Oscar Taveras, Stan Musial, and Public Commemoration in Sports

By Nick Sacco, Guest Contributor

I was there on October 12, 2014.

I was there, standing in the upper deck at Busch Stadium when Oscar Taveras, an emerging rookie outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, smacked a game-tying home run in the ninth inning of game 2 of the National League Championship Series. The Cardinals ended up winning the game in extra innings, but they would have never been in that position had Taveras not slammed that pitch. “The Phenomenon” was putting his raw potential on display, finishing the year with a stellar .429 postseason batting average. Originally signed by the Cardinals out of the Dominican Republic at age 16, Taveras steadily became the team’s highest rated prospect, hitting .321 over six years in the team’s farm system. Although he hit only .239 for the Cardinals during the 2014 regular season, his recent late-inning heroics signaled an exciting future for the team.

Makeshift Memorial for Oscar Taveras at the Stan Musial Statue on the night of his death. Photo Credit: Ashley Green

For a moment we all lost ourselves in the revelry and excitement of these late inning heroics, proud that our team found another way to pick themselves up when everyone else counted them out. All of our individual and collective concerns temporarily disappeared from memory in the wake of an eventual victory for not only a baseball team, but an entire city. Amid a summer of daily dispatches conveying bad news about St. Louis, the team’s heroics that night somehow spoke to our city’s collective resilience, comforting us in the idea that everything would soon be okay. It didn’t take long for these sentiments to change, however. Little did we know in the stands that night that we’d never see another hit from Oscar Taveras. Little did we know that he would die exactly two weeks later in a tragic auto accident at the tender age of 22.

It is common to hear sports fans and non-sports fans alike remark that no matter what happens in a given match, “it’s just game.” It certainly seems that way most of the time. But times like these expose the sorts of emotional investments we place into these games and the people who play them. Sports are more than mere games because they act as significant cultural artifacts for interpreting and making arguments about questions related to fair play, individual responsibility, ableism, racism, gender, economics, and patriotism in a democratic society.[1] On a more fundamental level, sports provide a shared viewing experience by which people establish a sense of belonging, kinship, and even love with one another. Whether at a sports bar, the work place, school, or the dinner table, the language of sports provides us with a vocabulary for communicating with each other on a daily basis. Through these interactions people establish deep relationships with friends, loved ones, and acquaintances. In a discussion on the origins of the modern nation-state, political scientist Benedict Anderson famously argued in 1983 that nationalism elicits shared feelings of solidarity among members of an “imagined community” who unite themselves through a shared love of nation, even though they rarely meet each other face-to-face.[2] We can translate these ideas into the sports realm, where thousands of “community” members unite themselves through a shared love for their favorite sporting teams.

Nation-states create commemorative practices to establish themselves as legitimate political entities in the eyes of their community members; so too do sports teams establish commemorative practices to establish their legitimacy. Retired numbers, in-game ceremonies, memorials, and statues all aim to elicit a sense of reverence for a team’s legacy. The most significant symbol of the “imagined community” of St. Louis Cardinals fans is the Stan Musial statue, located at the west entrance of Busch Stadium. When news of Oscar Taveras’s death broke on October 26, Cardinals fans congregated to this statue within minutes to express their grief. The Stan Musial statue is often a meeting place to celebrate victory, but on that October night it became a place for collective sorrow.

***

The Stan Musial statue as it appeared in the early 2000s in front of Busch Stadium II. Photo Credit: Associated Press

Few baseball teams had any sort of public statuary in the 1960s, but then again, few teams featured a player like Stan Musial, who had 3,630 hits, 475 home runs, and a .331 batting average during a twenty-one year career (1941-1963) that included one year of military service during World War II. He was the greatest Cardinals player of his era and is arguably the best in the franchise’s history. Plans were made to erect a statue in his honor soon after his retirement. St. Louis Mayor Raymond Tucker (1953-1965) commissioned Washington University artist Carl Mose to design and construct the statue, which was formally dedicated on August 4, 1968.[3] The Cardinals could have simply chosen to retire his number ‘6’ (which they did in 1963) and conclude all commemorative ceremonies for Musial, but public monuments fit a deeper desire for belonging that retired numbers do not elicit. Art historian Kirk Savage argues that “the public monument speaks to a deep need for attachment that can be met only in a real place, where the imagined community actually materializes and the existence of the nation is confirmed in a simple but powerful way.”[4] Seen in this light, the Stan Musial statue acts as an affirmation of the imagined “Cardinals Nation.” In a turbulent era of Cold War tensions, escalating conflict in Vietnam, and Civil Rights controversies, the Musial statue presented itself as a veneration of a man who former baseball Commissioner Ford Frick once described as “baseball’s perfect knight,” a model citizen on and off the field. By placing it in front of Busch Stadium (and choosing to keep and relocate the statue to the current Busch Stadium in 2006), Cardinals leadership aimed to remind fans that their ballpark was The House That Stan Built, constructed with home runs, World Series titles, and past memories of victory.

