February 15, 2011: Stan Musial receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Just a few days away from his 90th birthday, Stan Musial picked up the phone at his office at Stan the Man Inc. On the other end of the line was a White House representative, calling to tell him that he was being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian award.

When he hung up, Musial turned to his friend and business partner, Dick Zitzmann, and laughed.

“All I wanted was to play baseball,” he said. “How did a guy like me win all these awards?”[1]

Even for a man who was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot and won three National League Most Valuable Player awards in a career that spanned 22 major-league seasons, nothing could compare to this. Established by President Harry Truman in 1945, the Medal of Freedom initially was created to honor civilians who played an important role in helping the United States and its allies win World War II. In subsequent amendments, the award was modified to be “presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”[2]

As one of 15 recipients selected by President Barack Obama in 2011, Musial was believed to be the eighth former baseball player to be recognized with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, not including former catcher Moe Berg, who was recognized for the intelligence work he conducted during World War II following his retirement from baseball. Other honorees from the world of professional baseball included Joe DiMaggio (1977, honored by Jimmy Carter), Jackie Robinson (1984, by Ronald Reagan), Ted Williams (1991, by George H.W. Bush), Hank Aaron (2002, by George W. Bush), Roberto Clemente (2003, by George W. Bush), Frank Robinson (2005, by George W. Bush), and Buck O’Neill (2006, by George W. Bush).

Musial’s greatest recognition came just a few months after an article appeared in Sports Illustrated highlighting Musial’s dignity and kindness and exploring why Musial didn’t seem to be remembered in the same way as some of his contemporaries. In 1999, Major League Baseball opened its All-Century Team to a popular vote of fans. Somehow, Musial placed 11th in the fan vote and had to be added to the team via a select panel that added five legends.

“Stan, for all of his greatness, doesn’t have something that fixes him in the public mind, outside of Cardinal fans or knowledgeable baseball historians,” said broadcaster Bob Costas. “Not in the way that Willie Mays, the ‘Say Hey’ kid does. The way Hank Aaron rounding the bases on (home run) No. 715 does. The way the combination of speed, power, and squandered possibility of Mickey Mantle does. The way Ted Williams, the last man to hit .400, does. There were songs written about Joe DiMaggio, and DiMaggio had his 56-game hitting streak and aura.

“Stan has just a career of almost mind-boggling excellence and enduring personal decency. None of these things forge an image to the casual fan, but to those who followed baseball and know The Man, they count for a whole lot.”[3]

Musial’s candidacy extended beyond his on-field exploits. Musial missed the 1945 season to serve in the Navy, and after he retired, he served as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s chair for the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, as an unofficial ambassador to Poland, and as an advocate for the Boy Scouts.

“If the Presidential Medal of Freedom is meant to represent Americans and others of distinction in various walks of life, who not only have had success or excellence but in some sense have embodied the virtues Americans admire most, then Stan Musial fits that bill,” Costas said. “There’s no perfect human being, but I have not come across anyone in sports who was closer to the image, in reality, than Stan Musial is. Who has ever emanated more decency than Stan Musial does? If you saw him play, you could always feel good about cheering him. And if you didn’t see him play, you can still feel good about admiring him to this day.”[4]

To build momentum for Musial’s candidacy and to remind a new generation of all that Musial had accomplished, the “Stand for Stan” campaign was created. With Sen. Claire McCaskill, Sen. Richard Durbin, Sen. Kit Bond, and Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. leading the way, the campaign incorporated social media, in-stadium marketing, and legislative lobbying.

Arguably no one was more motivated than McCaskill. When President Obama visited St. Louis for the 2009 All-Star Game, she spoke to the president about Musial. The following year, she was attending a Cardinals-Cubs game at Wrigley Field when she saw Obama advisor David Axelrod “and talked up Stan the Man for about four innings,” she said. On another occasion, she handed Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett a copy of the Sports Illustrated cover story celebrating Musial’s legacy.[5]

“This was about an entire community, and Cardinal Nation, getting behind a worthy campaign for a great man,” McCaskill said, “and isn’t that what this comes down to? He’s just a damn good guy who deserves this.”[6]

The campaign concluded with a “Stand Up For Stan” Day at Busch Stadium.

