Sportsmen Get Long Overdue Honor
By Raymond Rolak
Wash. D.C.– It took the encouragement of some U.S. Senators and the entire ‘Cardinal Nation’ but Stan Musial was finally awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was included with a very distinguished group. President Barack Obama presented to the 90 year old Musial in the East Room of the White House. Musial was one of 15 recipients of the medal and one of two sports greats. Also honored was Boston Celtics Hall of Famer, Bill Russell.
Musial and Russell were included with a very distinguished group including former U. S. President George H.W. Bush. Interestingly, the senior President Bush, 86, had played baseball at Yale and participated in the NCAA finals in 1947 and 1948. The former collegiate first baseman talked about the great experiences he had at the first College World Series. The first two CWS were at Hyames Field on the campus of Western Michigan University. Yale had been runners-up to California and USC in 47 and 48, respectively. “We got our picture taken with Babe Ruth and I thought that was heady stuff but here I am with Stan-the-Man,” said the former President. “I am so honored to be here today.”
Also receiving the award were former President George H.W. Bush, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, John H. Adams, Maya Angelou and financier Warren Buffett. Also included were Jasper Johns, Gerda Weismann Klein, Dr. Tom Little, Sylvia Mendez, Jean Kennedy Smith, John J. Sweeney and world renown musician Yo-Yo Ma.
President Bush, who played baseball at Yale, kept a George McQuinn style first baseman’s glove in the Oval Office desk drawer when he was in the White House. “When I was stressed, I would pull it out and pound on it,” said the former President.
Musial, inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 1969 and the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame (NPASHF) in 1973 was humbled. Seated with Lil, his wife of over 70 years, Musial said, “I am proud to be a Cardinal.”
Russell was the centerpiece of 11 championship seasons for the Celtics. Also, he won two NCAA basketball championships at the University of San Francisco. One of Russell’s high school teammates in Oakland, California was future baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.
Russell, who also coached for the Seattle Supersonics in the NBA, was also a national basketball broadcaster. He complimented President Obama about reaching the top of his field based on intelligence, ingenuity and hard work.
Throughout the 2010 baseball season, thousands of Cardinals fans from around the world took part in the team’s social-media based ‘Stand for Stan’ campaign. The players also joined in the campaign. “For us, Stan embodies all that is good about the game of baseball and what it means to be a St. Louis Cardinal,” wrote the 2010 Cardinals players in a letter to President Obama supporting Musial for the Medal of Freedom. “Stan is a role model for players and fans alike, embodying the qualities of good sportsmanship, self-discipline, hard work, consistency, grace, humility and excellence.”
The grass roots effort blossomed and helped the decision of the President regarding Musial. Ron Watermon of the St. Louis Cardinals was the point man for the ‘Stand for Stan’ project. Cardinal supporters and Musial admirers were encouraged to take their picture of with the caricature of the ‘Stand for Stan’ and forward the photo’s on. Folks were lobbying and encouraging others in the effort with their picture of ‘Stand for Stan’. “The day we started the project, the team (Cardinals) was in San Diego, and there were fans already in the stadium with ‘Stand for Stan’ posters,” said Watermon. “It took a life of its own and just grew.”
The Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor. It is bestowed to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the best interests of the United States, to world peace or to cultural or other significant public endeavors. Though individuals may be honored for singular acts of momentous achievement, it is generally presented for a lifetime of service or at the conclusion of a distinguished career. It was long overdue for Musial.
Musial joins other baseball greats who have been awarded the Medal of Freedom, including Hank Aaron (2005), Roberto Clemente (2003), Joe DiMaggio (1977), Buck O’Neil (2006), Frank Robinson (2005), Jackie Robinson (1984) and Ted Williams (1991).
A Pennsylvania native, Musial enjoyed a 22-year Major League Baseball career as an outfielder and first baseman with the Cardinals. He started out as a promising pitcher. With his unorthodox coiled stance, he batted .300 or better in each of his first 16 seasons and finished with a .331 career batting average. His average ranks 32nd all-time in baseball history and fifth highest in Cardinals history.
