Stan Musial wore his faith on his sleeve

Stan Musial wore his faith on his sleeve January 21, 2013

As news of St. Louis Cardinal great Stan Musial’s death spread, Rocco Palmo tweeted:

As “The Man” goes to his reward, a memorable Dolan quote on receiving the red hat: “The only Cardinal I ever wanted to be was Stan Musial.”

Of course, Musial was not just an amazing baseball player, admired by everyone. He wasn’t just a gentleman with major personal accomplishments, including a marriage that lasted more than 71 years. He was also a devout Catholic. I was curious how the media would handle that aspect of the story.

I’m one of those people who want to know about religious affiliation in every single obituary I read. It’s the thing I want to read first in an encyclopedia entry, too. It’s a very important piece of information for me. But because Musial’s Catholicism was such an important part of his life — from his regular worship to the charities he was involved with — it’s an important part of the picture even for more typical readers who, I assume, don’t quite share my level of interest in religious affiliation.

So it was odd, I thought, that the Associated Press managed a healthy 2,000-word obituary of Musial without mentioning his faith once. The New York Times obit was even longer, but it also neglected to mention this aspect of The Man.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch didn’t devote too much space Musial’s faith, but neither did it neglect it. Here’s how it began:

It is unlikely a professional athlete ever has found it tougher to take off his uniform than Stan Musial. For the 22 years he played in the big leagues, from the time his mother manufactured baseballs for him out of old socks and tape, he loved nothing more than playing baseball.

“For Stan, it was a thrill to come to the ballpark every day,” former teammate Joe Cunningham said. “He loved the game, loved putting on the uniform.”

Yet, few athletes have segued into private life more seamlessly, and perhaps none has embellished his or her legacy more dynamically than Musial.

He has come to represent much more than baseball heritage for St. Louis. He has become a living monument, as identifiable with the city as the Gateway Arch, the Mississippi River or the Cardinals organization itself.

The integrity, humility and decency with which Musial has conducted his public life are virtues that family-friendly St. Louis promotes as its own. Musial doesn’t just represent the best the national pastime has to offer, he represents the best we hope to find in ourselves.

“One thing I have to say,” said Bill Virdon, whose arrival as a Rookie of the Year center fielder in 1955 moved Musial to first base. “He is one of the best people I’ve ever known. He is kind, generous … you could not meet a better person in this world than Stan Musial.”

Toward the end we’re told:

Over the past 40 years, Musial has been the patriarch of baseball in St. Louis, a beloved bridge to a more virtuous past, a standard by which St. Louis sports figures are measured.

Musial is not without faults. He was not a perfect gentleman, but he aspired to be. And he came as close as anyone might. Early in his career, he smoked cigarettes and the occasional cigar, but he would never be seen doing so publicly, especially by kids.

He remained a devout Catholic all his life, but never pushed his spirituality on others. He never crossed himself at home plate or pointed to the heavens after a hit. For all of his harmonica-playing frivolity and social accessibility, he was an intensely private man who held family dear and valued loyalty.

I have two thoughts on this. Equating the crossing of one’s self to “pushing” spirituality is questionable, of course. But I always wonder why we say that someone living his life as Musial did is practicing one’s faith privately. To me, it’s a very public display of one’s faith to remain married in a beautiful marriage for 72 years. It’s a public display of one’s faith to treat others with respect. And what could be more public than Musial’s regular attendance at Mass? There seems to be a bias in the media toward certain types of public displays but not others.

To my mind, Musial did wear his faith on his sleeve. And I mean that as a high compliment.

My other thought is that I’ve seen a trend toward ignoring religion in obituaries. I don’t care if someone is a devout Catholic such as Musial or a fervent atheist or mildly practicing Jew. Information about someone’s religious affiliation and practice (or lack thereof) is helpful information for those of us reading it in the present and those of us who read obituaries to learn about the past. We speak frequently about media ignorance or downplaying of religion and obituaries have become a ground zero of this problem. Let’s work to improve it.

Photo of Stan Musial stamp from the United Arab Emirates via Shutterstock.

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17 responses to “Stan Musial wore his faith on his sleeve”

  1. Unfortunately, if there had been something scandalous or untoward in his life, I suspect his faith would be front and center in media obits even though his faith had nothing to do with his failing.
    On the other hand it is lived unflamboyant faith like his that is the best evangelization for any Faith. Just as the horrendous failings of a few bad priests can make one embarrassed to be Catholic–it is Catholics like Musial that make one proud to be Catholic. Maybe that is why some in the media want to downplay the faith of someone like this great ballplayer.

  2. The first Bob Costas interview really struck home. When I was in grade school, the highlight of my time at a Catholic girls’ camp in the MO Ozarks was being around Musial’s son Richard. Then there was another son my age who played for a boys’ Catholic HS football team in St. Louis – Stan was at almost all the games. Lovely family. Never any scandals.
    American Catholics tend not to preach their religion to strangers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But St Francis is credited with saying something like: preach the Gospel always, and use words, if necessary. My father had about 5 converts to his credit and as many reverts, but he never preached. We’re more likely to get involved in private conversations where religious subjects come up as part of the natural flow of topics.

