WASHINGTON — It had been more than 41 years since the story based on my telephone interview with Stan (the Man) Musial had created a sensation in Biloxi, Miss., and created headlines nationwide.
Finally, last Wednesday, I was getting a chance to meet the great man in person.
He showed up smiling for a meeting of the Stan Musial Society at the Capitol Hilton Hotel and even now was mobbed by fans young and old seeking autographs. Always the gentleman--off and on the field--he obligingly signed autographs for all of them, even though it made him 10 minutes late for the luncheon.
Waving and still smiling, he strode through the crowd of about 150. He had been 28 years old the year of my interview, an authentic superstar whose impeccable and unassuming character made him a national hero. Now he was 69, but the same trim 185 pounds that he weighed when he played his last game in 1963; he had gained only 10 pounds since starting his first game with the Cardinals in 1941.
The Musial Society had given me the honor of introducing him, and I was sitting at the head table eagerly awaiting his arrival--and the opportunity to tell the story behind the story, which neither Musial himself nor members of the audience had ever heard.
To appreciate the thrill of my finally meeting Musial, you have to know the background of the interview I conducted on Feb. 8, 1949. I was all of 19 at the time, just starting out in journalism as a reporter in Biloxi for the Daily Herald--predecessor of what today is the Biloxi Sun-Herald.
I was at my desk in the Daily Herald's office when Cosman Eisendrath, the city editor, telephoned and asked if I knew of a Stan Musial from St. Louis. It's safe to say Mr. Eisendrath was not much of a sports fan.
Did I know of a Stan Musial from St. Louis! Was he kidding? Of course I knew of the National League's Most Valuable Player of 1948, who hit 39 home runs that year and had a batting average of .376. He was right up there with Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.
Well, Musial had checked into the Hotel Biloxi, Mr. Eisendrath said--he was Mr. Eisendrath then, and remained Mr. Eisendrath to me for the rest of his life. And if Musial was that important, he suggested, perhaps I should get a quick interview with him on the telephone, because we were close to deadline.
In those days, Biloxi was a popular resort town on the Gulf of Mexico, and the Hotel Biloxi was the Coast's favorite abode for visiting VIPs. I had covered such celebrities staying there as Gen. George Marshall and Bess and Margaret Truman.
Musial was my idol, and I was excited about the opportunity to interview him. I telephoned the hotel, and the operator put me through immediately.
"Hello," I said, "this is Jack Nelson of the Daily Herald. Are you the Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals?"
The man who answered the phone said he was and agreed to an interview on the phone, though he said with characteristic politeness that it would have to be brief because he had another appointment. He was en route to St. Petersburg, Fla., where the Cardinals would soon begin spring training, he said, and had just stopped off in Biloxi for a rest.
Stan Musial was known for his modest manner, and there was not a trace of bragging in the interview. Nonetheless, it made a terrific story.
Under the headline, "MUSIAL TRAINS SIGHTS ON .400 MARK THIS SEASON," my story began:
"Stan Musial, famous St. Louis Cardinal baseball player, enjoying a two-day rest at Hotel Biloxi, today said that he is 'shooting for the .400 batting mark this year.' "
I went on to report that Musial "says he has been practicing batting on his ranch in Texas" and believes he will actually break the .400 mark.
"The Cardinal slugger also has high hopes of bettering his total of 39 home runs in 1948," I wrote, and quoted him from my notes as saying: "I believe the batting practice I had on my ranch near El Paso has helped my distance, too."
The story went all over the country on the Associated Press wire, and I imagined that my interview was the talk of the baseball world. As a young reporter, I was in heaven--until that night.
That night I got a telephone call from Mr. Eisendrath. Unaccountably, he wanted to know if I was sure the man I interviewed actually was Stan Musial. What a crazy question! Of course, it was Stan Musial. Didn't he know all of Musial's season and lifetime statistics? Weren't all baseball players on their way to spring training in Florida?
Why would Mr. Eisendrath even ask such a question?
He said someone with AP in New Orleans had read my story and raised a question about whether Stan Musial had a ranch in Texas.
"AP, they think they know everything," I said.
"Well, what should I tell them?" Mr. Eisendrath said.
"Tell 'em it's Stan Musial," I said.
Later that evening, I got another call from Mr. Eisendrath. The AP had checked with the Cardinals' headquarters in St. Louis and learned that Musial was in Albany, N.Y.