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What I Learned from Stan

Bill Meredith

"If someone throws you a spitball, don’t complain about it;
just hit it on the dry side." …Stan Musial

"Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth." …Desiderata


(Feb, 2013) I had intended to write about birds and weather this month, but on the day I started the first draft of my article, the news came that Stan Musial had died. It was no use to try to think about ecology for a while; my mind wandered off into the past, to remember his legacy and to ponder how it is possible for someone you’ve never met and who did nothing to affect your profession could influence your life. He did.

I was eight when he broke into the major leagues in 1941, and when he led the St. Louis Cardinals to the World Series the following year, he became my first sports hero. In an odd way, he influenced my education; it was by following his record on the sports pages that I learned to calculate batting averages, which had to be done by long division in those days before hand-held calculators. I had little natural aptitude for mathematics, but baseball taught me that math is actually useful; it also started what became a lifelong fascination with statistics. Had that not happened when it did, I probably could not have become a scientist.

Musial influenced my life in an even odder way, which would have made him chuckle if he’d known about it. In my senior year in high school I started dating an attractive freshman, and in the course of time she prevailed upon me to help with her homework in English. She had to write an essay on someone in sports, a topic in which she had no interest and even less knowledge. I suggested Stan Musial, and was almost speechless when she responded, "Who’s he?" After suggesting a few other names and getting the same response, I went back to Musial and explained that he was Polish, and his name originally was Stanislaw Franciszek Musial, before he changed it to Stanley Frank. This made an impression, since her grandparents were Polish immigrants; however, since she knew nothing about baseball, I ended up writing the paper for her. She behaved as if she was very grateful, but it has been a burden on my conscience ever since, compounded by the fact that, in my weakened condition, she persuaded me to write several other papers for her in the course of the next three years. She still maintains that it was because of Stan Musial that she agreed to marry me.

Throughout elementary school, baseball was the only sport I knew. I went to a two-room country schoolhouse where there were only two teachers; one taught the "Little Kids," grades 1-3, and the other had the "Big Kids," grades 4-8. I was lucky that both teachers were good, and I was well prepared in the "3 R’s" curriculum of the time. But there was no formal program for physical education; recess and lunch hour were simply the times when you could run and yell and let off steam, and they were almost always outside because there was no gymnasium. On one side of the schoolyard, the Little Kids played games like tag or dodge-ball, where the rules were simple and not much organization was required; on the other side was a small field used by the Big Kids. Sports like soccer and hockey were unknown in West Virginia in those days, and football and basketball were off limits because they were contact sports, deemed improper for girls and boys to play together. Baseball, the American Game, would have been favored, but Shorty May was the only kid who had a glove, and the 4th-graders… the smaller Big Kids… could have been hurt by line drives. So we played softball the year round. Since we had only one field, there would be 12 or 15 kids on each team; one thing we learned was patience, because recess was usually over before everyone got a turn at bat. We had to do our own umpiring, and I learned that sometimes you had to accept decisions you didn’t agree with; long disputes would hold up the game, and recess was short… and besides, Stan Musial was not a complainer. Looking back, it seems like a pretty chaotic version of baseball, but in fact it was a good way to learn the game. Most of the bigger kids played in the infield, where the ball was going faster; the smaller kids wandered around in the outfield where they had time to get out of the way before the ball got to them until they understood what was going on. It was reasonably safe, although I still have a noticeable lump on one finger to remind me of the time I lost a fly ball in the sun.

Every boy had a favorite Big League team and player, but girls were different. Several of them could run and throw as well as I could, but those were the days before gender equality, and it never occurred to me that a girl could actually be interested in batting averages or who played for which team. And besides, I was even shyer then than I am now, so I wouldn’t have had nerve enough to ask a girl what her favorite team was even if I had thought of it. Growing up was complicated, and there were some things you just didn’t do in those days.

Newspapers and radio were our only source of sports information back then, and Pittsburgh was the nearest major league team, so I became most familiar with the National League, which was dominated by St. Louis. The Cardinals of the mid-thirties had been known as the Gas House Gang. The name had a romantic ring to it, but in reality many of the players were profane, brawling boozers, womanizers and racists. Their strategy for winning was intimidation; they were not the kind of role models a boy should emulate. These qualities were not publicized in the media; instead, the papers told of loveable goofballs like Dizzy Dean and Ducky Medwick, so I knew only the idealized version of the team’s history. But by the time I was 10 and able to interpret box scores, the original Gas House Gang had been replaced by a new generation of stars that included Musial, Mort and Walker Cooper, Enos Slaughter, Marty Marion, Red Schoendiest, Harry Brecheen… I knew them all, their places in the batting order, their averages and era’s. They were featured in Boy’s Life as well as the daily paper, so I knew they were worthy heroes. That judgment was confirmed when they won the World Series in 1944.

I could not have picked a better role model than Musial. Both the way he played the game and the way he lived his life have inspired me from childhood onward. Baseball is a game, and in its own way, so is life; there are both formal and unwritten rules, and we are judged by how we follow them. Leo Durocher, one of the original Gas House Gang, famously said, "Nice guys finish last;" Stan Musial and my other hero, Brooks Robinson, proved he was wrong. Stanley Frank Musial, 1921-2013: Rest in Peace, and live on in my memory.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith