May 25, 2019

In God’s Locker Room

In January of 2013, there were two funerals, almost at the same time, of men I had known briefly in this life. One was Stan the Man Musial who died on the 19th. His funeral approximated that of kings, queens and powerful heads of state. Everyone who even knows what a baseball looks like wanted to be at our Cathedral Basilica for the celebration of his life. I thought about going but I came up with a million excuses why I didn’t need to go.

During my life in St. Louis I had more than a few wonderful and personal moments with Stan. One of which I recounted for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s commemorative issue on Stan the musician.

Playing the harmonica was just part of Stan’s personal charm. Probably the first baseball player, ever to call himself a musician after his playing days, Stan regaled several former players and family members of the old St. Louis Browns years ago during a Browns Fan dinner with his stirring rendition of Take me out to the Ball Game. 

Sitting next to him, I noticed how he closed his eyes while he played. This led me to quip to him after he finished: I’ll bet there were a 1000 former National League pitchers who wished you closed your eyes when you hit. He gave me a big smile as if to say, I’ll bet you are right!  

Stan had suffered from dementia for a few years, as well as the loss of Lil, his wife of nearly 72-years. The other man who died a few days earlier was Bob McAuliffe, the 79 year-old father of my good friend, Emmett. Keeping within the baseball motif of the day, Bob McAuliffe took a page right out of the demise of another baseball Hall of Famer, Jimmy Foxx, who choked to death on a steak during dinner at a restaurant.

In a way, Bob’s funeral was more personal and I think my presence at the visitation served as a modicum of comfort for the family members. I did not know anyone in Stan’s family. Instead of using the long row in the middle of the church, the powers that be chose to set up the wake in the vestibule of the Church of St. Clement’s on Bopp Rd. It gave everyone the claustrophobic feeling that must have reigned during the Musial services.

While I do not think Bob ever met Stan, one of the last days of their physical presence above ground took place in adjoining rooms at the Bopp Mortuary. This caused Emmett to quip that his father was at last in Stan’s locker room. I told him it wasn’t Stan’s locker room. It is God’s locker room where the good change before they see Him.

My wife stayed home and watched all the Musial events on the TV. The principal speakers were well known to me. I didn’t hear Cardinal Dolan, now of New York, lament about his boyhood hero but fortunately on the way over to St. Clement’s I heard most of our former pastor, Bishop Richard Stika’s eulogy.

At first I didn’t recognize his voice. It sounded much more youthful than his 53-years would suggest. It wasn’t until he mentioned our parish and then Knoxville, where he is the bishop that I knew who he was. His eulogy touched on Stan as a man, not the man.

Stan is a difficult person to describe, only because there are just so many words to describe: good, wholesome and humble. Stan is best remembered in his stories or stories about him. The bishop mentioned the fact that Stan gave baseballs out to parishioners for helping him pack up his wife’s wheelchair after Mass and put it in the back of his station wagon.

Stika said he had three. I only have one but I’ll bet the Bishop didn’t have the special moment I did! One time I noticed no one was rushing over to help him after Mass. By the time I got there three other people had joined us.

I was the one who folded wheelchair! I was the one who lifted and slid it back in the wagon! Yet he gave everyone the same. Sounded like a parable. I never liked that parable! When Stan handed me my ball, I held it up to read his autograph and looked quizzically at it and said to Stan: What’s this? This says Red Schoendienst! Just for a solitary second I could see his thinking, did I bring the wrong…?

Then he smiled at me! I had tweaked the greatest baseball player in the history of my adoptive home and in the parking lot of a church we had shared for 40 years. No wonder I only have one ball and the Bishop had three.

Bishop Stika finished with the pronouncement of the words every human being should long to hear on Judgment Day. Welcome, my good and faithful servant. After the Irish wake, on the trip home, I was able to listen to old friend, Bob Costas, give his eulogy on Stan. Bob had also been the personal eulogist for his boyhood idol, Mickey Mantle who passed away several years ago.

Bob’s finest moment in a long litany of perceptive insights and dramatic stories about Stan came when he compared his idol to the one that 90% of the attendees in the Basilica had as children. He told of a small dinner gathering at his home many years ago.

The Mick was near the end of his road. His drinking had tormented most of his waking moments. To make him more comfortable Bob invited the Musials to dinner. Mickey vowed not to have even one drink that entire day or night because he didn’t want to embarrass himself in front of the man he respected so much.

After the Musials had left, Mick and Bob were left alone to talk into the wee hours of the night. Mickey confessed that while he had more natural talent than Musial, Stan had gotten more out of his gifts than Mickey had because he was a better man than I was.

What a marvelous insight to another great but self-tortured athlete.

Mickey concluded that he envied Stan because he could always rest in the fact that he had gotten the most out of his talent. Mickey, on the other hand, had a life of regret because he had never lived up to his super-human potential.

That was a sad commentary on a storied life that was filled with the Mick’s own personal demons. What made Stan better than Mickey? Many things I presume but I would suggest that Stan’s Catholic faith had a lot to do with his dual ability to hit a curve and walk a straight line with humility and dignity. In just a short time after that dinner, Mantle succumbed to liver cancer.

Bob McAuliffe had just one eulogy–a seven-page essay that did a comparable job in capturing a departed loved one. The beginning was part roast and another part adolescent humor at the eccentricities of the man in the family. From his loud sneezing to his inability to sing or even hum, Emmett’s words clearly rang out with the profound admiration of a faithful son.

The rest detailed his corny sense of humor that most children would never trade for having Johnny Carson as a father. His athletic abilities, the family vacations that rivaled those of the Griswolds and all the wonderful things that make families what they were–incubators for love, faith and salvation, underscored the man’s pure humanity.

In the end, that’s what life should all be about. Since this was their mutual day of salvation, I poised a question to Emmett at the wake: If they came in to see God together, did he wonder which one God spoke to first?

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Written by
William Borst

WILLIAM A. BORST has taught at virtually all levels of education from elementary school through university, published commentaries in many local and national publications, and hosted a weekly talk show on WGNU radio for 22 years. Having recently served as editor of the Mindszenty Report, Dr. Borst is the author of two prominent books: Liberalism: Fatal Consequences (1999) and The Scorpion and the Frog: A Natural Conspiracy (2005). He holds a PhD in American History from St. Louis University.

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Written by William Borst