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WASHINGTON -- The baseball-playing son of a Polish immigrant who grew up in a small town just south of Pittsburgh, joined an artist, a painter, a poet, a financier, a cellist, a basketball star and a former U.S. president -- among others -- as recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Tuesday.
The nearly hour-long ceremony, during which Cardinals great Stan Musial certified his famous nickname, "The Man," was presided over by a beaming President Barack Obama in a packed East Room at the White House.
"This is one of the things that I most look forward to every year," Obama said about the ceremony. "It's a chance to meet with and more importantly honor some of the most extraordinary people in America and around the world."
Musial, now 90, had to be helped to his chair among the 14 other recipients and remained seated as Obama fastened the medal around his neck. But he looked resplendent in his blazing Cardinals red jacket and a special tie gifted to him by the ballclub just for the occasion.
"Stan is a great ambassador to this game and a great American," Bill DeWitt Jr., the team's chairman and general partner, said after the ceremony. "He's well-deserving of this honor. It was richly deserved."
Musial played in St. Louis for his entire career of 22 years from 1941-63 interrupted by only one year so he could serve in the Navy during World War II. His 3,026 games with the same club are second only to the 3,308 games over 23 years Carl Yastrzemski played for the Red Sox.
Musial was the eighth baseball player, but only Cardinal to receive one of the highest honors awarded to civilians in the U.S. The others were Joe DiMaggio (1977), Jackie Robinson (1984), Ted Williams (1991), Roberto Clemente (2003), Hank Aaron (2005), Frank Robinson (2005) and Buck O'Neill (2006). Jackie Robinson, who shattered the Major League color barrier for good in 1947, also was a rare recipient of a Gold Medal awarded by a unanimous vote of both houses of Congress in 2005.
"He had a great career and this is a special guy," Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, said about Musial. "My very favorite Stan Musial quote? 'If they throw a spitball at you, don't complain. Just hit the dry side.'"
Musial was honored along with President George H. W. Bush, basketball's Bill Russell, artist Jasper Johns, poet Maya Angelou, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, financer Warren Buffet, Jean Kennedy Smith, labor leader John Sweeney, Dr. Thomas Emmett Little, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, environmentalist John. H. Adams, civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez and Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein. Merkel was not in attendance, and Little, who was murdered last year in Afghanistan, was represented by his wife.
It was certainly an eclectic and heroic mix.
"President Kennedy once said, in a tribute to [poet] Robert Frost, that a nation is not only distinguished by the men and women they produce, but by the men and women they honor," Obama said. "When you look at the men and women who are here today, it says something about who we are as a people. This year's Medal of Freedom recipients reveal the best of who we are and who we aspire to be."
And so, it was no trifling fact that a baseball player form Donora, Pa., was in that group.
Musial hit .331 with 3,630 hits (fourth best all-time time) and 1,951 RBIs (sixth best all-time. He hit 475 homers and almost certainly would've reached the 500-homer mark had he not missed the 1945 season serving in the Navy. A 24-time All-Star (including the two games each summer from 1959-62), he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame his first time on the ballot in 1969.
But he was as special a person off the field as he was on it. Musial was chairman of President Lyndon B. Johnson's President's Council of Physical Fitness, and he was awarded the Polish government's highest civilian honor -- the Cavalier Cross of the Order of Merit -- in 1999.
"His brilliance could come in blinding bursts," Obama said. "He hit five homers in a single day's doubleheader and won three World Series [1942, '44 and '46]. He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, worthy of one of the greatest nicknames in sports: 'Stan the Man.' My grandfather was Stan, by the way. I used to call him the man, too. Stan Musial made that brilliance burn for two decades."
The Cardinals helped promote Musial for the honor last season by starting a social-media campaign dubbed "Stand for Stan," and thousands of Cardinals fans participated in the effort. The team held "Stan Day" at Busch Stadium this past Oct. 2, and 39,000 fans came out to pay tribute to the three-time Most Valuable Player and seven-time batting champion.
DeWitt said the promotion didn't mean a wit. It was Musial himself who earned the honor christened by President Harry S. Truman in 1945 to honor veterans of service in World War II and re-established by Kennedy as one of the nation's top civilian awards in 1963. The Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration and it's bestowed by Congress.
"That was part of our motivation -- to bring recognition to Stan," DeWitt said about the campaign. "I don't know if that got it done. Maybe we got it jump-started, but I'm sure the President singled out Stan for who is and what he accomplished and would've honored him anyway."