May 13, 2008

Fifty years ago today, on a sunny day on Chicago’s North Side, Stan “The Man” Musial was called upon to pinch hit. Although Musial was supposed to wait for this moment until the team returned to Sportsman’s Park for a home stand, the team was behind 3-1 in the sixth inning against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, and Cardinals manager Fred Hutchinson decided he needed Musial.

With a man on second and one out, Musial took the plate against right-hander Moe Drabowski. He took the count to 2-2 before lining a curveball down the left field line for a double and knocking in a run. The game was played in Wrigley, but Harry Caray’s voice boomed over radios to Cardinals fans everywhere, letting them know that Stan Musial has gotten his 3,000th hit. And the game? The Cardinals ended up winning that day, 5-3.

It’s been said that although football has become America’s national sport, its pastime is (and perhaps always will be) baseball. Baseball contains a heritage and a sense of Americana that football does not. Our language has embraced the metaphors of baseball—in our daily lives, we go up to bat for our friends, we hit home runs on good days, we strike out on bad ones, and in trying cover all our bases, we occasionally have to pitch crazy ideas out of left field.

When fathers play catch with their sons and daughters, we know they’re tossing a baseball. When we’re too old to play the real versions of the sport, we join softball, rather than flag football, leagues. Ask strangers on the street, and they will probably recognize, if not recite the poem “Casey At Bat.” Maybe someday poetry will be written about football, but for now, that honor is reserved for baseball.

Perhaps the appeal of baseball is that it is the sport we all can play, and its heroes look like people we might know. Envision a basketball player, and you might imagine a 7’1” Shaquille O’Neal or a 6’6” Michael Jordan. For football, you have 350 pound linemen and track star wide receivers. Even quarterbacks, once the position of regular-joe sized people, have grown into hulking figures–Peyton Manning is 6’5”!

By contrast, most baseball players could pass for people on the street. Stan the Man? He stood a mere 6 feet, and weighed in at a slight 175 lbs. We can identify with these players, and when we were children, no matter how short or how small we may have been, we could dream of becoming baseball stars. As a result, baseball is a part of who we are, and not merely entertainment to be watched. Fair or not, its heroes achieve and fail on a grander scale than elsewhere. When baseball has controversies, congress investigates. When football or basketball have their own, we collectively shrug.

Musial’s 3,000th hit was a grand achievement and recognized as such. Musial described the train trip from Chicago to St. Louis as one of his best moments in baseball. He practically had a whistle-stop tour, with crowds gathering outside stops in Clinton and Springfield, Illinois, chanting his name and beckoning him to come shake hands and sign autographs, which, of course, he obligingly did. When the train got into St. Louis Union Station late that night, and with crowds cheering him, he addressed them: “I never realized that batting a little ball around could cause so much commotion. I know how [Charles] Lindbergh must have felt when he returned to St. Louis.” A voice from the crowd responded: “What did he hit?”

If we hold baseball heroes in a special light unused elsewhere, we could do far worse than emulating Stan. In the day of free agents, it seems an anomaly that Stan should have played his whole career in a smaller Midwestern city. His modesty and understated demeanor perhaps did not draw the same attention that more flamboyant contemporaries like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio received, but he simply performed his job and, accordingly, he has received the recognition from those who appreciate great play, including a ranking by The Sporting News as tenth on the all-time list of the 100 Greatest Baseball players.

While the 3,000th hit was one of his greatest achievements, it was hardly his only record. At the time of his retirement, he was first in total bases and extra-base hits, second in hits, doubles, games played and at bats, 4th in runs and RBI’s, 5th in walks, and 6th in home runs. He also set the then National League record for 895 consecutive games played, and a record 24 All-Star Game appearances, all the more remarkable when you consider that he gutted out the demanding grind of a baseball schedule with a bad arm for his entire career.

We no longer have old Sportsman’s Park, and we have recently begun the second incarnation of Busch Stadium (which, of course, has already been christened with a World Series Championship!). Still, the game of baseball and its traditions live on. Later this summer, the Cardinals will be returning once again to Wrigley Field to continue to battle the Cubs for the lead in the division, and Albert Pujols, Rick Ankiel, and others will be forging their own paths into the history books and into the lore and memories of Cardinals and baseball fans.

When we take our children to the ballpark and eat our hotdogs, peanuts and Cracker-Jacks, we would be well-advised to stop and consider where we stand in the long, always-moving line of history. Even as new records are set, the achievements of the past and the heroes behind them should not be forgotten. And of course, (with all due respect to “Casey at Bat”) today seems a good time to thank mighty Musial, for bringing joy to baseball fans from St. Louis to Mudville!