Stan “The Man” and Public Commemoration

Photo Credit: Talia Kaplan
Photo Credit: Talia Kaplan

Just a few short hours ago sad news came out of St. Louis, Missouri, announcing the death of St. Louis Cardinals baseball legend Stan Musial at the age of 92. Musial had been ill for a few years and his wife Lillian passed away this past May. I would suspect her death also played a role in his declining health; not many of us get to enjoy the affectionate bonds of their beloved spouse for 70 years like the Musials did.

As a Cardinals fan, there is no doubt in my mind that Stan Musial was the greatest baseball player to don the birds on his uniform. His statistics are stunning and they would have been even better had he not lost a year due to his service in the military during World War II. Furthermore, it is worth noting that for about half of his career there were two teams in St. Louis; the Cardinals and the St. Louis Browns (who are now the Baltimore Orioles). Both teams had to fight for fans and attention in a city that was probably too small to house two professional teams, and at one point there was a distinct possibility that the Cardinals–not the Browns–would be the team leaving town after Cards owner Fred Saigh was convicted of tax evasion in 1952. Had it not been for the immense success of the Cardinals throughout the 1940s, where Musial helped lead the team to three World Series titles in 1942, 1944, and 1946, the team may not have received the support it did in the 1950s when Gussie Busch of Anheuser-Busch fame took over as owner.

Immediately upon the news of Musial’s death a local news station posted a bit on Twitter along with this photo about people in the St. Louis area congregating towards the Stan Musial Statue located outside Busch Stadium. In all honesty, the statue is quite ugly and this book claims that Musial himself didn’t like it. However, I find it significant that many people thought it important to visit the statue and lay wreaths and flowers and/or say a quick prayer. I don’t know how many cities have statues of famous baseball players, but I would imagine that such public art is not common.

The Musial statue does much more than act as a remembrance of Musial’s life; it connects the history of St. Louis to the present. When looking at the statue, many of us probably don’t even think about Stan Musial. For someone older than me, they may think about going to a Cardinals game in the 40s, 50s, or 60s, getting the chance to spend the day with their father, eating a hot dog at Sportsman’s Park or the old Busch Stadium, or visiting other unique destinations in downtown St. Louis. For me, I can remember going with my family to several games recently and specifically picking the Musial statue as the place to meet my Grandpa. Such memories demonstrate not only the power of sport, but the power of public commemoration as a means of creating individual and shared memories about a specific person, place, or event.

The process of creating monuments, statues, and sculptures today is not what it was at one point in time. Thomas J. Brown has suggested that the art of public commemoration in America began around the 1820s, but it began to be used as a more active form of historic preservation and “memory making” with the campaign to save George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon in the 1850s.  In the aftermath of the Civil War (1861-1865), a blitz of public art creation commenced all throughout the United States–North and South–to commemorate particular viewpoints about the memory of the Civil War. Statues were erected in the memory of Abraham Lincoln and Emancipation, Robert E. Lee, common soldiers, and women. This form of expression was dominant in popular culture until the 1920s, when new methods for creating memory were established. Brown tells us what happened:

The decline in the commissioning of public monuments during the 1920s partly reflected technological innovations that affected the mechanisms of Civil War remembrance. Monuments tended to be obstacles for rapidly proliferating automobiles, which gave rise to new forms of commemoration like highways named for Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis. Even more significant for American memory was the rise of the motion picture industry. Such films as Birth of a Nation (1915) [of which I will provide more information in a future post soon], Gone with the Wind (1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) in some ways assumed the cultural role of the public monument.

Stan Musial earned himself a place in history with his play on the baseball field, but this statue will help ensure his place in the collective cultural memory of St. Louis while also creating new memories for many, many more generations of Cardinals fans.