Sympathy for Rusting America
There’s a new TV series with Jeff Daniels playing a sheriff with tangled loyalties, in a faded steel town in the Mon Valley of Pennsylvania.
As soon as I heard about it, I said, “Hey, wait, I know that place.”
I came to know it, and root for it, in 2009-10, when I was working on the biography of Stan Musial, the great star of the St. Louis Cardinals, who grew up where the Monongahela River twists between the hills and fading towns and dormant steel mills.
Humankind has since screwed up a lot more places, probably irrevocably.
The Mon Valley was a signpost, a warning, of what we were doing. After the steel mills and coal mines were played out, some people were still living in, essentially, the ruins.
That is the site of the new series, “American Rust,” from the book of the same name, by Philipp Meyer, which had just come out in 2009, when I began my research on Musial and his roots. Musial’s dad had migrated from Poland to work in the mills, joined by immigrants from Europe and Africa and the east coast.
I read that the new series was filmed in studios in modern high-tech Pittsburgh, but some of the exteriors were shot in Monessen, just across the Stan Musial Bridge from Donora, where Musial grew up. He played basketball and baseball for Donora High, but his first baseball tryout was conducted in Monessen, where the St. Louis Cardinals had one of their many farm teams.
From what I read, Daniels’ TV town is as gray as the smoke-filled skies from the 1948 Halloween killer smoke cloud, known as “The Donora Smog.” (Stan Musial’s dad, Lukasz, breathed too much of that smog, trapped under an inversion on that October night, and was dead two months later – too much American rust in his lungs.)
Musial was no longer capable of giving interviews when I worked on the book – he would die in 2013 -- but other people took me around the valley.
One of my tour guides was a local hero named Bimbo Cecconi, a former Pitt football star and coach, now living up near Pittsburgh, who walked the hills of Donora and told me about the athletes from his hometown – Deacon Dan Towler of the Los Angeles Rams and Arnold Galiffa who played at West Point, and three generations of ball-playing Griffeys – Buddy and Ken and Ken Junior.
Bimbo escorted me to the Donora Public Library where Donnis Headley became a helpful source. When the Donora microfilm machine was out of commission, she directed me across the river to the Monessen library, where I read old clips about Musial and the two towns.
My other guide was Dr. Charles Stacey, who had been the superintendent of schools, and still lives on the main street, McKean Ave. Dr. Stacey gave me a black T-shirt with the legend Donora Smog Museum, which he had opened in the shell of a former Chinese restaurant.
Dr. Stacey was also a mentor to Reggie B. Walton, once a football star on the verge of gang trouble, who willed himself to a historically Black college and a federal judgeship in Washington, D.C. Judge Walton is a Republican who has delivered decisive and apolitical rulings.
As I walked around with Dr. Stacey, I expressed interest in talking to Judge Walton A week later, my home phone rang and a man said, “This is Reggie Walton….” He said Charles Stacey had asked him to call me – one of the honors of my working life. I wonder if this new series will take note of this accomplished judge who came out of the American Rust.
I learned other things from my days in the Mon Valley.
-- “Monongahela” is of Native American origin, meaning “river with the sliding banks” or “high banks that break off and fall down.”
--A young surveyor from Virginia, George Washington, was an aide to Gen. Edwin Braddock who was killed in action further downstream in the French and Indian War in 1755.
-- The names of Monessen and Donora are both amalgamations.
--- Monessen’s name is a salute to the German emigrées, from the industrial town of Essen.
-- Donora was named by industrialist Andrew Mellon of Pittsburgh, who built a new steel town at the end of a freight line. Mellon honored W.H, Donner, an executive who had made a lot of money for him, and also honored Mellon’s young wife, whom he had brought over from Europe -- Nora McMullen. The Mellon marriage did not last long but the odd mixture of names survives in a gritty town with memories.
I came away from my visits to Donora and Monessen with the same rooting interest I have for Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, further down the Appalachian chain, where I used to work. I cringe when I hear about the rampant use of opioids, the crime statistics, the dropouts, in Appalachia, and I gather that is the backdrop to this new series.
I’ve seen a few of Jeff Daniels’ interviews on TV, and he always stresses that while he works in Hollywood or Broadway, he always goes home, to Michigan – “Fly-Over Country,” I heard him say, using the ironic term midwestern people use for their part of the country.
Maybe I’ll catch some of “American Rust” sometime; (I don’t have Showtime on my cable package.) Some of the reviews I’ve read are not ecstatic, but I wonder: is Appalachia just not sexy enough for Americans?
After all, “The Sopranos,” in tense urban New Jersey, was the best TV series I have ever seen, and “The Wire” made people pay attention to inner-city Baltimore.
I just hope the writers – and the viewers -- do right by the Mon Valley.
RIP, Richard Thornburgh, Old-School
One of my favorite “teachers” passed on the turnaround between wretched 2020 and overburdened 2021.
Richard Thornburgh, a former governor of Pennsylvania and U.S. attorney general, died on Dec. 31, at 88.
I met him when I was a news correspondent in the Appalachians, and through the years I reached out a few times for comments and background – for a column on drug testing in baseball, for my biography of Stan Musial.
Richard Thornburgh seemed to me a just person, a good teacher, a great storyteller who shared with me a close view of Musial, his boyhood hero in western Pennsylvania.
