Saying So Long to Starg - 2001
As a young baseball fan growing up in the 1970s, I liked and admired Willie Stargell so much that I was once motivated to do something very foolish: at the age of nine, I stole his 1974 baseball card from my next door neighbor’s house. Fortunately, my neighbor—the older brother of one of my best friends—knew about my infatuation with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ slugger and quickly confronted me about the pilfered card. Feeling humiliated at being caught and guilty over what I had done, I returned the stolen item. As I look back at that incident today, I’m tempted to make the following conclusion: in a strange and indirect way, Willie Stargell taught me a simple but important lesson about how it was wrong to take things that didn’t belong to me.
Although my friends and I grew up in Westchester County as fans of either the Mets or Yankees, we loved to imitate two “out-of-town” hitters of the day. One was Cincinnati Reds superstar Joe Morgan, who regularly flapped his left elbow like a fluttering chicken wing. The other was Stargell, for the way that he “windmilled” his bat in a rhythmic circle. As he awaited each pitch, Stargell rocked back and forth in the batter’s box, motioning his bat forward, pointing it for a moment toward center field, and then bringing the bat backward for another swirl. The windmilling seemed to relax Stargell and aid his timing at the plate. At the same time, the constant motioning of the bat must have frightened opposing pitchers, as they envisioned the massive Stargell preparing to unleash his ferocious upper-cut swing.
The Stargell that we enjoyed watching was in the prime of his Hall of Fame career. Given our youth, we didn’t realize what Stargell had overcome in reaching the major leagues. At the time, we didn’t understand that he had grown up poor, in contrast to our relatively wealthy upbringing.
For much of his youth, Stargell lived in a governmental project in Alameda, CA. Stargell certainly experienced poverty, but on the favorable side, encountered relatively little racism while growing up in the projects. Those circumstances began to change in 1959, when he signed his first professional baseball contract and reported to the Pirates’ minor league affiliate in the Class-D Sophomore League. There he discovered a different world, one more antagonistic and harsh toward African Americans. “When I first entered baseball in New Mexico and Texas,” Stargell said in an interview that appeared in the Syracuse Herald American, “they separated the black players. They emphasized that blacks were less superior than whites.” Since many hotels did not permit black residents, Stargell often slept in cots on the back porches of private homes owned by other blacks. Restaurants also discriminated against blacks. Stargell often had to wait in restaurant kitchens, where he was handed small scraps of foods. At other times, Stargell had to sit on the team bus while the white players ate comfortably in roadside diners.
Other devices of segregation were just as infuriating to Stargell. “We had to drink from different fountains,” Stargell recalled. “There was always a constant reminder that we were less superior.” Stargell found little solace at the ballpark, where fans treated him and other black players cruelly. “I’d get to the ballpark,” Stargell told Sport Magazine, “and the fans would be name-calling me—‘Nigger,’ ‘Pork Chop.’ They’d threaten to shoot me if I beat their ballclub. It scared the hell out of me. I would go home and cry.”
The severe racial hostilities that Stargell and other black players experienced left the slugger feeling understandably bitter—at least early in his career. On one occasion, a white man threatened Stargell with a shotgun. The man told Stargell that if he dared to hit successfully in the game that night, he would shoot him. “I couldn’t understand how the color of my skin could make people hate me for something I had never done,” Stargell recalled in the Syracuse Herald American.
In 1961, the situation improved somewhat when the Pirates assigned Stargell to Asheville, NC, their affiliate in the Sally League. “The people of Asheville gave us a warm welcome,” Stargell revealed in Sport Magazine. “We were still segregated, but at least there were five blacks on the team.” As one of a handful of African Americans, Stargell felt a greater sense of safety in numbers.
When Stargell first arrived in the major leagues in 1962, the Pirates featured a more substantial level of integration—with black and Latino players like Roberto Clemente, Donn Clendenon, Alvin McBean, Diomedes Olivo, Elmo Plaskett, and Bob Veale. While Stargell might have felt comfortable in a clubhouse that would soon become a melting pot, he didn’t become a major league star overnight; instead he settled into a platoon role, sharing left field duties with journeyman outfielder Manny Mota.
