looking huge on the back of his jersey.
Jackson walked Musial on four pitches. My grandather and father were hoping he would get a hit, for my sake. But I was satisfied just to see the plate appearance. Gary Kolb was put in to pinch-run for Musial. Curt Flood then grounded out, ending the game.
In January 2012, I had the privilege to interview Jackson. He is a delightful man. We were nearing the end of the interview in a room at the Mets’ training facility in Port St. Lucie, Fla. I was intending to ask Jackson if, by chance, he had any recollection of facing Musial in that August 1963 game at the Polo Grounds.
Instead, Jackson stunned me by bringing it up without me mentioning it.
I was asking Jackson for his impressions of players in Cardinals history. I asked about Flood. Here is the transcript of what Jackson said:
Al Jackson: Great defensive player. He was a great hitter, too. Here was a man who got 200 hits every year. But asking about Flood reminds me of when I was still pitching for the Mets and we were playing the Cardinals in the Polo Grounds. I had a one-run lead in the ninth inning. There were two outs (and a runner on first base) and here comes Stan Musial to pinch-hit.
I always said, “My momma didn’t raise no fool.” Flood was due up after Musial. And as good a hitter as Flood was, I thought about how years back, (pitcher) Harvey Haddix had told me how dangerous this man Musial was in the clutch. And so I said to myself, “I got a one-run lead in the ninth inning. This man is not going to beat me.” I threw four pitches outside and he went on to first base. I got the next man, Flood, to ground out. Game over. Boxscore
Q: Musial was 4-for-5 in his career against you. He batted .800 against you. You were smart to put him on with the walk …
Al Jackson: I’m glad I had a place to put him. I was asked after the game, “Why would you walk him? He’s a left-handed hitter.” I said, “Why? That’s Musial.” Just look at his record. He’s known for beating teams. And here I am in that small ballpark _ just 250 feet down both lines. I know he can hit for power down both lines. And I never thought about striking him out. That wasn’t on my mind at all.
The summer of 1963 also was the first year I began collecting Topps baseball cards. My maternal grandmother and my mother would buy them for me in waxpacks for a nickel apiece. Never once had I found a Stan Musial card in a pack.
A few days after my Polo Grounds experience, a buddy told me he had a 1963 Topps Stan Musial card. I told my father about it. He instructed me to find out what my friend would accept in a trade. My friend, a Yankees fan, wanted the Yankees team card. I had it. My father decided to help me broker a deal.
I invited my friend to meet me and my father in our yard and to bring the Musial card. When I offered the Yankees team card in exchange, my father sensed hesitation from my friend. Thinking fast and sorting through my stack, my father told me to include a card of Yankees catcher Johnny Blanchard in a two-for-one deal.
I was aghast. My father told me it was a good deal. So I handed over both cards and got the Musial one. It is shown here. (Musial autographed it for me in 1989).
Today, I have dozens of Musial baseball cards and photos, but the favorite remains that 1963 Topps card. Looking at it brings for me a special connection to a special time when Stan Musial and the Cardinals earned my loyalty and my admiration.
Note to readers: In a tribute to Stan Musial, No. 6, this blog will post a photo each day for the next six days from my Stan Musial collection.