Our first meeting was in Pittsburgh in 1971 when I was working on a story about a pollution case, involving acidic runoff from a factory into the Monongahela River, a few miles upstream from the confluence with the Allegheny to form The Beautifiul Ohio.
The offending company was of modest size, but waiting in the docket were offenses attributed to huge corporations that contributed to Pittsburgh-area people holding their noses 24/7.
Thornburgh was the federal prosecutor for Western Pennsylvania, appointed by President Nixon. He knew the Times was covering, and suggested I attend jury selection, and we would talk later.
After a long morning session, we repaired to the bar at the Pittsburgh Hilton, with its scenic view of the confluence and the rugged hills, and Thornburgh gave me a quickie seminar on jury selection:
-- Why had he excluded the woman with glasses who was reading a hard-covered book in a front row of jury candidates? Precisely, he said. He did not want people who might think outside lines he would be setting. Okay.
-- Well, in that case, why had Thornburgh chosen, for foreman, a dean for a state junior college? Precisely, he said. He wanted somebody who worked in a structure, who was favorable to some form of law and order. Okay.
As my seminar continued, I spotted two faces from my previous life – Al McGuire and Jack McMahon, basketball players and coaches from St. John’s University, my childhood team. They pulled up chairs, and the smart and gregarious McGuire began grilling Thornburgh on the case, and law, and other cosmic subjects. Thornburgh got in a few sage questions for McGuire, and seemed delighted that I knew these characters, from a vastly different world. The NYT was buying.)
The case meandered onward after my little story, and eventually, polluters began to clean up their acts – courtesy of Thornburgh. Pittsburgh is a cleaner place today because of cases like that.
I kept up with Thornburgh as he became attorney general and governor, when he was hailed for his leadership during the Three Mile Island nuclear threat. Later, he returned to private practice.
During the drug scandals in baseball in the early 2000s, I found an essay Thornburgh had written about the complications of testing, citing his Yale friend A. Bartlett Giamatti, the baseball commissioner who had expired days after banishing Pete Rose for rampant gambling offenses.
While I was researching the Musial biography, I ran across Thornburgh’s name as part of a merry band of Americans who had met in Rome during the reign of the Polish Pope John Paul II. (James Michener, the writer, had described this confluence of superstars.) Musial had been Thornburgh’s favorite player during his childhood in Pittsburgh – and Thornburgh could imitate Musial’s batting stance as well as his autograph.
We corresponded another time or three and then – bad news on the doorstep -- I picked up the paper on New Year’s morning and saw he has passed. I learned that his first wife had been killed – just like Joe Biden’s wife – in a car accident.
Richard L. Thornburgh seemed to be a public servant in the best sense of the word. When I covered his pollution case, I got the feeling he believed companies really should not be pouring their crap into the river. Thank you, sir.
* * *
(Somewhere in my mental notebook, from one-off glimpses as a reporter, I keep a list -- a short list -- of Republicans I Have Seen Up Close and Respected: Richard Lugar of Indiana, Howard Baker of Tennessee, Fred Thompson of Tennessee, in his younger days. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey. John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky -- despite his hiring an amoral slug named McConnell -- Tom Davis of Virginia. John McCain of Arizona, with whom I spent two glorious hours in his Senate office. Plus, Fiorello LaGuardia, NYC mayor when I was a little kid, who read “the funnies” to people on Sunday radio. And Richard L. Thornburgh of Pennsylvania, my “mentor” in law and government service.)
* * *
Thornburgh’s life is described by the master of NYT obits, Robert D. McFadden.
The Musial biography, with anecdotes from Pittsburgh boy:
Three Mile Island Recap:
Wait! That’s Not Brandi Chastain!
Stan Musial would know how Brandi Chastain feels.
The great St. Louis Cardinal slugger went through his final decades honored by a huge statue outside the ball park, which, alas, did not at all capture his unique corkscrew, crouching batting style.
Musial hated it, but being a get-along kind of guy, he smiled and said very little in public.
The latest abomination is a plaque for Brandi Chastain, the great soccer player who converted the game-winning penalty kick in the final of the 1999 Women’s World Cup.
Chastain’s team nickname was “Hollywood,” given by teammate and locker-room leader Julie Foudy.
Asked to fill out a team questionnaire, Foudy came to the question: Favorite Actress?
She wrote: “Brandi Chastain.”
Brandi has panache. She showed it upon making the championship shot in 1999, and, just like Cristiano Ronaldo and all the guys, she ripped off her jersey – in the center of the Rose Bowl – revealing an industrial-strength sports bra and just a few more inches of herself, an athlete at the peak.
Chastain was a terrific full-field player, a footballer, smart and competitive. She was recently voted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame and honored with a plaque depicting, well, somebody named Ellsworth or Percy who won a club championship in golf or tennis back in the 1920’s.
“Brandi Chastain is one of the most beautiful athletes I’ve ever covered. How this became her plaque is a freaking embarrassment,” tweeted Ann Killion of the San Francisco Chronicle.
The plaque will apparently be re-done. Chastain was gracious about it, as reported by Victor Mather in The New York Times. (Check out the links with other examples of wretched sports iconography.)
