By MARK MAYNARD
Joe Fleming grew up in Westwood but there may not be a bigger fan of the late St. Louis Cardinals baseball legend Stan Musial than him.
Back in 1939, when Musial made a visit to Ashland with the Williamson, W.Va., Red Birds — a Class D Mountain State League team — it was Fleming who handed the bats to the 18-year-old Musial in the game with the Ashland Colonels at Armco Field.
Fleming, only 11 at the time, didn’t know he was meeting baseball greatness at the time. Nobody else did either.
But Stan the Man, true to being a player for the fans like he was until his death, told the young boy if he’d meet him at Marion’s Dairy Bar after the game that he’d buy him a milkshake. Fleming took Musial up on the offer — he doesn’t remember the milkshake’s flavor — but it made a lasting and lifelong impression on him.
Marion’s Dairy Bar was on 16th Street in downtown Ashland. The teams often stayed at the Henry Clay Hotel and hung out at the dairy bar, according to George Stout, another Westwood native who was also a bat boy for the Ashland Colonels.
“I sold the Grit paper and won a contest (to be the bat boy),” Fleming said. “That’s when I met him. He didn’t mean anything to me. He was just a boy himself. He asked me where I lived and I said up on the hill in Westwood. He said ‘You come to Marion’s Dairy Bar and I’ll buy you a milkshake.’’’
Three years later, in 1942, when Musial was with the Cardinals on a fulltime basis after breaking in the previous fall, Fleming boarded on a train and went to Cincinnati to watch St. Louis play the Reds. He went over to the team’s hotel and looked up Musial, also reminding him of the milkshake at the dairy bar. Musial remembered him and struck up what turned out to be a lifetime friendship.
Of course, Musial was friendly with everybody.
Fleming went to Cincinnati every time the Cardinals would play and later actually moved to St. Louis. The Cardinals were in his blood. “I’d bum tickets off him,” he said of Musial. “I never missed a Cardinals series in Cincinnati. I went to spring training I don’t know how many times. Stan never forgot me.”
They were such good friends that during one trip to the Kentucky Derby he happened onto Musial in the parking lot of the Executive Inn. He asked him if he was going to the Derby and Musial told him he had an appointment at the Louisville Slugger company and wasn’t going to be able to go. But he did offer the limousine he was riding in to Fleming and his wife Judy.
“He gave us tickets to the Derby,” Fleming said. “That’s how close we were.”
That’s why Fleming was taking Musial’s death pretty hard. He said it was “like losing one of the family.”
St. Louis can relate to Fleming’s feeling about Stan the Man, who died Saturday at the age of 92. Musial’s wife of 70 years passed away in May.
Fleming was at the Cardinals’ winter caravan when the news broke that Musial had died. He was overwhelmed with grief.
He was interviewed for a story in the St. Louis Post Dispatch and also was on television in St. Louis talking about his longtime hero.
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2648.