At 6’2” and 225 pounds, Stargell was a massive but mobile outfielder with a surprisingly strong arm (second only to Clemente among the Pirates), who showed flashes of promise at the plate. Yet, he really didn’t begin to commit himself to the game until after he suffered a disappointing 1968 season, when he batted.237 with 24 home runs. At that time, Stargell left himself open to some careful self-evaluation. “I wondered if all I wanted to be was a player who stayed around for 10 years and didn’t really accomplish anything,” Stargell told Baseball Digest, “or did I want to make myself a real good ballplayer, an outstanding ballplayer?” Stargell realized that he had been cheating himself. “Once I used to think that all there was to this game was to show up at the ballpark a couple of hours before gametime, go through the usual routine, play nine innings, and go home.” Such a mundane philosophy, which seemed destined to attain mediocrity, was no longer good enough to meet Stargell’s personal demands of himself.
Stargell began to hit more consistently in 1969 and ’70, but it was in 1971 that he emerged as a star. After reporting to spring training in the best physical condition of his career, he enjoyed a torrid first month of the season, making a run at the April home run record. Needing just one to break the record, Stargell stepped into the batter’s box in the eighth inning on April 27 against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Facing former Pirate reliever Pete Mikkelsen, Stargell connected against the sinkerballing right-hander—a long 430-foot line drive over the center field wall at Three Rivers, a fittingly monstrous home run for such a milestone occasion. “Pete should be happy that Willie hit the ball in the air,” Dodger infielder Billy Grabarkewitz remarked afterward in an interview with sportswriter Arnold Hano. “If he had hit it back through the middle, Mikkelsen would be dead.”
The home run provided the signature moment to an incredible month of power—and an April record of 11 home runs. Stargell also finished the month with 27 RBIs, a total that became even more impressive when one considered the cold weather the Pirates had endured. Yet, his power numbers, impressive enough on their own, told only a small portion of the story. Stargell’s batting average at the end of the month rested at .347, including a mark of nearly .300 against left-handed pitchers. Without question, the spring of ‘71 represented the maturation of Stargell as a complete hitter.
Stargell’s monumental start also provided him with a forum to sound off on the issue of racism in baseball. In contrast to the outright prejudice he had experienced during his early minor league days, he expressed hopefulness for better race relations in the future. “I realize I can’t go around hating the system, hating what happened to me,” Willie said in the Syracuse Herald American. “I just can’t wait to get in the position where my son doesn’t have to get into that.” Stargell felt it incumbent for prominent black athletes to reach out to the black population while providing solid examples of behavior for African-American youngsters. “I think the black ballplayer should be responsible to the black community,” Stargell explained to Lacy Banks of Black Sports Magazine. “The people, in many ways, helped to put him where he is. He should be visible to the kids in the ghetto. Sometimes just a smile and a word of concern from him can help change the life of a young brother toward the better.”
Although open segregation no longer plagued baseball by the 1970s, another racial issue bothered Stargell—the lack of equal salaries for comparable white and black stars. Stargell felt that a lack of endorsements for minority players exacerbated the problem. Up until 1971, he had never received an endorsement opportunity, while older black stars like Clemente and Frank Robinson had received very few offers. “We have a long way to go in endorsements,” Stargell lamented to Black Sports Magazine. “You see a few blacks, but that’s tokenism.”
While Stargell championed the cause of the black athlete off the field, he inspired his Pirate teammates on the field—with his tape-measure home runs, the longest the game had seen since Mickey Mantle’s heyday in the 1950s. “Willie’s inspirational feats, his home runs, his towering home runs, and the way Willie handled himself, it rubbed off on the ballclub,” says Bob Robertson, a teammate of Stargell’s from 1967 to 1976. “We had so much pride in ourselves with that ballclub. We’d stand around the batting cage, me and Clemente and Stargell, Richie Hebner and the rest of us. We would challenge one another.” Stargell’s resume of tape-measure home runs included two launched completely out of Dodger Stadium, one of the toughest parks for hitters of that era. During Stargell’s career, no other player even managed to hit one home run out of the ballpark in Chavez Ravine.
