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Grace, character and baseball’s perfect knight

by Ron Knecht

“There was a time of Knights and Ladies fair … Look for them now only in books, for they are all gone with the wind.”

Some such words introduce the film version of “Gone With The Wind.” They come to mind because the cover story in the latest Sports Illustrated is homage to the man “once dubbed baseball’s Perfect Knight,” the Cardinals’ Stan “The Man” Musial.

Although this low-key gentleman is nearly forgotten by many folks who never lived in the St. Louis area, one can make a case that Musial is the greatest living ex-ballplayer. Not just a statistical case, although his numbers are that good. Indeed, ESPN recently named Musial the most underrated athlete ever.

But as SI says, “This is a story of little stories. Small kindnesses. Quiet dignity. These are at the heart of Stan Musial.” Stories of never refusing to sign an autograph for any fan that asked, including legions of kids. Never being thrown out of a game by an umpire in a 22-year career.

Plus, almost never missing a game for any reason. Being married and devoted to his high-school sweetheart for over 70 years. And working hard at being a role model because he was grateful he got paid to play a game, instead of laboring at the zinc works like his dad.

For all this, he was so respected and loved that Chicago Cubs fans elected him their favorite player, even over their own much beloved superstar and cheerful, consummate gentleman, “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks. Musial’s former teammates and opponents, plus today’s stars who know their history, like Albert Pujols, think just as reverently of him.

When Musial became the first National Leaguer to make $100,000 a year and then had his only poor season, mainly due to injuries, he insisted that the Cardinals cut his salary by the maximum allowed, 20 percent. He explained, “There wasn’t anything noble about it. I had a lousy year. I didn’t deserve the money.”

This SI issue is an ideal bookend to the one 11 years ago that saluted “Our 20 Favorite Athletes of the [20th] Century.” Its cover featured my other favorite, Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax, and the list also included hoopster Bill Russell and baseballer Ted Williams. I grew up on Musial and those three, plus various distance runners, as my sports heroes.

Their stats put them on the short lists of best ever at their crafts. That’s great, but their numbers are not the main thing. SI honors them for who they were as human beings and what they represented to us.

There was a time when many sports heroes were real men and women – knights and ladies of grace and character. A time before too much money and hype, before performance-enhancing drugs and players’ entourages. A time when things were real. We could use more of their kind now.

If you don’t subscribe to SI, you might want to buy this issue to share with your children, family and friends. Mine enjoyed it.

Carson City resident Ron Knecht is an economist and represents Douglas County on the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents.