Sunday, January 20, 2013

What’a Ya Say?

Stan the Man has died and, alone, I shed some significant tears this morning because he was The Man!
by Charlie Leck

“Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.”

It was there in the newspaper this morning. I opened the local paper’s electronic version on my computer and browsed the front page. There, at the bottom, was the link to a story on the sports page: Stan the Man Musial Dies! [Sports, Page 3]. Appropriately, the story was filed out of St. Louis by the Post-Dispatch.

I’ll tell you this, I didn’t hit the link real quickly. I sat looking at the little headline and I said something like this to myself, “Hmph!”

And then, in the silence of a Minnesota winter morning, in my deathly quiet house with only the sound of a distant dog bark, I heard Stan the Man himself. It was unmistakable.

“What’aya say? What’aya say!”

I think Stan had the little greeting copyrighted. It belonged to him. He owned it. Or perhaps it owned him. It was the way he greeted people – strangers, old friends, a handful of people or a crowded room.

He always fell back on it. He wasn’t a handy speaker. He was edgy around lots of people. He was awkward about his fame and stardom. That little “what’a ya say” seemed to help him out.

It was always said with a broad smile and bright, sparkling, slightly nervous eyes!

Those of us who loved him simply called him “The Man.”

Feeling pretty glum, I turned to page 3 in sports section and there was the page headline: So Long to the Man!

They gave him the name in Brooklyn. The Dodger fans there had one of the most beautiful love/hate relationships you could ever imagine. Musial used to come into Ebbets Field and tear the place up. He was so good in that ballpark that the fans of the home team gave him a ton of grudging respect.

“Who dat?”

“Dat? Dat’s Stan the Man.”

I was at Ebbets Field one night when the Dodgers were playing the Cardinals. Musial was my man. I loved him! I followed him as closely as I could, watching him on TV as often as I could, listening to his games on the powerful radio station from St. Louis – picking up the static-filled play by play of his games all the way back in New Jersey. Well, that night in Brooklyn, Musial came to bat in the middle of the game somewhere and the crowd gave him the usual friendly boo-job. The Man just smiled in a friendly, happy way and crouched in the batter’s box in his usual and very unique stance. Somebody (maybe big Don Newcome) fired a fastball in on The Man and he swung gracefully, but with enormous bat speed and caught the ball flush. It was a high, hard line drive to right field and it kept climbing. It crashed into the big screen that protected Flatbush Avenue up there at the top of the big scoreboard. Both the center fielder and the right fielder rushed to the spot where it might fall to the ground, but no ball game down. The two outfielders looked at themselves and then looked up toward the screen. There it was! He struck it so solidly that it hit the screen so hard and jammed itself right there in the diamond-shaped opening of the mesh screen.

The fans hooted and hollered and the umpires stopped The Man at second base with a “ground rule double.” The laughter around the stadium was immense when the ground crew brought out a giant extension ladder and hoisted it up to where the ball was, thirty or forty feet above the ground. They clapped and howled while a guy carefully climbed the ladder and pried the ball out of the screen. They applauded him wildly when the ball released and he climbed down like a victorious champion as they cheered him. He waved the ball joyfully at the crowd as he and the rest of the crew left the field. Musial stood on second base laughing and jawing it up with the shortstop, Pee Wee Reese.

The Man owned Brooklyn. They loved him! And so did I.

I’m not going into all his enormous records and achievements here. I’ll tell you this: Stan the Man was one of the four or five greatest hitters of all times. He’s right there with guys like Ty Cobb and Ted Williams. He played in every All Star game in each of his full seasons in Major League Baseball. And here’s an odd statistic for you. In his career he got 3,630 hits – and 1,815 of them were at home in St. Louis and 1,815 of were on the road, in other ball parks. If he was anything, he was consistent. He had a career batting average of .331.

And, he was also a purely nice guy. Umpires loved him, opposing players loved him and the fans of the game loved him. Pitchers? Well, not so much! Sal Magly, the great pitcher for the NY Giants during the Musial years called him the best hitter he ever went up against and “also the nicest guy I ever knew.”

One time, as a little leaguer, at our season ending banquet, Tom Gorman, a great major league baseball umpire, was the guest speaker. One of the questions was about the best hitter Gorman ever saw. There was no hesitation. Gorman said that Musial “was something special.”

“I’ll tell you,” Gorman said, without hesitation, “if Stan Musial took a pitch with a 3 and 2 count, as an umpire, you knew it was a ball. No question! He had the finest set of eyes of any ball player in my career.”

In St. Petersburg, in 1972 (I think it was), the company I was working for booked me into Stan Musial’s hotel in that city. I checked in and went to the elevator to take it to my room. A few people gathered behind me and moved into the cabinet of the elevator when the doors slid open. At the back of the elevator, I turned around to face forward and I saw him sliding in with the rest of the people. I gasped.

“Stan Musial,” I stuttered, like a small boy, overwhelmed by the site of my incredible hero. He heard me and looked me in the eye.

“What’a ya say? What’a ya say!” He stuck out his hand to shake mine.

Somehow, stuttering and shaking, I let him know how much I had loved watching him play and what an immense fan I was.

“You checkin’ in?”

“Well, yes, sir! We’re having sales meetings here this week!”

“Good, good,” he said. “Put your bags in your room and come on up to the penthouse and have a drink with me.”

I looked at him in amazement.

“Really! Just take the elevator to the top floor and knock on the only door up there. Great view! We’ll chat for a little while.”

And, I did. The great man introduced me to his lovely wife, poured me a drink, pushed some pretzels out across the bar and came around and sat on a stool next to me. We chatted for fifteen or twenty minutes about the ballgames I’d seen and how I idolized him. Stan loved his fans. He got out a photograph of himself, in his batting stance ,in his Cardinal uniform, and he autographed it and gave it to me. It hangs on the wall near this desk and I can see it as I write this.

I saw him a number of years later, too, when we were guests of Augie Busch at a Cardinal World Series game against Milwaukee. I flew down there with one of the boys. We had first row box seats very near third base. Musial, in a bright (cardinal) red blazer came walking along the track, shaking hands with folks in the boxseats. When he got to me and we shook, he looked at me as if he remembered something.

“Maybe ten years ago! In your suite in St. Pete,” I said. “We had a couple of beers together.”

His eyes brightened and he, at least, pretended to remember.

“What’a ya say? What’a ya say!”

He shook my hand again and then moved on down the field.

I’m no youngster with stars in his eyes, but, I’m here to tell you, that I loved that man – The Man – like no other figure in the entire sports world. And, today, I’m a bit sad.

But, you all know how I feel about this. He’s got the best seat in the house now! Out there among those stars, he’ll watch it all and he’ll be smiling widely.

Way to go Stan! Way to go!

In 2011, at the White House, President Obama presented Mr. Musial with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor bestowed upon a civilian.

Upon his retirement in 1963, the Commissioner of Baseball, Ford C. Frick, said of Musial: “Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.”

"What’a ya say, Stan! What’a ya say!”

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1 comment:

  1. None of the stories I have read about Musal do him as much justice as yours.