Musial, who died in 2013, generally took the high road about the statue by Carl Mose. I wrote about it in my biography of Musial, and my late friend, Bryan Burwell, sports columnist of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, gave his art critique in 2010:
Stan the Man did like a much smaller statue by Harry Weber, part of a series of St. Louis ball players outside the ball park, including Cool Papa Bell, immortal Negro League star. This one captures Musial’s energy in his follow-through.
Even on a plaque, Brandi Chastain deserves to look like herself and not Mickey Rooney or Jimmy Carter.
I’m not an artist, but how hard is that?
NB: The Reply/Comments section seems to be out. I cannot add a comment from here. The company had this problem a month ago and took a week to fix -- or give out information. I don't have the patience to deal with their tech department right now. Anybody with my email who has a comment, please be in touch. GV
Guess Who Came Up, 75 Years Ago
I didn’t remember, until a nice guy named Bob sent me a link that noted the 75th anniversary of Stan Musial’s first game, Sept. 17, 1941.
This reminded me that baseball -- for all the steroids and designated hitters and the deafening blare of ball-park commercials – is pretty much the same game.
Teams battle all season, and then in September new boys come along to alter the pennant race.
You never know.
In New York this week, the Mets won a game because an obscure callup named T.J. Rivera, out of the Bronx, hit a home run, and the Yankees almost won a game as a recently dismissed hitter named Billy Butler flew across the country to drive in runs in his first game.
Shades of Stan Musial, now known as a career .331 hitter but in 1941 not known at all, even in St. Louis. He was just a kid called up from Rochester because a few Cardinals were hurt as the team tried to catch the Brooklyn Dodgers.
My Brooklyn Dodgers. I was 2, but I was rooting. Years later, our fans would dub him “Stan the Man.” He moidered us, but we loved him all the same.
Nobody knew him when he came up. There was no web-o-sphere, no blab-o-sphere. He just showed up in St. Louis, as ordered, took the uniform No. 6 (he was not a star prospect, but the uniform was available) and in the second game of a doubleheader he tried to hit Jim Tobin, a pitcher known as Abba-Dabba because his knuckleball fluttered with occult mystery.
Musial popped up the first time but then calibrated for a double and single and two runs-batted in. The Cardinals didn’t catch the Dodgers, but Musial pretty much hit like that right through 1963.
The Boston Braves’ manager, named Charles Dillon Stengel, was so jealous of the new talent that he kept telling people, “They got another one,” or words to that effect. Thus was born one of baseball’s most beautiful bromances, two men who positively adored each other for life, but never got to work together.
The Cardinals loved the kid’s swing, and decided they shouldn’t run him out of the batting cage, the way veterans did.
On a subsequent train ride, Terry Moore, one of the great baseball captains, sat next to Musial in the parlor car and asked him who he was, and Musial said he was the lefty whom the varsity had bombarded in a spring-camp game. Right, he started the year as a rag-arm pitcher.
It’s all in the biography I did about Musial, “Stan Musial, an American Life,” published in 2011.
Musial passed in January of 2013 and I wrote about him in the Times -- the 475 homers, the exact same batting average at home and on the road, the friendship with John F. Kennedy, the identification with his hard-times home town, Donora, Pa., and his adopted home of St. Louis, where he could be his aw-shucks self.
Players still come up in September and perhaps affect pennant races, but not necessarily anybody quite like Stan the Man.
* * *
Musial’s first box score:
The link in the web site of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
This is an essay I have been dreading since September when Yogi Berra passed and I called up his good friend (and perhaps even his publicist-inventor) Joe Garagiola to see how he was doing.
Garagiola, who died Wednesday at 90, always called back, to tell stories, illuminate, maybe even heighten legends.
I’ve known about him since the 1946 World Series, when I was 7 and he was a brash 20-year-old rookie for the home-town Cardinals who out-talked the superstars, Stan Musial and Ted Williams.
Even the writers of the time, who did not make a practice of working the locker rooms for quotes, could not miss the ebullient kid.
And when Garagiola split a finger in the epic seventh game (when Enos Slaughter scored from first on a looped hit to left) Garagiola ran around the Cards’ clubhouse waving his bandaged finger and shouting, “Hey, I’m out for the season! I’m out for the season!”
He was rehearsing for his later career as baseball everyman on NBC. You can read two wonderful tributes by Richard Sandomir and by Richard Goldstein in Thursday’s Times.
This one is strictly personal. Joe was always a wonderful source – not a social friend but somebody I really liked and trusted. He was fair, even about a broken friendship with Musial.
Garagiola even invented himself, including the rep that he was a bad ball player. Fact was, he had been good enough to be stashed by the devious Branch Rickey as an under-age prospect in the Cardinals’ farm system, shining shoes and taking batting practice to evade the scouts until he came of age.
Let the record note that Garagiola hit .316 and drove in four runs in the 1946 World Series before, like many catchers, he got hurt. Later he accumulated the insights of a backup catcher, inventing himself – and maybe even his pal, Lawrence Peter Berra, from the Italian neighborhood, The Hill, who signed with the Yankees. Without baseball, they both could have been laboring in the brickworks or producing toasted ravioli on The Hill.
Garagiola and Musial used to drive for hours from the St. Louis region, talking to fans for a few bucks.
They agreed they both had mike fright.
Musial, who was shy and had a bit of a stutter, was afraid they would hand him the microphone.
Garagiola was afraid they wouldn’t.
