Washington. D.C. -- The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award bestowed by the President of the United States. Sports and culture blended and the American spirit was celebrated here on Tuesday, February 15. Excellence was toasted for all the honorees.
There is a statue of ‘Stan the Man’ outside of Busch Stadium in St. Louis. It is inscribed with this quote by former MLB commissioner Ford Frick, “Here stands baseball’s warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.” How appropriate these words are for this day also.
Stan Musial, 90, looked straight ahead with strength and dignity as he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House. Looking on was his wife of over 70 years, Lillian. It was an afternoon ceremony and later Musial said, “I am proud to be a Cardinal.”
In his short address the President said, “These outstanding honorees come from a broad range of backgrounds and they’ve excelled in a broad range of fields, but all of them have lived extraordinary lives that have inspired us, enriched our culture, and made our country and our world a better place.”
Musial received the award along with two other athletic notables, basketball great, Bill Russell and former President George H.W. Bush. The humble Musial sat next to the tall and dignified Russell and as President Obama put the medallion around the baseball great, Russell whispered a quiet congratulation. Obama rubbed Musial’s shoulder gently and with respect.
It took a grass roots effort of social networking and the campaign blossomed, helping to get Musial the overdue honor. Ron Waterman of the St. Louis Cardinals was the coordinator for the ‘Stand for Stan’ project. Cardinal supporters and Musial admirers were encouraged to take pictures of themselves with the caricature of ‘Stan-the-Man’ and mimic the literacy campaign of Flat Stanley. Folks encouraged others with their pictures of ‘Stand for Stan’.
“The day we started the project, the team (Cardinals) was in San Diego, and there were fans already in the stadium with ‘Stand for Stan’ posters,” said Watermon. “It took a life of its own and just grew, I am so happy to be here to see this. Everyone in the Cardinal Family got involved, including the players.”
There were 13 other honorees including, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, John H. Adams, Maya Angelou and financier Warren Buffett. Also presented were Jasper Johns, Gerda Weismann Klein, Dr. Tom Little, Sylvia Mendez, Jean Kennedy Smith, John J. Sweeney and musician Yo-Yo Ma.
Musial was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 1969 and the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame in 1973. He was genuinely humbled by this latest honor. He played for the Cardinals as #6 for 22 seasons. The three times National League MVP had won seven NL batting titles.
Musial helped the growth of Little League baseball in Poland and has acted as an unofficial emissary to the country. The Little League Baseball Training Center in Kutno, Poland is named after him. He was awarded the Cavalier Cross of the Order of Merit, the Polish Government's highest civilian honor.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, (D-MO), said, “Musial is the greatest Cardinal ever and a great philanthropist who's used his notoriety to help others in need."
Musial also was on three World Series teams as a player and directed another winner as the Cards' general manager in 1967. He won seven National League batting titles and was MVP three times. His great sports appeal was national in scope. Musial became part of the fabric of American culture when in 1946; the spectators in Brooklyn, New York gave him his now famous nickname, ‘THE MAN’.
The senior President Bush, 86, had played baseball at Yale and participated in the first NCAA baseball finals in 1947 and 1948. Held in Kalamazoo, Michigan on the campus of Western Michigan University, the former President said, “We got our picture taken with Babe Ruth and I thought that was heady stuff but here I am with Stan the Man. I am so honored to be here with him.”
Russell won two NCAA championships at the University of San Francisco and 11 NBA titles with the Boston Celtics. Most recently he has been writing books and making college campus appearances.
Senator Dick Durbin, (D-IL.), noted that umpires never ejected Musial in more than 3,000 games. "Stan exemplifies the values of sportsmanship, discipline, hard work, grace, consistency, excellence and humility. He is truly deserving of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. On the field and off, Stan Musial was always a gentleman, always a champion,” said Durbin.
Durbin invited Margaret Blackshere, former President of the Illinois AFL-CIO and life-long St. Louis Cardinals fan, to accompany him as his guest to the Medal of Freedom Ceremony.
U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay of St. Louis (D) said, "Stan Musial is a national treasure. "His remarkable life represents the very best of America."
The personable Yo Yo Ma was delightful as he congratulated all the other award winners. “Art, sports and culture are interchangeable; they can be the same word.”
At the post-ceremony reception, Musial wowed the attendees by pulling out his harmonica and gave an impromptu performance. Of course he included his specialty, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
Some of the other medal-honorees removed their accolade immediately after the ceremony, but not Stan. Musial wore the medal even as he left the White House. He was accompanied by his wife Lillian and his four children, son Dick and daughters Gerry, Janet and Jean. “This is my proudest day,” he said.
Raymond Rolak is a past Chairman of the National Polish American Sports Hall of Fame.
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