Brushes with Greatness

If you’re in this business of journalism long enough and you spend a career fortunate enough to wind up in the right places a few times, you might brush up against some great people. They wouldn’t know you if you met them on the street later but that’s okay because you are richer from having touched the hem of their cloak.

There is a difference too easily ignored between being famous and being great. There is a difference between being a celebrity and being famous. I can count the great ones on one hand.

Stan Musial was great. And I got to talk to him once.

In the fall of 1985, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals played each other in the World Series. The Cardinals went to Kansas City and won the first two games. Governor Ashcroft and his people arranged for a special train, the World Series Special, to carry fans from Kansas City to St. Louis on the travel day. Reporters got to go along. There were St. Louis fans in one car. Kansas City fans in another. Assorted bigwigs here and there. And some retired major league baseball players. And then there was Stan Musial, bigger than any bigwig, a greater fan of the game than any fan of either team, THE ballplayer among the ballplayers on that train.

I’d talked to some fans. I got some words from the ‘wigs. Chatted up some of the retired players. And then somewhere between Jefferson City and St. Louis I decided that if I was ever going to talk to the great Stan Musial, I better assert myself.

A reporter can ask nasty, pointed questions of the highest political officers in the country, of generals, and top scientists, and big-time authors, some celebrities — but those people were never the heroes of you and your fellow Little Leaguers.

So there was Stan Musial.

I introduced myself. He greeted me warmly. I asked if he had a couple of minutes for an interview. “Sure, sit down,” he said, or something to that effect (it’s been 27-plus years, you know). I remembered that the last time the Cardinals traveled by railroad was the day he got his 3,000th hit. The train arrived in Union Station that evening from Chicago and a huge crowd was waiting to celebrate Stan’s achievement. At the time, only seven other players had gotten 3,000 hits. Since we were on a train, I thought it would be an appropriate story to hear him tell.  And he did. He recalled that he told the crowd that night that to celebrate his 3,000 hits, he was calling off school the next day in St. Louis.
The next day he was chagrined (a word I doubt Stan ever used) to learn hundreds of school children skipped school. And he cut loose with that great laugh that many remember him for. I certainly do. It was a wonderful laugh.

Somewhere I still have that recording. I’ve looked through box after box of old cassettes at the Missourinet and I haven’t found it yet.  But I will, and when I do, I’ll post it here.

Stan seldom went anywhere without a harmonica in his pocket. He was famous — but not great — as a harmonica player. I’ve wondered through all these years if he had it with him that day on the train and if I didn’t miss a huge opportunity by not asking him to play it.
I did find the recording of the day the bronze bust of Stan Musial was unveiled in the Hall of Famous Missourians at the Capitol on September 12, 2000. Before the event, Stan held a press conference. If you’d like to hear it, click on the first link below. And if you’d like to hear his remarks in the rotunda at the unveiling ceremony, click on the second link. He’s introduced at the unveiling ceremony by Jack Buck, who also has a bust in the Hall.

And, by the way, at the end of his remarks at the unveiling — he played his harmonica.

AUDIO: Stan Musial bust unveiling press conference
AUDIO: Stan Musial remarks in the rotunda

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