Musial won the National League batting title seven times. He was a three-time National League Most Valuable Player (1943, 1946 and 1948), accumulated a career total of 3,630 hits and 475 home runs.
Musial also was on three World Series teams as a player and one as the Cards’ general manager. His great sports appeal was national in scope. Musial became part of the fabric of American culture, when in 1946 the spectators in Brooklyn, New York gave him his now famous nickname, ‘THE MAN’.
Musial recalled his induction into the NPASHF in 1973 and the anniversary celebration of the Museum 25 years later. He remembered fondly regaling the audience with his harmonica. “Ray, Polish food is still my favorite,” he added while smiling. “I watched the 2006 series on TV,” referring to the Tigers-Cards matchup.
Off the field, Musial’s accomplishments are still impressive. Other activities and charities fond to Musial are the USO, Senior Olympics, the Boy Scouts, the Crippled Society of St. Louis, and Shelter the Children. He always has stayed connected to baseball and operated a hotel in retirement and lent his name to a restaurant in suburban St. Louis.
He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, missing the entire 1945 season. While still playing he recognized the great importance of off season training and nutrition. In 1959 Musial hired a personal trainer to get his hitting eye back on stroke. He was awarded Comeback Player of the Year in 1962 when he hit .330 at age 41. After his playing days he served as chairman of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s President’s Council on Physical Fitness from 1964 to 1967.
Musial wholeheartedly helped the growth of Little League baseball in Poland and has acted as an unofficial emissary to Poland. He was awarded the Cavalier Cross of the Order of Merit, the Polish Government’s highest civilian honor.
The Medal of Freedom was established in 1945 by President Harry S. Truman to honor service during World War II. The medal was re-established in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy and the scope by which it is awarded was broadened.
“Throughout his life, Stan has never sought recognition for his good works,”’ said Cardinals Chairman William DeWitt Jr. in a released statement. “Stan has been a true role model exemplifying the humility, grace and generosity we so desperately need to see in our American sports heroes.”
Musial’s decency as a gentleman was legendary. Musial stood by his beliefs of treating people right. In 1947 when some Cardinals wanted to boycott an upcoming game against the Brooklyn Dodgers because they had African-American Jackie Robinson on their roster, he took action. Unaffected by the pressure, Musial adamantly refused to follow suit. The Cardinals played the game, a testament to the respect he commanded in the clubhouse. He was also highly valued for mentoring rookies with advice and tips. He would include ‘the rooks’ for dinner invites when traveling on the road. Years later, Hank Aaron said that Stan Musial was one of his favorite Major League players because he treated all men equally and with dignity.
Musial was the first player in Cardinals history to have his uniform number retired and in 1969 won first-ballot election into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. On Oct. 2, more than 39,000 fans paid tribute to Musial at ‘Stan for Stan’ Day at Busch Stadium.
MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said, “On behalf of all of Major League Baseball, I am truly thrilled that The White House has honored Stan Musial with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Stan Musial is an extraordinary human being, a great American and one of the best players in the history of the game. He has long been a treasure of St. Louis, but he represents all the best of our national pastime. Today, our game salutes Stan Musial on this highest honor from our country.”
I joked with Bill Russell that Musial had been offered a basketball scholarship in 1938 to the University of Pittsburg. “Russell smiled, “I would have gotten more boards.” The normally very intense Russell was very gracious and we compared some University of San Francisco and University of Detroit sports stories. We shared about the Jesuit Basketball Initiative, a new promotion to highlight Jesuit colleges that have varsity men’s and women’s basketball programs. Russell had as two of his guests, football great Jim Brown and baseball Hall of Famer Joe Morgan.
There is a statue of ‘Stan the Man’ outside of Bush Stadium in St. Louis. It is inscribed with this quote by former baseball executive Ford Frick, “Here stands baseball’s warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.”
Editors Note: Raymond Rolak is a Sports Writer and was a past Chairman of the NPASHF.