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Strauss: Fans say farewell to their friend, hero

Strauss: Fans say farewell to their friend, hero

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An unforgiving cold ripped down Lindell Boulevard on Thursday afternoon, but it didn’t matter. Husband and wife, mother and child, brother and brother steeled themselves in a line that snaked from the front doors of the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica toward the street and hundreds of yards west.

Young and old, black and white, dressed in business attire or sporting Cardinal red, all had come to see their friend, their hero — yes, their example — one final time.

Stan Musial rested inside, surrounded by a Navy honor guard and watched over by family. The line of hundreds that waited patiently in the freeze quietly wound its way through the cathedral’s aisles to glimpse the Man in his Cardinal-red sport coat lying in a flag-draped casket. No organ music played. Only the sound of shuffling feet filled the cavernous place of worship.

Outside, some said they had met Musial; others admitted seeing him only from the pavilion at Sportsman’s Park or from the upper deck at Busch Stadium. Either way, they all knew him.

A young man dressed lightly against the cold stopped on the front steps to speak graciously and lovingly of the man inside.

“I always thought Cardinal baseball really started with him, not only on the field but also off the field: the charity-giving and the interaction with the community. I know it’s harder for players to do that today. But, really, the love he gave to everyone … he treated everyone like family.”

The young man, Brian Schwarze, would know. He is grandson to the Man.

Later in his grandfather’s life, Schwarze was nearby whenever Musial was in public. Schwarze rode in the cart that brought Musial onto the field before Game 4 of October’s National League Championship Series. And he was with his hero two weeks ago when Musial dusted off his harmonica for an impromptu concert. Schwarze had spoken to his grandfather only several days before Musial’s death Saturday about the Presidential Medal of Freedom that the Cardinals legend and three-time National League Most Valuable Player considered the highlight of his 92 years.

“It was his last big trip,” Schwarze noted of the trip to Washington two years ago. “It was the culmination of his life. It was a lifetime achievement award.”

Musial’s harmonica will be buried with him Saturday. On Thursday, it peeked from his blazer pocket. Many who gathered didn’t see any of his 475 career home runs or witness any of his seven batting titles. They did, however, recall watching a spry elder jump into his corkscrew batting stance and take an imaginary swing Opening Day. They remembered the rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” They never forgot the easy manner with which he addressed strangers, who didn’t stay strangers for long.

In declining health for several years before his death, Musial thrilled to being around people until the last. “He could still turn it on,” Schwarze said, recalling that his grandfather had grown quieter in recent years but would still become energized during a trip to Busch Stadium or when greeted by fans at lunch.

“He loved St. Louis, and St. Louis loved him back,” Schwarze said.

The evidence surrounded him. Those who passed by Musial’s casket had stories of watching Musial play at Sportsman’s Park or on the road at Milwaukee’s County Stadium or in New York at the Polo Grounds. Many recalled a kindness — an extended conversation, an autograph, something indelible.

Ron and Nancy Fernandez will always remember Musial as part of their daughter Rita’s life.

“Our daughter had her wedding picture in front of his statue at Busch Stadium. Stan happened to be there. He said, ‘Anybody who has a wedding picture in front of my statue gets a signed bat and ball,’” Nancy said. The couple still have the bat and ball.

“Who would’ve thought he would do that?” Ron said. “It was a very special time. He was a very special gentleman.”

Samuel and Delores Johnson admired Musial for the respect and sense of humor he extended to everyone he encountered. Johnson emerged from the cathedral wearing his Cardinals cap. Delores wore her admiration on her sleeve.

“Very few well-known people like that have a record of being ‘to family’ and being a role model,” she said. “You didn’t hear bad things about him. I admired that about him.”

As a young man, Samuel was one of the black faces behind the screen that fronted the right-field bleachers. He vividly remembers receiving Musial’s autograph behind the park, watching St. Louis’ most famous citizen have time and a kind word for everyone.

“You liked him as a player, but you admired him as a man,” Samuel Johnson said.

Carolyn Simansky thought Thursday significant enough that she picked up her son Ben, 12, and drove more than 40 minutes from Alton. Simansky broke as she explained the trip.

“We drove over to pay respects, not because he was a great baseball player, but because he was a great man,” Simansky said. “There’s not a lot of people like him. Part of our civic soul is gone. I think it’s amazing that he stuck to St. Louis. He didn’t go someplace else, someplace warmer.”

Ben thought of the experience as “cool.” Said his mother: “Someday he’ll understand this.”

On a biting day, quiet warmth still pervaded the setting. Numerous fans spoke of their appreciation for the native Pennsylvanian remaining part of the city’s fabric for 50 years following his retirement. Stan was part of us, they said. And we were part of him.

“I wanted to give thanks for everything that he gave to the community,” offered Alan Agathen, who attended Thursday’s visitation with his brother Paul. “We pride ourselves on being the best baseball town in the country and I’m not sure we were before he came here. He played great then stuck around the community and cemented the bond between the team and the city.”

Down Lindell, two hook-and-ladders held aloft a huge American flag. St. Louis police who had closed off the thoroughfare when the church doors first opened allowed a single lane of traffic to pass. Rush hour approached, but the afternoon remained oddly quiet, as if the city had yet to collect itself.

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Joe Strauss is a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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