Prior to the 1970 season, Stargell’s capacity for home runs had been diminished by the expansive dimensions of his own ballpark. In his early years (up until mid-1970), the Pirates played at venerable Forbes Field, arguably the most difficult park in which to hit home runs in the National League. Forbes Field had deep, spacious power alleys that were not conducive to a hitter like Stargell, who often hit the ball from left-center to right-center. The right field power alley at Forbes Field measured 408 feet, while the left field power alley stretched out to 406 feet. At its deepest point, just to the left of straightaway center field, the distance measured 457 feet. As a result, no Pirate team calling Forbes Field home had ever led the National League in home runs.
On July 16, 1970, Stargell and the Pirates moved into a new ballpark—Three Rivers Stadium. In contrast to Forbes Field, the power alleys at Three Rivers measured a more reasonable 385 feet to both right-center and left-center field, and 410 feet to its deepest point in center field. What was the impact of the difference on Stargell? In 1969, Stargell’s wife, Dolores, performed her own informal study of the differences in dimensions between Forbes Field and Three Rivers, which was then under construction. She estimated that her husband would have hit at least 50 home runs that season if the team were already playing in Three Rivers, as opposed to the 29 that he actually hit while playing home games at Forbes Field. “It’s funny, but that year I hit 21 outs to the fence or just in front of it in center field,” Willie told United Press International. If only Willie had been able to play his entire major league tenure at Three Rivers (instead of merely half), he surely would have finished his career as a member of the 500-home run club, as opposed to falling 25 short of the milestone.
As much as home runs defined Stargell on the field, they only scratched the surface of portraying his overall contributions to the game, including his relationship with teammates and the general public. Unlike some self-centered athletes, Willie knew how to connect with fans. For example, after he bought a restaurant in The Hill section of Pittsburgh in 1970, he conjured up a special promotion: every time, he hit a home run, the restaurant would give free chicken to anyone placing an order at that time. The giveaway prompted legendary Pirates announcer Bob Prince to proclaim, “Spread some chicken on the hill!” when Willie blasted another long ball. More importantly, Stargell didn’t merely focus his efforts toward patrons of his restaurant. He reached out to all Pirate fans by regularly chatting with them prior to games and willingly signing autographs.
Stargell also tried to exert a positive influence on his teammates. In 1979, Stargell achieved his greatest fame as the leader of the World Champions, carrying the nickname “Pops” as the patriarch of the team known for its “We Are Family” credo. While Stargell’s individual statistics that season were far less impressive than the ones he had compiled during his hallmark 1971 and ’73 campaigns, he shared the National League’s MVP Award mostly on the strength of his pronounced leadership abilities. Stargell popularized the practice of handing out gold stars to certain players and coaches after each game, for anything from advancing a runner to delivering the game-winning hit. Stargell had actually started the practice in 1978, as a way of informing his teammates that he appreciated their contributions. Pirate players donned the gold “Stargell Stars” on their caps, in what would become an outward symbol of team recognition and unity. “We have shown what men can do together,” Stargell told a reporter from the Washington Star after the ’79 season. “We have blacks, whites, Latinos, but we were family. We had to scratch and crawl sometimes, but we did it together.”
Although Stargell is best remembered as the clubhouse leader of the ‘79 team, he had begun to emerge as a major off-the-field force well before that—as early as 1971. “There’s no doubt about it,” says Dave Cash, who played second base for the Pirates from 1969 to 1973. “He used to have us over to his house. He’d invite the whole team over, have a cookout, say on a Memorial Day if we were [playing] at home, or during the Fourth of July, we’d always get together at his house. It was like a family when we were there. That was one of the things that he tried to do, especially for the young ballplayers. He’d try to get them to relax, and would accept them on the team as part of the family. It was a lot easier for myself to relax in that kind of environment.”
According to his teammates, Stargell’s parties provided all Pirate players—black, Latino, and white—with an opportunity to socialize together, and unwind. “We all were there. I think the reason why Wil liked to have those parties is he that he liked to see guys stagger,” says former Pirate outfielder Al Oliver, who played with Stargell from 1968 to 1977. “Will would fix this drink that was called ‘purple passion.’ It was grape juice and grain alcohol. Guys would start staggering, and talking, and you know we had a very talkative team anyway. We had so much fun. I think Wil really enjoyed that. Wil basically enjoyed seeing people laugh and have a good time.”
Still, Stargell had another reason to host those periodic parties. “If we might lose three or four games in a row, which was kind of uncharacteristic of our ballclub, if he thought something wasn’t going right, well, he would call a team party,” says Oliver. “He would have one and it always worked out right. You know, that’s how Wil would lead us. He would lead us in a social manner.”