“The one thing we wanted to be sensitive of was, what if this lobbying has a negative effect?” DeWitt said. “What if they think that would set a bad precedent? The fact that this campaign came from the heart, I think, is why it never had that negative effect. … We did this campaign to show appreciation and what great affection Cardinal Nation has for Stan. The fact that it actually worked is amazing.”[7]

Though Musial had largely stopped traveling due to health concerns, he was visibly excited to visit the White House on February 15, 2011, to receive the Medal of Freedom in a ceremony led by President Obama.

DeWitt Jr. coordinated a private jet to take Musial and his wife, Lil; their children Dick, Gerry, Janet, and Jean; and their grandson Brian Schwarze to Washington, D.C.[8] As a safety precaution, a nurse also accompanied the Musials to care for Stan.[9]

There appeared to be little need for that, however. As St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz wrote, “As soon as he was wheeled into the White House, Musial pulled out his trusty harmonica to entertain welcoming members of Obama’s staff with some favorite ditties, including that most precious of Stan the Man’s chestnuts, ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame.’”[10]

“Stan was really on his game today,” DeWitt Jr. said. “It was something else. At the end of the reception, with everyone milling around, Stan took out his harmonica and played a few tunes. Everyone came up and stood around him. It was really terrific.”[11]

During the ceremony, Obama said, “Stan remains, to this day, an icon, untarnished; a beloved pillar of the community; a gentleman you’d want your kids to emulate.”[12]

“This is the greatest day I had in my life,” Musial said.[13]

“He’s a humble man,” said Brian Schwarze, Musial’s grandson. “He usually doesn’t show you how excited he is, but today you could see it in his eyes. This really meant the world to him.”[14]

Afterward, Miklasz wrote about what Musial’s special day meant, both to the Cardinals legend and those around him:

And for Musial to declare that this was the best day of his life … wow. Can we even contemplate – let alone count – the number of extraordinary days Musial has enjoyed in his long, illustrious time on earth? The three World Series, the seven batting titles, the three MVPs, the 24 All-Star Games, the 3,630 hits, the 475 homers, the first-ballot Hall of Fame selection.

Lots of happy days in there. And this was No. 1 on his list. Which is marvelous. Because this is what we all wanted for Musial. We wanted this to be a glorious day for him. Because Musial deserved all of it: the medal, the acclaim, the attention, the affection.[15]

The following day, in St. Louis, Musial was back at the Stan the Man offices. This time, however, he was wearing the Medal of Freedom. Two days after that, when Musial and Zitzmann went to lunch at the Missouri Athletic Club West, he was still wearing it.[16]

“Stan is telling everyone, ‘I may never take the medal off,’” Zitzmann said. “He’s really enjoying this. He’s like a little boy with his first baseball glove. He won’t part with it.”[17]


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[1] Derrick Goold, “A Humble Stan Hits Pinnacle,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 18, 2010.

[2] “President Obama Names Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipients,” White House Office of the Press Secretary, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2010/11/17/president-obama-names-presidential-medal-freedom-recipients.

[3] Bernie Miklasz, “America gives back to Musial with medal,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 15, 2011.

[4] Bernie Miklasz, “America gives back to Musial with medal,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 15, 2011.

[5] Bernie Miklasz, “America gives back to Musial with medal,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 15, 2011.

[6] Bernie Miklasz, “America gives back to Musial with medal,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 15, 2011.

[7] Bernie Miklasz, “America gives back to Musial with medal,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 15, 2011.

[8] Bernie Miklasz, “Big day is close; Musial is ready,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 13, 2011.

[9] Bernie Miklasz, “Stan the Man’s ‘greatest day,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 16, 2011.

[10] Bernie Miklasz, “Stan the Man’s ‘greatest day,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 16, 2011.

[11] Bernie Miklasz, “Stan the Man’s ‘greatest day,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 16, 2011.

[12] Bernie Miklasz, “Stan the Man’s ‘greatest day,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 16, 2011.

[13] Bernie Miklasz, “Stan the Man’s ‘greatest day,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 16, 2011.

[14] Bernie Miklasz, “Stan the Man’s ‘greatest day,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 16, 2011.

[15] Bernie Miklasz, “Stan the Man’s ‘greatest day,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 16, 2011.

[16] Bernie Miklasz, “Medal has Musial ‘happy as could be,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 20, 2011.

[17] Bernie Miklasz, “Medal has Musial ‘happy as could be,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 20, 2011.

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