No matter how you phrased the question, the answer was always clear.
It had to be Stan the Man.
Stan Musial was considered the greatest St. Louis Cardinals player ever, the most beloved Cardinal, the greatest living Cardinal and the most iconic St. Louis sports figure.
There was no debate. Of course, every generation of Cardinals fans had its favorite player or two. Still, fans of all ages revered Musial.
They always will.
Yet, upon Musial's death last week at age 92, an interesting debate ensued. Who replaces Musial as the greatest living Cardinal?
There are only a handful of candidates because the elimination process is simple. If you're not in the Hall of Fame, you're out.
Let's take it a step further. If you've had your number retired by the team, you're in.
That leaves five -- Ozzie Smith, Red Schoendienst, Lou Brock, Bruce Sutter and Bob Gibson.
So let the debate begin.
I emailed, texted and talked to fans, colleagues and anyone with a rooting interest throughout the last week and asked them this question. The responses were varied. A few brought up heralded managers like Whitey Herzog and long-time radio voices like Mike Shannon.
To be fair, both wore the birds on the bat and made significant contributions to the success of the franchise. Yet, they are more beloved than they are great., and there is a distinction between favorite Cardinal and greatest Cardinal.
Others questioned where Albert Pujols fit into the picture. The consensus was Pujols is on the edge of the conversation for two reasons. One, his body of work is incomplete and there is always a chance he could return to St. Louis before his career is through. Two, he walked away from the franchise and there is no guarantee he goes into the Hall of Fame wearing a Cardinals cap on his plaque.
Sutter left for Atlanta via free agency following the 1984 season, but his Hall of Fame cap is the interlocking "STL" and he makes himself a presence at Busch Stadium to this day.
Truth be told, Sutter wasn't on my list and is a distant fifth among the five widely considered to be the greatest living Cardinal.
So who tops the list?
Let's look at the resumes.
Smith is the greatest defensive player in franchise history, owning 13 Gold Gloves and 15 All-Star appearances. He was the face of the franchise throughout the '80s, and his home run in the 1985 NLCS against the Dodgers is one of the greatest moments in Cardinals history.
Schoendienst is the old-timers favorite and the one who truly has been a Cardinal for life. Born in Germantown, Ill., Schoendienst spent 15 of his 19 big-league seasons in St. Louis, managed the Cardinals three separate times and has served the franchise in some capacity without interruption since 1961. He remains a special assistant coach to this day.
Once Brock became a Cardinal, he remained a Cardinal. Traded by the Cubs in 1964 in the infamous Brock for Broglio deal, Brock became one of the greatest base stealers of all-time, eclipsing Ty Cobb's career stolen base record. He is a member of the 3,000-hit club and played on two World Series winning teams. He continues to be a special instructor during spring training for the Redbirds.
Two numbers come to mind when you think of Gibson -- 1.12 and 17. The first is Gibson's ERA during the 1968 season and the lowest in the big leagues since 1914. The second is the number of strikeouts he had in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series against the Tigers.
Now, add to that Gibson was a two-time Cy Young Award winner, the 1968 NL MVP, a nine-time All-Star and a two-time World Series MVP. He also was voted to the MLB All-Century team.
So who gets your vote?
Of the 40 people polled, 30 chose Gibson, seven went with Brock and three picked Ozzie.
Interstingly, not a single person chose Pujols.
Loyalty matters, and Cardinals fans stay true to the ones who respect the birds on the bat the most.