Garagiola’s road to the radio booth is well told in the Times. I got to know him in the mid-60’s when he went to work for the miserable Yankees, enlightening spare time by imitating Joe Pepitone’s protests of a called third strike, hairpiece slipping, arms waving.
Garagiola gave Pepitone’s gesture an operatic feel, calling it the “Ma Che Fai?” (What are you doing?)
Joe was always there for color and background. I once edited a quite lovely anthology called “The Way It Was” about great sports events and I chose the 1946 World Series (which I consider the greatest World Series, ever) for my own chapter. Joe was working for the Today Show, getting up in the dark, but at a more civilized hour he had time for me in his office at NBC. His stories make that chapter hum – the postwar hopefulness, the talent, the veterans, the fun.
In his later decades, Garagiola became an even greater man – helping create a charity for destitute players (B.A.T.) and lobbying against chewing tobacco, which had disfigured and killed some players.
When I was writing the Stan Musial biography in 2007-8, Joe talked, off the record, about the friendship gone bad over a mutual investment in a bowling alley, run by surrogates. The ultimate headline in the Post-Dispatch was: “Stan and Joe: Business Splits Old Friends.” I don’t believe they ever spoke again.
For my Musial biography, Garagiola – way off the record -- told me sweet stories about Musial, their car rides, their early days when it all was good. His loving insights enrich my book.
I sent him a copy and one day after a siege of bad health he rang me and, nearly sobbing, thanked me for being fair to him – “and to Stan.”
That was Joe Garagiola – emotional, perceptive and fair. When he didn’t call back about Yogi, I knew it was bad.
Stan Musial Karma Endures into this Series
A few years ago I found myself writing that Stan Musial embodied the six-degrees-of-separation history of baseball – signed by the Cardinals of Branch Rickey, a man of the Nineteenth Century, and a teammate of Bob Gibson and Curt Flood and Bill White, stars of the Sixties.
Musial, who died on Jan. 20 of this year, is still current in many ways.
On Wednesday, a painting of Stan the Man was to be unveiled at the Missouri Athletic Club in downtown St. Louis, a few hours before his Cardinals were to open the World Series in Boston.
Boston is part of the karma. Musial played his last World Series against the Red Sox in 1946 – what I consider one of the great Series in history for the postwar presence of so many veterans, including Musial and Ted Williams – and in Musial’s only year as general manager, the Cardinals won the 1967 World Series over the Red Sox.
The Man runs right through the center of baseball. And get this, Tim McCarver, the eager puppy of a catcher who was housebroken by Musial and Gibson and others in the early 60s, is calling his last games for Fox this month.
McCarver adores Stan the Man. In the biography I wrote in 2011, Stan Musial: an American Life, McCarver told of the so-called lucky streak of Musial’s life – the embarrassed giggle, the winning hands at poker, the .331 batting average. Never underestimate Stan the Man, McCarver said.
This painting that will be displayed permanently at the M.A.C. is the first sports portrait among other distinguished Missourians. But Musial is wearing a suit, not the gaudy Cardinal uniform. His wife Lilllian commissioned the great portrait artist Robert Templeton to come to their home in 1960 and paint her husband, still playing ball, but already preparing for his continuing career in the restaurant business. Lil, who died in May of 2012, wanted to depict her husband as a man of dignity. The portrait hung in their home until they both passed, and now it will be seen downtown.
Another Musial sighting: his baseball collection -- the uniforms and scorecards and other mementos – are up for sale via the Heritage Auction site Nov. 9-11. Needless to say, the surge to the World Series by the Cardinals – with the No. 6 memorial patches on their uniforms -- cannot help but bring Musial closer to the public eye this month.
* * *
One more thing about this World Series: these two teams are not there by accident. Both of them have enlightened ownerships that have dominated this past decade. The Red Sox of John Henry and associates retooled and returned to the Series this year. The Cardinals, operated conservatively by the DeWitt family, keep winning with sound new waves of players. The smartest thing the Cardinals did was not to match the Angels’ offer for Albert Pujols. As Branch Rickey used to say: Better a year too soon than a year too late. In these high-stakes times, that theory is more important than ever. These two teams deserve to be where they are. Red Sox-Cardinals. The last World Series for The Kid and the Man, but in that grand baseball way, seeming like just yesterday.
It Took a Village to Raise Stan the Man
The same night Stan Musial died in St. Louis, an old friend died near Donora.
Veronica Duda, 98, was the strong and talented widow of Dr. Michael Duda, Musial’s mentor at Donora High, now long amalgamated into a district school.
The Dudas, young and childless at the time, took to the shy athletic kid from one of the poorest families in the mill town. Musial had the slightest bit of a stutter from being made to write right-handed, as was the fashion back then. Musial was not a scholar, but he could play basketball and baseball. Michael Duda, known as Ki (he used to portray the Kaiser of Germany in childhood games), started a high-school team, partially to give the boy a chance to play spring baseball.
Verne Duda was a trained violinist who had cut back on her performing to follow her academic husband a few miles from Latrobe to Donora. Teachers were treated with great respect in this community of newly-arrived ethnics. As hard as Donora was, people looked after each other.
Musial had an instinct for finding role models – a man with an auto dealership who taught Musial how to carry himself; the basketball coach who taught them citizenship; a mill worker who ran the town baseball team and one day let the skinny batboy pitch.
