The true face of sportsmanship

Some 15 years ago, Princess Diana died in a Paris car crash and the whole world, save for the Queen, apparently went mad, confusing the death of a celebrity princess with that of a historic figure of heroic sanctity. So when Mother Teresa, an actual saint, died a few days later, it was as if God sent a gentle reminder about what authentic holiness looks like.

Perhaps similar forces were at work in the death of baseball legend Stan Musial on Saturday. All last week, the filth of Lance Armstrong’s prodigious mendacity coursed through the cable television veins of our culture. Armstrong intimated that he had to be corrupt because everyone else was corrupt. It was the approach we would expect from teenage boys behaving badly, not from someone who has been a role model to so many. So when Musial died, we remembered that his was a life that showed us what authentic manliness looked like. He was nicknamed “The Man,” and he was, just that. The real man is the virtuous man.

Stan The Man was one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He played his last game 50 years ago this September, and spent the half-century that followed as the face of the St. Louis Cardinals, never putting a foot wrong, never bringing anything but honour to the Cardinals, to St. Louis and to baseball itself.

When the archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, was named a cardinal last year, he was asked whether, when he was growing up in St. Louis, he had ever wanted to be a cardinal.

“Yes,” he replied. “When I was six years old, I wanted to be Stan Musial.”

Last Sunday, no longer six but in his 60s, the cardinal preached about Stan Musial on the day after his death. He still desires to be like Musial, not the ballplayer, but the faithful Christian and a good man. Or perhaps, to put it better, he desires that men looking for role models might discover Musial anew. Upon being made a cardinal, Dolan received his red hat from Pope Benedict XVI. Stan Musial sent him an autographed Cardinals’ hat. It’s the latter that greets visitors to the cardinal’s residence.

As a ballplayer, Musial became a first-ballot hall of famer after a career that included three World Series championships, 24 straight All-Star appearances, seven batting titles and three National League MVP awards. In 1963, he ranked in the all-time top 10 for hits, runs, doubles, home runs, RBIs, walks, total bases and slugging percentage. His 6,134 total bases were then a record (only Hank Aaron has passed him since 1963). His 3,630 hits are still fourth most all-time, behind only Pete Rose, Ty Cobb and Aaron.

In 1957, Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year. The accompanying profile began with an extended discussion of the nature of sportsmanship. The consensus was that whatever the definition of sportsmanship, Musial was the face of it. Former Cardinals’ manager Marty Marion said of Musial then: “Take Stan—nobody will beat you worse, but I’ve never seen him do one thing any man would be ashamed of anywhere.”

In the age of Mickey Mantle, that was an extraordinary compliment, but in today’s world, where athletes are inclined to broadcast things about themselves they ought to be ashamed of, it seems unimaginable.

Upon retirement, Life magazine profiled his last day. It began with him going to Mass in the morning, for he was a lifetime daily communicant, and while it eventually got around to the ballpark, the article focused more on Musial being a great man, rather than a great player.

He married on his 19th birthday and remained a faithful husband for 72 years. His beloved wife Lil died last spring, and it was only fitting that he would follow soon after. In 2011, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and it was difficult to know whether it was for his baseball career, or for being The Man for so long.

Stan Musial matters, moreso in the week of Lance Armstrong’s lies. The greatest lie Armstrong told was that because everybody cheats, it must be OK to cheat. Not everybody does. Stan Musial didn’t. He didn’t cheat at the game, he didn’t cheat on his wife, he didn’t cheat his fans, he didn’t cheat, period. It is possible to do that and still be among the best ever.

It is a great lie that virtue is not possible, or that it is not possible to be good if one wants to do well. The old man in the red blazer teaches us differently. He did well and he was good. It is possible. The Man did it.

A statue of Stan "The Man" Musial stands outside of Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

A statue of Stan “The Man” Musial stands outside of Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
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