Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Man & Me

The woman behind the counter at Barnes & Noble took the Sports Illustrated from me and noticed the man on the cover. "What a wonderful person he must be," she said. "I'd love to meet him." I segued into my bragging mode and told her I had spent an evening with him, many years ago.

"You should write about it," she said.

The year was 1960. I was living in San Francisco, drawn there by Jack Kerouac's On The Road and having no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was just out of the Army and had decided to balance those two years with the life of a beatnik. Poetry and jazz and black clothes and an air of despair and ultimate cool. So I headed west that year.

A month later my father called from St. Louis to tell me that the Cardinals were going to be in SF to open the Giants' new Candlestick Park. Two of his friends from St. Louis would be there: Henry Ruggeri, who ran one of The Hill's most popular restaurants and a favorite with ballplayers; and Doc Morrow, an optometrist. Would I like to join them? Absolutely. Given I was barely scraping by on minimum wage, here was a chance to see a game, be with people I knew, and maybe catch a good meal with it.

That Saturday night I found myself seated between Henry and Doc at Candlestick, enjoying hot dogs, peanuts and a couple of beers. I don't remember who won the game, but I can still see Musial easily roaming left field and getting two hits. I had seen him play in the '46 World Series against the Red Sox, and here he was, fourteen years later, still a beautiful sight at the plate. (Who knew that, fifty years later, I'd be buying an SI with his picture on it).

After the game, we headed for the players' entrance. We waited. "Who are we waiting for?" I said. "A couple of guys," said Henry. Doc just smiled. Fifteen minutes later, Stan Musial and Joe Garagiola walked out, threw big smiles at Henry and Doc, shook hands and hugged. Then I was introduced. When I shook Stan's hand, he looked at me like I was really there, not a passing glance and "nice to meet you, kid." Joe said "Welcome to the party." His voice by now was familiar to Cardinal fans via radio.

We grabbed two cabs - Henry was a very large man - and headed for the North Beach area, home for restaurants, bars and clubs. One thought dominated my mind: What the hell was a skinny, semi-beatnik kid doing with Stan and Joe? We hit several lively places. But one singular event remains clear and focused.

We had entered a popular piano bar in Chinatown called The Rickshaw. It was tucked away in an alley. The piano player was a tall, dark-complexioned Jewish guy who wore a white turban. As we entered, several people turned to looked at us. Comments ran through the crowd. "It's Stan Musial." "Hi, Stan." "It's The Man." Some recognized Joe, but most eyes were on Stan. I just tried to act cool and revel in his aura. The piano player stopped the song he was playing and launched into Meet Me in St. Louie. Everybody sang. Musial smiled and waved, shook hands with several strangers.
I learned a lesson from Stan that night. No matter how big you are, never forget to be gracious to everyone.

Years later I was at an event in St. Louis and Stan was there. Retired now, he still looked as though he could play nine innings. I went over to him, introduced myself and said, 'You probably don't remember - ."

"Sure, I do," he said with a smile. "San Francisco. That bar in the alley with the piano player in the turban. You and Joe and Henry and Doc. That was a good night."

Yes, it was.

If you want to read Joe Posnanski's excellent story on Stan, click here.


  1. Gerry,

    What a wonderful story of the influence a "big man" had on your life. I've highlighted your post in the announcement section of Riehlife.

    Janet Riehl

  2. Gerry,

    I don't have your phone number.

    Are we on for tomorrow Tuesday October 12th for my father's video interview?

    I have it on my calendar and my father's but I haven't heard from you.

    Could you email me to confirm this date for us?