By David Moriah
I knew it was coming, of course, but that didn’t make it any easier to handle. I was like a batter digging in with the game on the line against Mariano Rivera – you know he’ll throw you the cutter, the pitch that made him the greatest reliever in the history of the game, but knowing it’s coming doesn’t make it any easier to handle.
Stan Musial was 92 years old after all, and for several years he’d failed to show at the annual Hall of Fame induction weekend in Cooperstown, an event he faithfully attended throughout the decades following his own 1969 election. He moved slowly and looked frail when President Obama welcomed him to the White House in February 2011 to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a painful reminder that his time was drawing to a close.
So I knew it was coming, but still it was hard for me to handle the news in January that Stan “The Man” Musial had passed. Baseball fans across America mourned the loss, especially in St. Louis, where the man was a legend and an icon. But for me it was especially personal. Once upon a time, I had been his batboy, and though he certainly wouldn’t remember me, I would never forget him.
Back in 1961, as Musial was closing out his brilliant career with the St. Louis Cardinals, I lucked into the experience of a lifetime on a family vacation to spring training in St. Petersburg, Fla., where both the Yankees and the Cardinals trained. I was 10 years old, and I showed up at the ballpark early to try my hand at collecting autographs of the arriving players. Within moments of seeing my first major leaguer up close, a Cardinal employee tapped me on the shoulder and uttered the most magical words I’ve ever heard, before or since.
“Hey kid, you wanna be a bat boy today for the Cardinals?”
If the heavens had resounded with the sounds of the Hallelujah chorus it would not have come close to the ecstasy I felt as I was led onto the field and into the dugout of the 1961 St. Louis Cardinals. And there before me, in his resplendent Redbird uniform, was none other than Stan “The Man” Musial.
As it turned out, the Cardinals needed a batboy for the entire week my family was on vacation, and every day I dutifully reported to the ballpark, even riding the bus with the team for a few road games around Florida. I sat in the dugout and roamed the clubhouse, soaking up the baseball chatter and easy banter of the players. And I had enough exposure to “The Man” to form a child’s impression that this was a real hero, a man of not only immense talent but of uncommon kindness.
My “pay” for being a batboy each day was a game ball and the opportunity to take away any bats that had cracked. During the week my collection grew to include bats swung by Bill White, Carl Sawatski, Julian Javier and Joe Cunningham. One day one of Musial’s bats developed a hairline crack along the thin handle that was his trademark, and I left the park with an unimaginable treasure, one I’ve carried through my life for more than 50 years.
I brought the bat with me to Cooperstown several years ago hoping to catch up with Musial at the Hall of Fame induction event to ask him to sign it. I was in the midst of a scrum of autograph seekers when Musial emerged from the Hall of Fame, and I managed to catch his attention by holding the bat aloft and calling out to him.
“It’s your game bat, Stan. I was your batboy and you cracked it!”
Musial shot me a mischievous smile, and as he reached out to grant me his prized signature, he set me – along with everyone in earshot – straight.
“I never cracked a bat,” boasted the man who was arguably the best all-around ballplayer of his generation.
And then he was gone.