On Halloween evening in 1948, when Musial was already a star in St. Louis, Verne Duda was a queen of the parade, right down the busy main street of Donora. She noticed the normal bad air was getting worse but continued to toss apples and candy to the crowd – until news came that people were falling, and dying. It was the start of the Donora Smog that killed 18 people right away, not counting Lukasz Musial, who was taken to St. Louis, where he died in late December.
Michael Duda became the president of the state college branch at nearby California, Pa. He was beloved, and died way too young. Verne remained friendly with Musial’s mother Mary -- went with her to Hollywood when Stan was honored on “This Is Your Life.”
I caught up with Mrs. Duda a few years ago in a retirement apartment on campus. She was in a wheelchair and her eyesight was going, and she had misplaced some documents about her husband and their prize protégé. She did not lack for opinions, but her main one was pride in the boy from town who made his way in the world.
Here are two stories about Musial, over the transom, from readers in Connecticut and Missouri. Your own comments are welcome, below:
A little story about “Stan the Man”
This is probably one of a thousand stories about the special person that Stan Musial was.
Stan Musial’s daughter and her family lived on a beautiful street in Kirkwood next door to a friend and classmate of my daughter, Annie. I had recently spoken to her friend’s mother who told me that Stan was always over at his daughter’s house doing chores and odds and ends and how he was just the nicest person to everyone in the neighborhood.
One evening, my brother Bill, who lived in Dallas, called to tell me that he was coming to St. Louis to attend the 40th birthday party of his very good friend and roommate at Mizzou. His friend’s first name was Stan and was actually named after “Stan the Man.”
My brother commented that it would really be special if he could get something written from “Stan the Man” to Stan (his friend) as a birthday present. I remembered what the neighbor said and called the neighbor to see if it were possible to do this the next time Stan was at his daughter’s house.
I had an 8 x 10 glossy of Stan Musial at home and I brought it over to the neighbor. She said she would ask him the next time she sees him and that, as a matter of fact, Stan has been sealing his daughter’s driveway the past few days.
The neighbor called me the following Saturday to tell me that she saw Stan sealing the driveway and went out to ask him the favor of signing the picture.
She went on to tell me that upon this request, Stan said “Wait right here. I’ll be back in half an hour.” A little later, Stan came back and brought with him a number of articles all signed by Stan and with well wishes for the other Stan on his birthday. He obviously had dropped everything, drove home, and returned with the items which made one man’s birthday very very special.
And guess what? Stan didn’t ask for one dime. He was just honored to be asked. He did not personally know any of us but it didn’t matter.
When I think of Stan Musial, certainly I think of all the hits I witnessed as a kid and young adult, I am almost 70 now, but most of all I remember this story because this little act of kindness defines who he was. “The Man.”
The passing of Stan Musial is a sad event for all who knew of him! Litchfield, Connecticut, my life long home, may be far away from St. Louis and populated by Red Sox, Mets and Yankees fans, but any baseball fanatic who followed Mr. Musial's career, even to a minute degree, had to love his kind and wondrous personality.
Indeed, I will never, ever forget the glorious human being who was Stan The Man Musial. And, thank The Lord I bumped into him in person twice by amazing chance.
One of those days, my son, Tommie, a Red Sox fan, and I, a Giants fan, were standing outside the door of the room where the Hall of Famers go for their party in Cooperstown, New York. Of course, we were gazing closely to catch glimpses of our Red Sox and Giants all time heroes. As we were doing so, a fan, standing right behind us, who did not need a microphone, began announcing the names and nicknames of each player moving toward us.
"Pee Wee Reese!" he exclaimed as Pee Wee moved right up to us and gave all of us a high wave. "Willie Stretch McCovey!" the microphone blurted out. Willie simply moved by with speed, as if he were rushing out of the dugout to his first base post at a Polo Grounds home game. I saw quite a few of those games with my dad, Thomas D. Williams, a Giants fan as well, particularly after Willie Mays became my favorite rookie center fielder ever.
Our announcer continued his stupendous identifications of a couple of other famers before his apparent favorite arrived.
"Stan Musial!" he exclaimed with extraordinary enthusiasm. Stan, donning a huge smile, began walking toward us from the car that took him there. As Stan, got closer, our announcer yelled out: "Give us the stance, Stan!" So Stan stopped in mid-walk, and indeed gave us that notorious batting stance: his two arms high above and well in back of his head and his legs slightly crouched and apart. Without further prompting, Stan swung his arms forward as if his bat was about to strike a fast ball. He finished the swing, moved forward toward Tommie and I, resumed his stance and swung again. By the time Stan repeated this for his third swing, he was just feet away from us. He resumed his stance and exclaimed: "Once again?!" But, he stopped there for seconds, dropped the imaginary bat, broke out with an amazing smile and continued walking into the Hall of Fame party.
Upon another occasion, years apart, I was anticipating more lively action from Hall of Famers close to the same hallers' arty location. First I remember Yogi Berra and several other famers trudge by without episode or comment except for yells from the crowd: "Hey Yogi, Yogi,Yogi!" No answer and on into the Hall he walked. I was a bit disappointed until I saw this guy I could not yet recognize get out of a car and began his energetic walk. As he did so, he reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a harmonica. He soon put it to his lips as he continued his path and began playing "Take Me Out ToThe Ball Game!" As he was finishing, the crowd yelled: "Give it to us again Stan!" It was Stan The Man and once again, he belted another one out of the park: this one, however, was the greatest of baseball songs!