The Stan Musial Statue in front of the current Busch Stadium, with Stan the Man below. Photo Credit: David Carson

The Stan Musial Statue in front of the current Busch Stadium, with Stan the Man below. Photo Credit: David Carson

Not everyone likes the design of the statue or what it represents. Musial biographer Bob Broeg complained in 1978 that “the monstrosity . . . lacks The Man’s looks, his distinctive batting stance and a bat proportionate to the size of the bronze itself. In other words, it stinks.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports columnist Bryan Burwell echoed Broeg’s criticisms in 2010, arguing that it was time for the Cardinals to remove a statue that actually denigrated Stan Musial’s legacy. Even Musial himself didn’t like the statue: he remarked in 1976 that “I never looked that broad . . . He missed the stance,” and in 2004 he commented that “[Mose] made me all bulky. I tried to get him to change it, but he just never would.”[5]

There are also deeper philosophical challenges to etching memories into stone. Public monuments are static representations stuck in a fixed design state, and they flatten the nuances, complexities, and contradictions that accompany any historical event, group, or individual. They often represent the voices of political and cultural elites who are mainly interested in promoting the status quo, and they are sometimes viewed as pretentious symbols inappropriate for a democratic society. Former U.S. President John Quincy Adams, for example, remarked in the 1830s that “Democracy has no monuments. It strikes no medals; it bears the head of no man upon its coin; its very essence is iconoclastic.”[6] More recently, freelance writer Luke Epplin argues that the Stan Musial statue conveys the sorts of problems Adams criticized 180 years ago: by placing Musial on a culturally powerful pedestal, the statue strips Musial of his humanity and portrays him as a saintly figure free of the uncertainties and insecurities of mere mortals.[7] In deifying Musial, sports fans are presented a glorified symbol of Stan the Saint, not Stan the Man.

Despite these concerns and criticisms, the statue remains standing. And even though the design appears the same as it did in 1968, its meaning is constantly transformed and repurposed for contemporary concerns. As the memories of Musial’s playing career fade from collective memory, the statue becomes a significant destination in and of itself along a larger journey through the experience that is “Cardinals Nation.” Even Epplin—despite his reservations about the romanticized nature of the statue—admits that “like most fans in the Gateway City, I convene with family and friends before St. Louis Cardinals’ games at the base of the Stan Musial statue outside Busch Stadium. ‘Let’s meet at the statue,’ we text on the day of the game, and despite the fact that 12 statues encircle the ballpark [today], there’s never any confusion about which one we’re referring to.”[8]

Equally important, the statue is a contested space within St. Louis society. Following an October night of heated clashes at Busch Stadium between Cardinals fans and local residents protesting the recent killing of teenager Michael Brown (who was black) by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson (who is white), several essays sprung up online calling on the Cardinals to lead the city’s efforts towards peace. Cardinals fan blogger Larry Borowsky called for the team to reclaim the “Spirit of ’64,” a year in which the Cardinals won the World Series with a diverse cast of black and white players and the influence of Musial (who retired the year before) looming over their shoulder. Another native St. Louisan echoed these thoughts by arguing that the Stan Musial statue is a symbol of racial healing: “the quiet decency of a guy like Stan the Man seems like a great way to tackle these issues! . . . By treating black ballplayers like human beings, he was just doing what should have been done.”

The actual situation during this period, however, was far murkier. While Musial was personally supportive of racial integration, he was part of an environment hostile to black players on the Cardinals, and the extent to which he should have used his influence to actively fight this discrimination remains an open question. St. Louis was a segregated city for the majority of Musial’s career; local papers like the Sporting News vocally supported the exclusion of African Americans from both the St. Louis Browns and the Cardinals; and former owner Fred Saigh readily conceded that the all-white Cardinals “were a team for the South” during his tenure (1947-1953).[9] Like the statue itself, these claims of a happy period of racial equality within the Cardinals organization and the entire St. Louis region during Musial’s career mask as much as they enlighten.

The Stan Musial statue represents more than Stan Musial himself, and this fact is reinforced with the death of Oscar Taveras. Indeed, the statue fundamentally shapes the meaning of one’s membership in “Cardinals Nation.” On October 26, that statue connected the legacies of Stan Musial and Oscar Taveras in the imagination of Cardinals fans. The greatest player in Cardinals history, forever remembered alongside the player who had the greatest potential to be the next Cardinals legend.

Nick Sacco is a public historian and Park Guide with the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. He regularly blogs about history at his personal website, “Exploring the Past.”


Notes:

[1] See William Morgan, Why Sports Morally Matter (New York: Routledge, 2006).

[2] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1983), 1-8.

[3] George Vecsey, Stan Musial: An American Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 2011), 310-311; Jerry Lansche, Stan the Man Musial: Born to Be a Ballplayer (Dallas: Taylor Publishing Company, 1994), 199-200.

[4] Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009), 4.

[5] Bryan Burwell, “Musial Statue Must Go,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 30, 2010; Vecsey, Stan Musial, 311.

[6] Savage, Monument Wars, 1.

[7]Luke Epplin, “The Problem With Remembering Stan Musial as Baseball’s ‘Perfect Knight’,” The Atlantic, January 24, 2013.

[8] Epplin, “The Problem With Remembering Stan Musial as Baseball’s ‘Perfect Knight’.”

[9] Tom Ley, “Cardinals Fans Get Ugly In Clash With Ferguson Protesters,” Deadspin, October 7, 2014; Larry Borowsky, “The Cardinals need to reclaim spirit of ’64 to heal St Louis’ racial tensions,” The Guardian, October 11, 2014; Zach Weiss, “What Would Stan the Man Do? A St. Louisan reflects on Ferguson,” Culture Shock, October 9, 2014; Steven Goldman, “Breaking the barrier: Integrating the major leagues one team at a time 1947-1959,” SB Nation, April 11, 2013.

One thought on “Oscar Taveras, Stan Musial, and Public Commemoration in Sports

  1. Pingback: Oscar Taveras, Stan Musial, and Public Commemoration in Sports | Exploring the Past

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