Saturday January 26, 2013

GREAT BARRINGTON

No sport has as many great nicknames as baseball. The Red Sox alone can claim several of them, including Smokey Joe, the Splendid Splinter, Oil Can, Pudge, Big Papi, and, lest we forget, the Sultan of Swat.

Stan the Man, the sobriquet of the Hall of Famer who died last week, seems pretty lame in comparison. All rhyme, no color. But on a business trip to St. Louis over three decades ago, I saw for myself the man behind the Stan.

We were admen working on a campaign called America Reads TV Guide, at that time America’s best-selling magazine. For their endorsements, community leaders in various cities across the country were paid a token modeling fee of $5.

Stan Musial wasn’t even considered for the St. Louis sessions. Even if he did read TV Guide, he was a Hall of Famer as well as a successful businessman who owned two restaurants and a hotel in the town he’d starred in for 22 seasons. He’d cost a lot more than five bucks.

But our last day in town, I decided to go for broke, and called Stan and Biggie’s Restaurant downtown. Wonder of wonders, the guy said yes.

When I walked into the restaurant, I was 11 years old again. There, standing in front of a trophy case, was Stan Musial, he of the 475 homers, 1,951 runs-batted-in, .331 lifetime batting average, and 24 All-Star game appearances.

We chatted about TV Guide for about one minute and then started talking baseball.


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Suddenly two middle-aged, dark-suited men emerged from the bar. One staggered right into Musial.

"Hey, Shtan," he slurred, grabbing his victim’s elbow. "Shtan the Man. How ya doin’, Shtan? Great to see ya, just great."

Musial shifted into automatic with a handshake and a dazzling smile. "Good to see you, too. Thanks for stopping by."

"Jees, Shtan, I musta seen ya a million times at old Sportsmen’s Park. Great ballplayer. The greatest. Shtan the man."

Musial, who appeared in 3,026 ball games and was never ejected from a single one, frowned. "I’m in the middle of something right now," he said sternly, looking over at the drunk’s friend for help.

"C’mon, Frank, let’s go," the friend pleaded.

"No, wait a minute. Thish ish Shtan here, my buddy. Aren’t ya, Shtan?"

"Stan?," the friend whispered to Musial. "I’m sorry. Frank here just buried his wife this morning."

Musial suddenly drew Frank into his arms. "Oh, that’s rough. Gee, I’m awfully sorry.’"

While Musial softly patted Frank’s shoulder, the two rocked back and forth, tears of Scotch and sorrow sliding down Frank’s face.

"You’d better get home and get some rest," Musial told him.

He took Frank’s arm and led him through the lobby to the door. Frank’s head hung like a puppy’s.

"Thanks, Shtan. Sorry," he muttered.

"That’s OK, buddy."

Musial opened the door into the sunlight and handed Frank off to his friend. He watched the two weave into a cab and drive away, his silhouette remaining in the doorway for what seemed like a very long time.