Dennie Williams, a Lifetime Giants Fan
Fans have sent in their memories of Musial to John Hall, collector of midwest baseball history. Many are touching, and give a great sense of the hold Musial has on the region.
For fans further east, I hear there will be a service in his home town of Donora, Pa., in mid-February. I will keep you posted. GV
Willie Mays on Stan Musial:
Mays was at the Baseball Writers’ dinner in New York Saturday night when word got around that Stan Musial had passed.
Willie Weinbaum of ESPN sent this report to Buster Olney:
"It is a very sad day for me," Willie Mays said in a brief interview after being informed of his perennial National League All-Star Game teammate's passing. Mays, on hand to celebrate the 2012 Giants' world championship honorees and the chapter's "Willie, Mickey and the Duke" award to his 1973 Mets, called Musial "a true gentleman who understood the race thing and did all he could.
"I never heard anybody say a bad word about him, ever."
This dovetails with Bernie Miklasz’ anecdote about Musial. Some people from a younger generation see Musial as less than a hero because he didn’t go on freedom rides.
How you live your daily life is important, too.
Here's a link to a terrific column by Bernie Miklasz in the Post-Dispatch. My thanks to Lynn McGuire, widow of the great John McGuire, for sending me this link.
A FEW PEOPLE HAVE INCLUDED PERSONAL MEMORIES OF MUSIAL. I'D LOVE TO SEE YOURS BELOW. GV.
We now prepare for the tributes, in the town that loved him.
Church and state in St. Louis will honor Stan Musial in the days and weeks to come, and the baseball-playing part of the world can update its memory of Stan the Man -- .331 batting average, 475 home runs, speed and consistency, voted the best baseball player of the post-war decade by Life Magazine.
He was more than that – he was the approachable face of baseball, a humble man who came to St. Louis and stayed, until he passed Saturday at the age of 92. The family has lost Lil and Stan in a short time.
I was lucky enough to get a feel for Musial in St. Louis while writing his unauthorized biography, Stan Musial: An American Life, which was a best-seller in 2011.
He was past speaking for himself but I was honored that some of his best friends, teammates, opponents and family spoke about him, portrayed him as very human.
I was privileged to be at the White House in 2011 when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He seemed subdued most of the time but lit up when President Obama put the medal around his neck.
His friends said he wore the medal when he made the rounds of his lunch places back home in the days afterward. .
I’ll be writing about him for the Times in the Monday edition.
For the moment, my condolences go to his family and that huge swath of the country that loved him, as its own.
Ken Griffey was between seasons on Nov. 21, 1969. He had just hit .281 for the Reds’ Gulf League team – his first year in pro ball -- and was waiting to play in Sioux Falls in 1970. He did what made economic sense for a young man and his pregnant wife – they went home, which in this case was Donora, Pa.
Three generations have come through that hard town of zinc plants on the Monongahela River. Ken’s father, Buddy, was a great three-sport athlete at Donora High, whose teammate in basketball and baseball was a skinny kid named Stan Musial.
Years later, Musial would softly let it be known he had no problem playing with or against African-Americans because he had grown up with them as teammates.
Ken Griffey was also a three-sport athlete. Baseball was his weakest sport, but he signed with the Reds, and they taught him to hit. His first-born, Ken, Jr., happened to arrive on Stan Musial’s 49th birthday.
They love that bond, the old Cardinal and the retired Mariner. Somewhere I have a gorgeous color photo of Musial in a gaudy sport shirt and Junior in a Mariner uniform, both smiling. It was taken by Dick Collins, who photographed generations of Hall of Fame celebrations. If I ever get the photo scanned, I’ll put it up here. Meantime, Junior and Musial are linked forever, albeit with a melancholy date.
Stan the Man referred to John F. Kennedy as “my buddy.” They met one day in September of 1959 in Milwaukee when the campaigning senator from Massachusetts spotted the Cardinal bus, and sought out Musial, asking if he would campaign for him.
In October of 1960, Musial went on the road for a week in what are now called Red States. He had a rollicking good time travelling with James A. Michener, Byron (Whizzer) White, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Jeff Chandler, Ethel Kennedy and Joan Kennedy. In the 2011 biography, Stan Musial: An American Life, another of the campaigners, Angie Dickinson, raves about the athlete who made everybody laugh.
Musial always said he lost all nine states for the President, but it was more like 2-7.
Musial and JFK met again at the White House before the 1962 All-Star Game. The President noted that people thought he was too young and Musial too old to ply their respective trades. They laughed about that, two guys who knew they had it pretty good.
On Nov. 22, 1963, a lot of people did not feel like putting one foot after another, but Musial showed up at his restaurant and asked customers if everything was all right with their dinners. One customer who was there that night said he thought Musial showed up because people needed to see his familiar face. Truth or imagination, it was a nice thought.
All of us of a certain age remember where we were that day.
* * *.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has a nice Thanksgiving feature on Stan the Man::
THIS JUST IN: DAVID VECSEY WROTE A SWEET MEMORY OF THE SUMMER WHEN HE AND JUNIOR WERE BOTH BEING PRODUCTIVE IN SEATTLE.
