ST. LOUIS – The first person arrived just minutes after Stan Musial’s death went public and the crowd continued to grow. Soon the group was big enough to block two lanes of traffic, yet nobody seemed to care.
In a moving tribute to the greatest baseball player in the history of the storied St. Louis Cardinals franchise, hundreds of fans gathered near his statue late Saturday night to honor the man some considered a part of their family despite never meeting him.
“You felt like you knew him,” said longtime Cardinals fan Mary Lewis, who remembered watching Musial play growing up. “He was such a good ambassador. He adopted St. Louis. He wasn’t from here but he came here and he stayed here his whole career, which doesn’t happen anymore.
“I just felt like I needed to be here with other fans.”
Musial, winner of three MVP Awards and holder of nearly all franchise records from his 22-year career with the Cardinals, died Saturday at the age of 92.
Fans left flowers, balloons, stuffed Cardinals bears and even cans of Budweiser beer at the foot of the famous Musial statue. Some cried, some just stood in silence and others told stories of the player known simply as, ‘The Man.’
A young Cardinals fan left a baseball with a message that said, “Stan I wish I could have met you. #1 Cardinal of All-Time. You will be missed.” Several local news stations broadcasted live as the crowd continued to grow.
“He just seemed like family,” said Cardinals fan Laura Taylor. “We were out to eat and I saw it on Twitter. Jason Motte was retweeting it and then others. Oh man, I kind of lost it in Hardees. It was not cool. We had to go get some flowers and bring them down here. We just had to be here. You just feel like you had to be here.
“He was amazing. I don’t think there will ever be another man like him. To have the career that he did with the Cardinals, it was amazing. He’s the Cardinals. He is St. Louis.”
A 24-time All-Star, Musial hit .331 and had 475 home runs and 1,951 RBIs during his career and led the league in doubles eight different times. He finished his career with 3,630 hits – exactly 1,815 at home and 1,815 on the road.
Musial is the Cardinals’ franchise all-time leader in games played, at-bats, runs scored, hits, total bases, doubles, triples, home runs, RBI, walks and extra-base hits. At the time of his retirement in 1963, he held or shared 17 major league records.
“Obviously he was the greatest baseball player to ever wear a Cardinals uniform but it was more than that,” said Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak. “He meant much more than that to the city. When you think about his impact and what he meant as an ambassador to the city of St. Louis and to really this region. I think we were all blessed to have him and when I think about it, it makes me realize that that type of player, we’ll probably never see again in our lifetime.”
A first-ballot Hall of Famer, Musial is also celebrated for skipping the 1945 season to serve in the Navy in World War II. When he returned a year later, Musial won his second MVP award and led the Cardinals to the 1946 World Series title.
“There are a lot of stats and a lot of people can quote those to you but what makes it so touching is this guy impacted people’s lives,” said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. “I saw him early on in my minor league career and how he handled people and I knew that was how I wanted to be. That was how I wanted to treat people. That’s why he’s won the hearts of people in St. Louis and why this city is in mourning. I never saw a connection like that and don’t think we ever will again.”
Said former Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, “He was a great American. He was always great to me. He really pushed me for the Hall of Fame. St. Louis has been lucky to have a player like Stan Musial. He will always be Mr. Baseball. You can go around the world and you’ll never find a better human being than Stan Musial.”
Across town at Scottrade Center the St. Louis Blues honored Musial with a moment of silence between the second and third periods. And as if a higher power was somehow involved, the Blues won by a final score of 6-0 in honor of Musial’s No. 6.
Several Blues fans then joined the gathering crowd outside Busch Stadium as fans took pictures of the statue and the growing monument it had become.
“He was Cardinals baseball,” said Jeremiah Nichols, who wore his No. 6 Musial jersey. “He symbolized everything that is St. Louis Cardinals baseball with all the history. To play for over 20 years on one team, nobody will ever be Stan The Man.
“St. Louis is a baseball town and we worship our players and fortunately we had the right one. He was a Cardinal through and through and this just proves it with all these people already here. You can’t beat it. We said lets jump in the car and go to the statue. I’m glad I’m here.”
Former Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, who was often compared to Musial during his time in St. Louis, released a statement late Saturday that read in part, “Stan Musial was bigger than life. He is not only the greatest Cardinal of all time, but the greatest baseball player I have ever had the privilege of knowing.
“I will cherish my friendship with Stan for as long as I live. I will hold our conversations close to my heart. You were a dear sweet man who influenced my game and my life more than you will ever know.”
The statue is inscribed with a quote from former baseball commissioner Ford Frick, who said, “Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.”
Musial was one of the most underrated players in baseball history. But not in St. Louis, where news of his death hit hard with the many generations of Cardinal National. That was evident long into the night.