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Lillian Musial: The woman behind The Man

Lillian Musial: The woman behind The Man

ST. LOUIS -- The old adage proposes that behind every successful man, there is a woman.

And indeed, behind The Man, there was Lil.

Lillian Susan Musial (née Labash) died on Thursday evening at the age of 91. She leaves behind her husband, a Cardinals great, as well as four children, 11 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. Also remaining is her own legacy, one formed separate of her husband's and largely out of the limelight in a city that became the Musial's home.

"We have lost a valued member of the Cardinals family," Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said. "She was a remarkable woman who touched the lives of so many people."

Though the story of these high school sweethearts began in Donora, Pa., where Lil first set her eyes on her future husband while watching him play in a semi-pro baseball game, they made their life in St. Louis. Married in 1940, Stan began his 22-year career with the Cardinals a year later.

The Musials never left St. Louis, and Lil spent the years during and after her husband's career making an indelible mark in the local community. Lil had a particular devotion for helping children and advocating education.

"I think she just had a passion and a softness for kids who are often forgotten and don't have the resources that many of us are lucky to have," said Suzanne Wagener, the executive director of the Covenant House Missouri, one nonprofit organization that benefited from the Musial's support.

"They were always that voice in the community for us."

Before Lil's work began with the Covenant House Missouri, she was one of five women who founded the Cardinals Pinch Hitters group. Along with Mary Devine, Mary Marian, Mary Schoendienst and Dorothy Silve, Lil formed the organization in an effort to assist children's charities.

The group's yearly charity event -- a fashion show held on a Sunday summer evening at a downtown hotel -- began as an intimate gathering before outgrowing hotel venues. It eventually moved to nearby Grant's Farm, and in later years sometimes also featured a variety show of sorts. The event would include a dinner and auction, and all monies were donated to a charity that worked with local children.

"[The Musials] felt that they wanted to give something back to the community," said Judy Barada, who joined the Cardinals' front-office staff in 1967, when Stan Musial was the team's general manager. "That was the M.O. for Lil. She always wanted to help."

While her work with the now-defunct Cardinals Pinch Hitters continued, Lil and Stan Musial were approached about attaching their name to a golf tournament that would benefit a local children's shelter. In 1998, that shelter took the name Covenant House Missouri, and at the time of Lil's death, she had worked with them for more than 20 years.

An annual golf classic gave way to the Stan Musial Hall of Fame Gala four years ago. Combined, the two events have raised more than $20 million dollars for Covenant House Missouri, whose mission statement notes an emphasis on empowering the homeless, runaway and at-risk youth to live independently.

"I really think that because of their involvement, it helps people listen," Wagener said. "They were always so gracious talking to people and the kids and getting people excited about what is often a forgotten population."

Lil was honored at the 2011 gala, as the Covenant House Missouri used the gathering to celebrate her 91st birthday. Nicknamed "Sugar," Lil enjoyed Sugar's Sweet Station -- which featured various flavors of gooey butter cake -- that night.

"It was one of those really special moments and now you are even more appreciative that you were able to share that moment," said Wagener, who was also struck that evening by the affection the Musials showed to one another.

"You could just tell by the way he looked at her. I always thought they had the sweetest, most enduring relationship."

At the time, the Musials had already been married for 71 years.

"She told me once that when she saw him, she knew he was the one," Barada said. "There was always a warm feeling in that house. No pretense, very welcoming -- just down-to-the-earth people."

The woman who used to watch other players' children so those wives could have a day to themselves will not soon be forgotten by those whom she touched. While the Musials have already granted the Covenant House Missouri permission to continue using their name with the annual gala, the nonprofit organization has already begun discussing the possibility of creating an annual award given out in Lil's memory.

That honor, Wagener surmised, would be presented to a woman who embodied all that Lil did.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB.
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