Talking About Musial, Live and Streaming
I’ll be talking about my book, Stan Musial: An American Life, on Saturday, Nov. 10, in Harrisburg, Pa.
The talk will also be streaming live at 3 pm at:
The talk is part of the Harrisburg Book Festival, Friday through Sunday, at the terrific Midtown Scholar Bookstore-Café, 1302 N. Third Street in Harrisburg. Tel: 717-236-1680.
My appearance has been arranged through my daughter Corinna Vecsey Wilson, vice president of programming and host at PCN.
The book was a New York Times best-seller in 2011. For a couple of glimpses of Musial, please see:
Musial will turn 92 on Nov. 21, and is the icon of St. Louis. I will be linking his modest, hard-working persona to his Pennsylvania roots in Donora in the western part of the state.
Stan the Man was one of the great baseball players of his time, or any time. At first I thought the subtitle should be The Forgotten Man (reference to the song in High Society) but when I began researching his roots as an immigrant's son in zinc-and-steel-and-smog country, I realized the subtitle An American Life was much better. It is always an honor to talk about one of the sporting heroes of my childhood.
Talking About Stanley and Yogi on May 1
Yogi Berra and Stan Musial go way back. They could even have been teammates except that the Cardinals offered more bonus money to Joe Garagiola than to Yogi, which is how history was made, or altered.
Yogi met Carmen at Stan & Biggie’s restaurant – he was wearing golf spikes.
On Tuesday at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center in Montclair, N.J., I will be talking about my biography, Stan Musial: An American Life -- about this great and perhaps under-rated Hall of Famer.
This is a paid luncheon event at noon, with a copy of the book included in the admission. For information please check the museum web site or call: 973-655-2378.
Stan and Yogi were both seen as good-luck charms by their teammates. I’ll get into that, too.
Hope to see you there.
Response to Thoughtful Reader Brian -- I
When I was writing about Levon Helm of The Band before his death on Thursday, I referred to the commonality of American and Canadian culture, pertaining to pop music.
I was not saying it all sounds alike, but that modern technology and communications have exposed all of us to various strains of music that we know and love.
The Band produced a new blend of rock, folk and country from all over the continent. Levon, bless his heart, brought Arkansas north of the 38th Parallel.
When the soul singer pictured above delivered the first note of Let’s Stay Together – the first high note! -- everybody knew he was doing Al Green. Of course, it was at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and “The Rev” was in the audience, and President Obama quickly made a Sandman joke (Sandman Sims, a noted tap-dancer, used to give performers the hook when the Apollo audience had enough.)
Not everybody watching the President got the Sandman reference, but who didn’t recognize Let’s Stay Together? It’s in the culture.
I’m an official Old Guy, and my iPod has Brazilian music, Latino Music, the Chieftains, Anna and Kate McGarrigle with Quebec accordions, Joe Williams at Newport, Lucinda Williams, Thomas Hampson singing Stephen Foster. Not one culture, but so many cultures, all out there in our ozone. When the American President can do Al Green, we are getting somewhere.
Response to Thoughtful Reader Brian – II
The other day I mentioned a double Yankee connection to Stan Musial. This was before I gave a talk about my Musial biography, at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, a lovely building on the Grand Concourse.
Brian asked: just what were those connections? Well, in 1938, when Musial was already signed by Branch Rickey’s vast Cardinal farm system, he told a scout from his home-region Pittsburgh Pirates that the Yankee empire was showing an interest in him.
Apparently an un-named Yankee “bird dog” had spoken to him, according to a Musial friend who was trying to get the Pirates interested in the local boy. But the Pirates couldn’t touch Musial because he was under contract, and the Cardinals quickly sent him to his first minor-league post in West Virginia, as a wild lefty pitcher.
The other Yankee connection? When Musial slumped in 1959 and manager Solly Hemus saw fit to bench him, the Sporting News ran a copyright story that the Cardinals might trade Musial to the Yankees for St. Louis home-boy Yogi Berra. Musial said it was ridiculous, nothing to it. He had already blown away a proposed trade for Robin Roberts a few years earlier.
The question is: how would Musial have done as a Yankee, either at the start of his career or at the end? Perhaps he would have gotten lost as a wild young lefty pitcher, and never gotten a chance to show his hitting ability. He only got to play the outfield regularly in the Cardinal chain after blowing out his pitching shoulder while making a diving catch in center field.
Years later, the Yankees found a position for a shortstop named Mantle, and they found ways for Berra and Howard to co-exist. My guess is the Yankees – or any club – would have discovered the kid could hit and they could have used him in left field or at first base, just as the Cardinals did.
In 1960, the Pirates turned down a chance to get Musial for their pennant drive. Could his bat have helped either the Yankees or the Pirates in that wild World Series?
Oh, yes, Musial visited Yankee Stadium in his first two World Series in 1942 and 1943 and he hit his last all-star homer in 1960 in Yankee Stadium.
Those are his Bronx connections. With impeccable good sense, Musial managed to spend the last 70 years in a grand baseball city that loves and appreciates him. He did fine.
Imagine Stan Musial as a Yankee?
Twice in his long and splendid career, Stan Musial was rumored to be going to the Yankees.
