Taking a day off from their preseason preparations would have been the least the club could do for their all-time greatest player. That title may one day go to Albert Pujols — but not yet.
Musial is widely known as the greatest player in the history of the Cardinals franchise and one of the best in baseball history. He took another step to reaffirm that belief Tuesday when he received the highest civilian honor during a ceremony at the White House.
"His playing career is legendary," said La Russa. "He's in that conversation of the greatest players who ever played. But you have to be around him. . . . You can always tell, when he shows up, the guys, even the modern athletes who know nothing about history and are all about themselves, they all know Stan. Jaws drop. He has that presence."
Not able to attend, several Cardinals wore commemorative Stan Musial lapel pins during Tuesday's practice. Maybe under-appreciated nationally, the history and tradition Musial represents doesn't go unnoticed amongst the current players.
Even as his health has begun to deteriorate in recent years, the 90-year-old Musial has donned his traditional red blazer and been a regular at the Cardinals' home openers. He also made an emotional appearance on the field before the All-Star game in St. Louis in 2009.
"I see how much he means to St. Louis," said closer Ryan Franklin. "I see how much he still enjoys when he comes down to the ballpark, even though his health is the way it is, he seems to start glowing when he gets around the locker room and stuff.
"I think it's awesome. It's a shame that it couldn't happen 10 or 15 years ago when he was feeling better, but it's awesome. It couldn't happen to a better person."
Though Pujols' career numbers may eventually surpass him, Musial is still widely regarded as the best to ever wear a Cardinals uniform. Some call Musial the most under-rated, under-talked about and under-appreciated player in baseball history.
Musial played his entire 22-year career with the Cardinals, hitting .331 with 475 home runs and 1,951 RBIs. The three-time NL MVP was elected to a staggering 20 All-Star games and led the league in doubles eight times. As proof of his consistency, Musial finished his career with 3,630 hits — 1,815 at home and 1,815 on the road.
Musial is also celebrated for skipping the 1945 season to participate in World War II. When the left-handed swinging Musial returned a year later, he won his second MVP award and led the Cardinals to the 1946 World Series title.
"It's pretty special," Pujols said of Musial last October. "I told you guys that it's not about the baseball player he was but the man he was. To take time off and go serve the country and to be able to do the things he did on the field and off the field, it's pretty special to be a part of something like that.
"Being in this organization, this history that this organization has, that's part of Stan. He kind of took that step for us to follow, just like Red Schoendienst and Lou Brock and Bob Gibson, Ozzie Smith, all of those Hall of Famers, Bruce Sutter. Guys that are really true Cardinals that played the game the right way."
The 90-year-old Musial earned the Medal of Freedom thanks in part to a social media campaign organized last summer titled, ‘Stand for Stan', in which St. Louis residents put cardboard cutouts of Musial in their businesses, homes or even car windows in an effort to show their support.
The campaign culminated during an emotional afternoon on the final week of the 2010 season, when the Cardinals game against the Colorado Rockies was stopped for several minutes as Musial took a victory lap around the field as the sold out crowd, stadium employees and even the players stood and held their cardboard cutouts.
"He defines what being a Cardinal is," said St. Louis native and Cardinals third baseman David Freese. "You think of somebody that deserves this award and you think of Stan Musial when you see what's done throughout his life.
"Usually he's hanging out in Tony's office and when we hear he's around, we definitely go out of our way to say hi to him. It's pretty cool to have him around. . . . I think people know who Stan Musial is but aren't really in tune with what he did, especially on the field. I hope him getting the Medal of Freedom will open some people's eyes."
Musial was only allowed to take six guests with him to the White House for Tuesday's ceremony. Had he been allowed to take just one more, Cardinals Hall of Fame second baseman Red Schoendienst would have been in attendance.
Schoendienst and Musial were roommates for the ten years the two played together.
"It's a great honor for him," said Schoendienst, who still puts on his Cardinals uniform and observes with the coaches during spring training. "He's had so many great things on the field and so many honors, MVP's and all the batting titles and things, and a lot of people know about that, but a lot of people don't know how much he used to do off the field with different charities and so many things where he spent a lot of time, more time than what you think he would want to, but he did. He loved people and people loved him and that's why he's there today. I'm very happy he's receiving the honor."
As a sign of just how much Musial means to Pujols and the Cardinals, the two sides pushed back his deadline to negotiate a new contract extension to Wednesday in hopes of not taking any of Tuesday's attention away from Musial.
A longtime friend and admirer of Musial's, Pujols recently asked media members to stop calling him ‘El Hombre', which means ‘The Man' in Spanish, out of respect for him. Pujols explained that Musial was and will always be ‘The Man' in St. Louis
Added the slugger: "I enjoy every moment that I'm around him. I know it's only five or 10 minutes but just to talk about baseball or ask him how he's doing and he asks me how I'm doing and just tells me to keep it up and all that. Something happened this year that was very special, he called me when I hit No. 400 and sent me a video. I appreciated that a lot. I'm blessed to be able to meet him and get to know more about him and the history and the things that he did in the game of baseball and out of baseball."
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