    It has been superceded and I can’t find it anymore, but the AP earlier this afternoon had a story out describing funeral plans with the strange, gratuitous description of the Catholic Cathedral in St. Louis as “elaborate” or some such characterization. Doh! It’s a Cathedral – large enough for big events like this one. Why was this snarkiness appropriate? Looks like an editor decided it wasn’t appropriate and it is no long part of the article. I will try to find the original AP story and post it here.

  3. Should have said that Richard Musial was the guy who taught us the fine art of horseback riding. That’s why he was working at a girls’ camp.

  4. The”New Cathedral” in St. Louis really is elaborate, with many byzantine frescos. It’s been 30+ years, but my memory is that the walls were completely covered.

  5. “Elaborate” is an adjective – what is elaborate about the church? Lots of windows? Gaudy paintings? Gold all over the place? Without saying more, “elaborate” has a rather negative feel.

    I used to sing in the choir there so I am very aware that it has one the largest expanses of mosacis in the world.
    Why not say “mosaic-covered” instead of “elaborate”? It was an odd choice of descriptive.

  6. Julia rightly spotlights one of the ways some media people’s biases subtly editorialize in news stories.
    Many, many words have negative or positive emotional weight. And one can be certain professional media people are aware of the weight certain words carry.
    Probably the most common I find is when a pope or bishop explicitly upholds Catholic teaching, he(or his words) are often negatively described as R-I-G-I-D or harsh, or severe, or inflexible, etc., etc.(or worse). However, frequently, other more positive words such as steadfast, spirited, vibrant, dynamic could be chosen as a descriptiveas in the same situation.

    • I’ve always noticed this obvious example of bias, too. What I find hilarious is how renegade Roman Catholic priests — so long as they’re not uber traditionalists — are presented as heroic while renegade mainline Protestant priests and pastors get the same ol’ R-I-G-I-D treatment you mention here.

  7. BTW I wouldn’t call the St Louis mosaics Byzantine. St Peter’s in Rome has a lot of mosaics, too.

    The then-Cardinal of St Louis greatly influenced the plans for the Immaculate Conception Shrine in D.C. which also has lots of mosaics. Here’s a set of Flickr images of the beautiful mosaics in St Louis – many are of St Louis historical personages.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if they find room to add a mosaic of Stan “The Man”. He has been a very faithful supporter of his church in St. Louis.

  8. I do the same thing. Whenever I hear read an article, or look up someone on Wikipedia, I always look to see their faith too. It is astounding how many practicing and non-practicing Catholics are in influential positions of one form or another.

  9. I guess “elaborate” just isn’t a negative term for me. Its true I prefer simplicity and the Old Cathedral was more my style. Intense visuals tend to distract me.

  10. Maybe what the journalists were trying to say is that Musial was no Tim Tebow in the way he expresses his faith publicly, but it just came out awkward and wrong.

    My dad is much the same way that I imagine Stan Musial was. I’ve never known him to talk much openly about his faith, nor does he ever cross himself anywhere but in church, but he led our whole family into the pews like clockwork every Sunday throughout my childhood. That and the way he has lived his life with virtue and integrity tells me all I need to know. He and Mom were married 60 years ago this last November. I’m looking for them to make at least 75. They’ve made it because of faith.

  11. Lori: Your description of your father sounds like my father. Stan was a part of that generation, too.

  12. Ken: I like the Old (Catholic) Cathedral on the riverfront, too – my ancestral records are there. It seems that “elaborate” is a negative for you – comparitively speaking. That’s why I objected to it in the article. It was a gratuitous comment by the writer that added nothing to the story, and is not explained at all. If the writer doesn’t like the Cathedral’s style he should have written a separate essay giving his reasons. What does it have to do with Musial?
    If the New Cathedral in St Louis is “elaborate”, then so is the National Cathedral in DC which is never described in the press that way – even though it is faux Gothic, has tons of intricate carvings, immense spaces and innumerable gargoyles, including Darth Vader.
    Why do we have a National Cathedral – that is a more interesting question to me.
    Additional question: why aren’t Anglican high church and Orthodox vestments described in the same way as Catholic vestments? In many cases they are far more “elaborate”.

  13. In case anybody is still looking at this post – here’s a great short video of Stan’s casket being carried out of the
    Cathedral – a guy I know is playing some really mean and heavy serious organ. But check out what happens starting about 00:30 or so. I’m sure Stan loved it since he used to play it on his harmonica whenever possible.
    Re: religious stories that were missed. It turns out that Stan, James Michener and a Polish-American millionare owner of a fish sticks company started going to Poland in the early 1970s to help start up some youth sports teams in the Krakow area. Of course, they got to know the then Archbishop and Cardinal Karol Wojtyla. [These trips inspired Michener to write his book “Poland” and one on pilgrimages. ] Later when Wojtyla was Pope, Stan and the other two often visited with John Paul at the Vatican using the “Polish stairs” for close friends. There was also some talk that these guys were helping with funds to keep Solidarity afloat when things got dicey. Everybody in St Louis has been rather blown away by all the non-baseball stuff we didn’t know about.

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