Once was before he was nicknamed Stan the Man in another borough; the other happened when he was Stan the Elder.
Of course, Musial became and remained the great sporting figure of St. Louis, a perfect blend of athlete and a grand old baseball town.
On Tuesday, April 17, in the Bronx, I will be discussing the Yankee parallels in my biography, Stan Musial: An American Life, published in 2011 by Ballantine/ESPN.
The talk will be at 3 PM in the Bronx Museum of the Arts, 165th St. and the Grand Concourse, part of a Yankee-centric spring baseball lecture series organized by Cary Goodman, the executive director of the 161st Street Business Improvement District.
It is a formidable lineup that began Sunday with Arlene Howard discussing her memoir of her husband Elston. Today (Monday) is Kostya Kennedy and his book about 1941. And on Wednesday Howard Bryant and Howie Evans will be talking about Henry Aaron. The full lineup is here:
I will give my theories why it was good for all concerned that Musial did not become a Yankee. Although, can you imagine him hitting to all corners of the old Yankee Stadium?
“If you’re in the neighborhood,” as the broadcasters say in the early innings, please come by and say hello on Tuesday.
Postcard From 2011: The White House
Instead of writing the usual cluster of postcards from this past year, I am retaining one outstanding memory – the grace of two presidents, in the home where they have lived, and a handshake that remains with me to this day.
I got to visit the White House on Feb. 15, after a friend scored a special invitation (not a press credential) for the ceremony for 15 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, including Stan Musial. My biography of Musial was almost done, and he was being flown in from St. Louis to receive his medal, at the age of 90.
On a cold, gorgeous sunny day, I met up with John Zentay, a Washington lawyer who in 1962 had escorted Musial to the White House to meet President John F. Kennedy. I told the story the next day in The New York Times, how Zentay was carrying a photo of young Stan the Man and young J.F.K., and how we spotted Musial being escorted in a wheelchair by his grandson to the security gate. While the old star waited for clearance, Zentay showed him the photo. Then another invited guest — a handsome woman with what could best be described as vigah — strode up and spotted the photograph.
“That’s my brother,” she said. It was Jean Kennedy Smith, the last Kennedy sibling, who was also to receive a medal that day. Musial, who is slowing down, did not respond, but Zentay and I were thrilled by her reaction.
What I did not mention in my column the next day was meeting Yo-Yo Ma, another medal recipient, at the gatehouse. Open and bubbly, he chatted with all of us as we waited. I thanked him for the Silk Road Project CD I have at home; I could have thanked him for dozens of other performances. What a nice guy.
The ceremony was also described in the Times — great sports figures like Jim Brown and Joe Morgan honoring their friend Bill Russell, and Musial’s family looking on proudly as he received his medal from President Obama.
After that came a reception — refreshments, mingling, casual introductions. I sought out President George H.W. Bush, who was also in a wheelchair that day, but had willed himself into standing when presented with the Presidential medal.
Because we were in the White House — smaller, more intimate, than you might think — I could not help remembering how my childhood friend Angus Phillips, the long-time outdoor columnist with The Washington Post, was once invited for a predawn fishing expedition with President Bush. Through a lapse in protocol, Angus found the president padding around his living quarters in a bath robe. Angus was mortified but President Bush was cool.
In 2011, President Bush was back, casually hanging around his old residence with the medal around his neck. I asked him about the whereabouts of his old George McQuinn first baseman glove that he wore for Yale in the College World Series of 1947 and 1948. He once displayed the mitt to a gaggle of sportswriters when we visited the White House to schmooze about baseball. This time the 41st president turned to his wife and said, “Hey, Bar,” and asked about the glove. Like any older married couple — I can relate — they could not remember where the glove was stored in Houston. Once again, I was reminded what a decent and approachable man he is.
This is the part I did not tell in my column. Not enough space. Too personal:
As the guests mingled, I heard a flurry of applause from a front foyer, where a military chamber group had been playing. I heard the hum of a cello, followed by applause and laughter, and I followed the sound. It turned out that Yo-Yo Ma had asked the military cellist if he could sit in for one movement of Dvorak, and when he finished, President Obama, still mingling with his guests, had given him a warm hug. Clearly, they are kindred souls as well as a couple of Harvard guys.
The president was tall and graceful and very much at ease as he started moving toward the hallway.
My friend, who had arranged my guest pass, introduced himself and asked the president about something they had in common. Politely, President Obama stopped, gave my friend his attention, and answered the question. Then he said: “I’m sorry, guys, but I’ve got to go. I’ve got some work to do.”
As any guests would do, the people nearest to him cleared a path, and in a chorus said, “Go! Go!” the way any guests would do for a host who needed to take care of business.
As the president strode toward a stairway, he could have picked up speed, looked straight ahead, but this was his borrowed home, and he was the host. As he walked, he made eye contact. I was pressed against a wall, just another guest in a dark suit, not about to interrupt him, but the president stuck out his hand and greeted three or four of us, who were clearing space for him. I felt his hand for a second, and then he was gone, up the stairway, out of sight.
As a long-time journalist, I have met a lot of people, and I force myself on people only when on duty. However, the glow of the offered handshake has stayed with me as I recall the short chat with President Bush, and the instinctive inclusion from President Obama. Nearly a year later, I still relish the brief exposure to their grace.
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.