Certainly, a number of players on the Pirates of the sixties and seventies provided leadership. Through his own determination and character, Roberto Clemente supplied his teammates with an appropriate example of behavior. Bill Mazeroski, the team’s mainstay at second base, exuded a quiet professionalism and a guiding hand to younger players. Steve Blass, the Pirates best pitcher in 1971 and ’72, often lightened the mood around the ballpark with his keen sense of humor. But it was Stargell, through his outgoing, charismatic personality, who provided the team with a proper social setting away from the stadium. Thanks to the relaxed atmosphere created by Stargell, Pirate made strides in bonding—strides that would not have been possible solely in the confines of a ballpark clubhouse.
Unfortunately, the unexpected death of Clemente on New Year’s Eve, 1972 stripped the Pirates of their most prominent and visible leader. Most writers assumed that Stargell would replace Clemente as the Pirates’ point man, even though the quiet veteran had already provided ample leadership throughout the 1971 and ‘72 seasons. General manager Joe L. Brown hinted that Stargell possessed the necessary qualities to steer the Pirates. “I think there are other people on this team who will take on an added dimension now that Roberto will not be around,” Brown told the Associated Press. “A fellow like Willie Stargell, who plays when he’s hurt and gives everything he has.”
Stargell tried to downplay talk of “succeeding” Clemente as the Pirates’ leader. “No one can do the job that Clemente was doing on or off the field,” Stargell said at the time. “And for me to be an individual, other than what I’ve been in the last 10 years, I can’t change. I have nothing to sell. I’m not trying to impress anyone.” While Stargell insisted that he could not replace Clemente, he did promise to counsel any teammates who asked for help. “I know what it’s like to be on a winner,” Stargell told the AP. “So if anyone asks my advice, or wants to be evaluated on different things, then I’m in a position to talk about these things.”
Although Stargell humbly tried to downplay his role in following Clemente as the unquestioned team leader, most others close to the Pirates knew differently. In the spring of 1974, Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh rewarded Stargell for his leadership by naming him team captain. Stargell became the Pirates’ first captain since Mazeroski, who had served in the role from 1962 until his retirement in 1973. Then on April 11, 1974, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn presented Stargell with Major League Baseball’s annual Roberto Clemente Award, given to the player who best exemplifies Clemente’s spirit on and off the field. Stargell topped the voting, beating out 47 other major leaguers who had been nominated. “Of all the awards, this ranks No. 1 with me,” Stargell told The Sporting News, “because it identifies with Clemente, who always tried to help people.”
For years, Stargell had impressed the baseball world with his success in hitting home runs and driving in runners; now, baseball had taken notice of Stargell’s Clemente-like willingness to devote time to humanitarian causes. During the 1970-71 off-season, he participated in a USO tour for the benefit of American soldiers in Vietnam. On the local front, he performed volunteer work for the Job Corps and the Neighborhood Youth Corps in Pittsburgh, working in the ghettoes as part of the “War on Poverty.” He became president of the Black Athletes Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping African-American athletes earn better contracts and endorsement opportunities while also addressing problems that affected the black community at-large. And in perhaps his most well-known cause, he served as chief spokesman for the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, successfully mobilizing public awareness of a disease that had received very little publicity in the 1960s. Stargell made numerous public appearances throughout his playing career in efforts to raise money to combat the sickle cell disease, which attacks blood cells, mostly in African Americans. “So many people know so little about this disease,” Stargell once said in an interview with the New York Times. “These people live a short, miserable life. We need the help of everyone.”
In 1998, just three years before his death from kidney disease, I was privileged to meet Willie Stargell for the first time. In January of that year, during the depths of another Northeast winter, he came to Cooperstown as part of a program put together by the U.S. Postal Service. He agreed to speak to a group of children who had assembled in the Hall of Fame’s Grandstand Theater. Although most of the kids didn’t know who he was—and none of them ever saw him play—they were still captivated by the positive messages of inspiration coming from this once-great player. In spite of the generational divide, he was able to reach those children, just as he had always reached me, starting with those days in the early seventies when I collected his cards and imitated his swing.
Willie Stargell, it seemed, could connect with anyone.
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