Losing a good man

I always worry when we lose a good man. 

A few years back, Our Sunday Visitor asked me to put together a Catholic All-Star Hall of Fame baseball team. It wasn’t easy. With some of the guys on the list, it could be debated how Catholic they actually were. It could also be easily argued that a better player was overlooked. 

Except for Stan Musial. He was a no-doubter. Either way. 

Stan Musial is a member of the big five in any baseball conversation of the best that ever was — Ruth, Cobb, Williams, Mays and Musial. 

But Musial was also a “Catholic gentleman,” as if the phrase was made for him. 

Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals died a few weeks back at the age of 92. Stan Musial was Old School. No rumors about booze, drugs or, as my mother used to say, “gallivanting” with the women. Stan’s wife of 71 years — yes, 71 years — died in 2012. 

They called him “Stan the Man.” The story is told that the name came from Brooklyn Dodger fans. Musial would tear things up with his hitting at the old Ebbets Field. “Here comes that man again,” they would moan when he came to the plate. 

Musial was born and raised in Donora, Pa., about 20 miles east of Pittsburgh. His father was a Polish immigrant, his mother a New York City kid of Czech heritage. 

He was christened at Holy Name of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Donora, an ethnic Polish parish that was founded in 1902 and closed in 1992 after the jobs disappeared with the death of the Pittsburgh steel industry. 

Donora would become famous — or infamous — in October 1948 when an atmospheric inversion of cold air sweeping down the hills locked in the burning gases from the local mills. It killed 18 flat-out in a few days.  

God only knows how many died from the poisoned air in the months ahead, though one of them was Stan Musial’s father. 

The thing that Musial could do, the thing that got him out of Donora, is that he could hit. In 22 major-league seasons he mastered the art of consistency. He finished his career with 3,630 hits — 1,815 at home, 1,815 on the road. He drove in 1,951 runs; he scored 1,949 runs. Throw in 475 home runs and a lifetime batting average of .331 and you have one of the best ever. 

But ask him the thrill of his life, and Stan Musial would talk about his private Mass and dinner with Pope John Paul II. 

Stan Musial lived his faith. That’s the key. George Vecsey wrote in his book, Stan Musial: An American Life">“Stan Musial: An American Life” (Ballantine/ESPN Books, $26) about Musial sitting quietly in a Baptist church pew at Mickey Mantle’s funeral. He had flown into Dallas from St. Louis that morning. He would fly back that night. 

He was everything Mantle was not — family man, heartfelt believer, disciplined, loyal, selfless — but he was there to bury his friend. 

Vecsey writes: “Somebody as fundamentally Catholic as Musial would see his journey (to Mantle’s funeral) as a way to bring a tangible blessing to the Mantle family. Prayers might mean more in person.” 

Cardinal Timothy Dolan — an old St. Louis boy — flew in to St. Louis to celebrate Musial’s funeral Mass on Jan. 26. 

We’re tempted to say that they don’t make ballplayers like Stan Musial any more. But the guy who got a kick out of playing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” on his harmonica would probably disagree. 

“Anytime Stan Musial was around,” said Tim McCarver, former Cardinals’ catcher and veteran broadcaster, “you got the feeling that everything was gonna be all right.” 

Which is why I always worry when we lose a good man. 

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.

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