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January 24, 2013

Loran Smith: Memories of Musial are special

While I never saw Stan Musial play a baseball game in person, I once had lunch with him at his St. Louis restaurant — one of those unforgettable moments you come to appreciate with the passing of time. He was a genial host who picked up the check and had unrestricted time to talk baseball.

One meeting, one time, and you came away with the most generous of reflections, appreciating that this was a man who achieved greatness in his profession but had time for little guys, the fans and his adoring public. If you have noticed lately, the more successful some athletes are (i.e., the more money they rake in), the more selfish they often become.

Headlines did not turn Musial’s head. Obviously, there was deep pride and unrelenting drive to win seven National League batting titles, three World Series rings, three MVP awards, collect 3,630 hits and gain membership in the baseball Hall of Fame. You never saw a photo without seeing that generous smile. You never heard of him getting into a public spat about anything. If he ever feuded with Cardinals ownership about his contract, it never went public. For the record, there was only one time when he held out for more money.

Spending time with Musial — who died this past weekend at the age of 92 — you learned from the experience that he displayed the same personality and hospitality you associated with his image. He had the outgoing style of golfer Arnold Palmer, a fellow Pennsylvanian. Musial seemed to enjoy people. Some superstars have trouble relating to the man in the street. In many cases it is insecurity. More often than not, it is selfishness.

They don’t have time for people because they would rather gather in a corner somewhere with cronies, often devoid of intellectual pursuits, who fawn over them and pick up the check. Admiration for Musial was universal because fans believed he was their friend. Because he gave of himself, there was universal respect.

During my visit with Musial, he reflected on the familiar story of a pitcher who injured his arm and became an everyday player. He revealed that while he had a good arm he was a “typical wild left-hander.” There was not a lot of confidence in his ability to pitch, but with hitting, it was a different story.

“I was kind of a born hitter,” he said. “Hitting, to me, was a natural thing. I had confidence in hitting and felt that I could hit the ball. I could pull the ball and I could hit to the opposite field.”

Something took place in his youth that enhanced his career as a hitter. He began competition in a ballpark that had a short fence in right field. Being left-handed, it was easy for him to pull the ball over the fence. That, however, brought about a negative that spawned opportunity. There was only one ball, which meant that balls over the fence had to be retrieved. That was when Musial learned to hit the ball to the opposite field, because it meant you didn’t waste a lot of time chasing balls.

Funny how the old days had a different twist to today’s plush conditions and abundant equipment.

“When you hit the ball to the opposite field,” Musial explained, “you’re getting a better look at the ball with your eye. You are not trying to hit the ball hard. I learned to put the bat on the ball and hit to the opposite field.”

Musial also recalled the hours he spent as a kid hitting Coca-Cola bottle caps with a broomstick.

“Those bottle caps came in there at a pretty good speed,” he said with a grin. “Wasn’t much of a target to shoot at, and that helped me become a better hitter.”

The interview lasted well over an hour and Musial was patient and relaxed. He loved playing baseball and he never tired of talking baseball, either — an exceptional hitter and an exceptional person.

Musial was one of yesteryear’s classiest heroes.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.

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