WASHINGTON • Stan Musial has been here before, walking with presidents. He's met every U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower. Musial campaigned for John F. Kennedy and became friends with JFK. Musial talked baseball with Richard Nixon and served as Lyndon Johnson's director of the National Council on Physical Fitness.
According to one family estimate, The Man has visited the White House around a dozen times during his wonderful life. But today, the occasion of Musial's latest visit to the White House takes on greater significance and meaning when he receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom award from President Barack Obama.
Honors are nothing new for Musial, who may have set some sort of unofficial record for attending the most awards dinners. There are too many to mention or count. But among the big ones, there were the three National League MVP awards, and selections to 24 All-Star Games. Musial was awarded Poland's highest civilian honor, the Cavalier Cross Order of Merit. And the Polish government gave Musial the Merited Champions Medal, the nation's highest sports award.
Today's ceremony will probably top them all. This is a lifetime achievement award. The Man can take a bow. He's been heralded as a great baseball player. And now he's officially being recognized as a great American.
A true national icon, properly decorated.
Musial's thousands of good deeds have caromed back to him.
"He's never asked for anything," said Musial's grandson, Brian Schwarze. "Through his entire life, all he's done is give to others. He's never asked for anything in return."
Well, this is the day when Stan Musial gets something back for the kindness and grace he's extended to others during his 90 years of living out his dream.
Musial wasn't feeling up to doing interviews, which is understandable. But through Dick Zitzmann, his friend and business partner, Musial relayed a message, saying that he was grateful for the award and is excited that his family will be there to share it with him.
Musial is hanging tough, still taking his cuts. He goes to lunch and dinner several times a week. He regularly puts in hours at his memorabilia-business office, Stan the Man Inc. He refuses to slow down. It's just what you would expect from a .331 lifetime hitter who batted .330 at age 41 in 1962. Musial was never an easy out.
But the timing of this award is vitally important. Realistically, how many more times can we look forward to being blessed by seeing Musial on the stage, smiling? He appeared at Busch Stadium in 2010, and his late-season cameo for "Stand for Stan" day was a delightful surprise. But at this stage of his life, we're especially thankful for each sighting of The Man.
And how splendid this will be, taking in the vision of Musial at the White House, sharing this extraordinary tribute with 14 other Medal of Freedom recipients, including President George H.W. Bush, civil rights hero John Lewis, investor Warren Buffet, Boston Celtics great Bill Russell, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein and German chancellor Angela Merkel.
It's a deep lineup. And Stan's right there.
Hopefully this will serve to elevate Musial's status. As we know, Musial hasn't always gotten his due. In an embarrassing display of ignorance, fans outside of St. Louis failed to vote Musial to baseball's All-Century team in 1999. (A panel led by baseball Commissioner Bud Selig added Musial to the team.) And Musial was snubbed when ESPN profiled the 50 greatest athletes of the 20th century. Several of Musial's baseball contemporaries were included instead.
"Stan, for all of his greatness, doesn't have something that fixes him in the public mind, outside of Cardinal fans or knowledgeable baseball historians," said Bob Costas, the esteemed broadcaster. "Not in the way that Willie Mays the 'Say Hey' kid does. The way Hank Aaron rounding the bases on (home run) No. 715 does. The way the combination of speed, power and squandered possibility of Mickey Mantle does. The way Ted Williams, the last man to hit .400 does. There were songs written about Joe DiMaggio. And DiMaggio had his 56-game hitting streak. And 'aura.'
"Stan has just a career of almost mind-boggling excellence and enduring personal decency. None of those things forge an image to the casual fan. But to those who followed baseball, and know The Man, they count for a whole lot."
And that point will be reinforced again today.
"It's appropriate and it would have been appropriate at any stage," Costas said. "If the Presidential Medal of Freedom is meant to represent Americans and others of distinction in various walks of life, who not only have had success or excellence but in some sense have embodied the virtues Americans admire most, then Stan Musial fills that bill.
"There's no perfect human being, but I have not come across anyone in sports who was closer to the image, in reality, than Stan Musial is. Who has ever emanated more decency than Stan Musial does? If you saw him play, you could always feel good about cheering him. And if you didn't see him play, you can still feel good about admiring him to this day."
Musial's Medal of Freedom is the result of an admirable networking effort — a team effort. Principal contributors included Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois and Cardinals President Bill DeWitt III. The Cardinals' "Stand for Stan" campaign raised visibility and enthusiasm. One way or another, the voices of Cardinals fans could be heard in the corridors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
McCaskill lobbied hard. She pressed Obama about Musial during the president's visit to St. Louis for the 2009 All-Star Game. Attending a Cardinals-Cubs game at Wrigley Field last summer, McCaskill spotted Obama adviser David Axelrod "and talked up Stan the Man for about four innings," she said. At breakfast one day with Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, McCaskill took a copy of the Sports Illustrated cover story on Musial, handed it to Jarrett and said, "You've got to read this."
Joe Posnanski's SI piece questioned why Musial had been overlooked in baseball history and saluted The Man's extended excellence and generosity of spirit. The benevolence included Musial's gentle befriending of ostracized African-American players during baseball's tense period of integration.
The challenge, according to McCaskill, was "How do you make the case other than the fact that Stan was an amazing player? That was the foundation-setter. But we had to go beyond that and to his personal character."
Musial's off-field high points were emphasized. Such as his devotion to charitable causes, his wide-ranging contributions to society and his role as a peacemaker that cooled some of baseball's racial hostility when the color line was erased in 1947. Musial was also an unofficial U.S. diplomat to Poland and introduced baseball to the youth of Eastern Europe.
"He's been a role model in so many ways," McCaskill said.
It wasn't enough to simply work the D.C. insiders. The "Stand for Stan" effort gave the project a face, a rallying point and more material for McCaskill, Durbin and (since retired) Sen. Kit Bond. Obama's aides received a steady current of links to photos of fans and celebrities posing with the mini "Stand for Stan" silhouette in places around the globe. The momentum slowly gained traction.
"This was about an entire community, and Cardinal Nation, getting behind a worthy campaign for a great man," McCaskill said. "And isn't that what this comes down to? He's just a damn good guy who deserves this."
And after arriving in D.C. via private jet Monday, Musial is rested and ready to go for another special day. Whether it's Busch Stadium, or the White House, it really doesn't matter to Stan.
Just take him out to the ballgame.