Exactly one week after Stan Musial had closed his eyes for the final time and peacefully concluded his exemplary life that spanned over nine decades, thousands gathered to pay their final respects at both Busch Stadium and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. Wreaths, flowers, and simple notes of appreciation have comprised the makeshift memorial at the foot of the Musial statute in front of Gate Three at Busch Stadium. Initially a private funeral, the public was permitted to claim unfilled seats after the Musial family had entered into the near century old cathedral. For as far as the eye could see, the filled to capacity cathedral was dominated by the color red. Whether it was the scarves and blouses worn by several female mourners, the children’s choir robes or even the pallbearers’ ties the color red was proudly worn and in abundance. St. Louis Cardinals icons such as Bruce Sutter, Ozzie Smith, Whitey Herzog, Lou Brock and Red Schoendienst also wore red jackets to honor a man who was the embodiment of the franchise for 72 years.
Former Cardinals such as Joe Torre, Albert Pujols and Tony LaRussa joined Commissioner Selig and Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson in the congregation. In a funeral mass that nearly lasted two and half hours, Musial’s life was celebrated with great dignity and reverence. Bishop Richard Stika of the Diocese of Knoxville served as the homilist. Stika and Musial became friendly when Stika was the pastor of Musial’s parish, the Church of Annunziata. Stika expressed great admiration for Musial in a variety of ways. He said that Musial led a life of fulfillment and was blessed with great skills and humility. Musial was a man of profound faith who maximized his talents and had a strong desire to share his gifts with others. Stika emphasized how Musial valued the sacred trust between him and the baseball fans in St. Louis.
Stika recalled one humorous story regarding Musial and his late wife Lil. At the conclusion of Sunday mass, Musial would push Lil’s wheelchair close to the car. Many people would line up to help Musial tend to the needs of his wife. However, Musial would then go to the back of the car and open up the trunk so that he could distribute souvenirs to the parishioners. Besides receiving the highest civilian honors in both Poland and the United States of America, Musial shared a special connection with Pope John Paul II. He was a man whose contributions to the community, hospitals, civic boards and charities far outweighed his statistical achievements as a Hall of Fame baseball player.
Bob Costas’ deeply emotional eulogy was the singular defining moment at Musial’s funeral. As a request made by the Musial family, Costas humbly said that he was honored but it would have been far more appropriate if the words were spoken by Jack Buck. Costas began by simply stating the obvious that Musial’s life was too vast and meaningful to be summarized in a few statements. He then went on to address the issue that has worked against Musial in terms of universal appeal and amazement. Musial simply lacked a “hook” or label that attracted the masses from all corners of the country. Musial didn’t have a 56 game hitting streak nor was he a conflicted and cantankerous superstar like Joe DiMaggio. He didn’t have a tempestuous relationship with the fans or the media as he strived for perfection just like Ted Williams. Musial lacked a signature moment that was indelible to the masses such as Willie Mays’ catch in the 1954 World Series or Hank Aaron’s pursuit of the all time home run record. Musial also wasn’t the embodiment of Bernard Malamud’s fictional character Roy Hobbs and wasn’t a flawed and star crossed superstar like Mickey Mantle.
Costas addressed the intriguing fact that Musial’s last world championship had occurred in 1946 and the following year the World Series had become a televised event. While Musial was never given the appropriate exposure to a large national audience in the same manner that some of his contemporaries experienced, he had become an iconic and universally adored human being in the Midwest. Musial never had to battle demons, rage or conflict like Ty Cobb. Instead, Costas eulogized that Musial held the all time record for autographs signed and spirits lifted in times of great need.
Costas painted a stunning picture of Musial as someone who valued friendships over fame and never disappointed people. An unfair criticism that has followed Musial for nearly 70 years was that he was a proponent to integration, but he wasn’t an activist on its behalf. Musial wasn’t one to lead a march or to proclaim his beliefs publically. Costas shared with the congregation a story that few have ever heard regarding Musial and baseball’s issues with race. At one all star game in the 1950’s, African American superstars such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Frank Robinson were playing cards in a corner of the clubhouse by themselves. With the palpable racial tensions clearly obvious to everyone, Musial strolled up to the group and simply said, “Deal me in!”
Whether it was bringing a McDonald’s breakfast to his grandchildren on Sunday mornings or flying to Dallas in 1995 while battling prostate cancer to attend Mickey Mantle’s funeral, Musial was far closer to achieving the unattainable ideal of perfection than anyone else according to Costas. Musial had a deep and unabashed love for his country, religion, family, fans and his wife. The untarnished icon had lived a life based on modesty, sincerity, and class. While Musial’s funeral was a celebration of his extraordinary life, it also marks the end of a romantic era where our heroes stood for something far greater than a paycheck. So long “baseball’s perfect warrior, baseball’s perfect knight!”