One of baseball's premier sluggers for much of his career, Willie Stargell intimidated opposing pitchers with his awesome power at the plate that enabled him to hit some of the longest home runs in Pittsburgh Pirates history. More than just a great home run hitter, Stargell was also one of the classiest men in the game, providing leadership to his teammates and instilling in them a winning attitude they previously lacked.
Born in Earlsboro, Oklahoma on March 6, 1940, Wilver Dornell Stargell migrated to Alameda, California with his family as a young man. After attending Encinal High School, Stargell was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, with whom he made his major league debut in September of 1962, appearing in 10 games and hitting .290 in 31 official at-bats. The lefthanded-hitting Stargell assumed a part-time role with the team the next two seasons, hitting 21 home runs and knocking in 78 runs in only 117 games in 1964 and being named to the National League All-Star Team for the first time. Stargell became Pittsburgh's starting leftfielder in 1965 and quickly established himself as one of the league's most feared hitters by hitting 27 homers, knocking in 107 runs, batting .272, and earning his second straight All-Star Game nomination.. Possessing awesome power at the plate, the 6'3", 230-pound Stargell could hit the ball as far as anyone in the game. One-time Pirates manager Harry Walker stated, "I never have seen a batter who hits the ball any harder. For sheer crash of bat meeting ball, Stargell simply is the best."
Pittsburgh finished over .500 just once between 1961 and 1964. But, with Stargell joining Roberto Clemente in their starting outfield, the Pirates surpassed 90 victories in each of the next two seasons, placing third in the final standings both times. Clemente won N.L. MVP honors in 1966, but Stargell also had an outstanding year, hitting 33 home runs, driving in 102 runs, batting .315, and being named to the N.L. All-Star Team for the third consecutive time.
Pittsburgh played its home games in cavernous Forbes Field until the conclusion of the 1969 season, when they moved into Three Rivers Stadium. With its distant outfield fences, Forbes Field undoubtedly reduced Stargell's home run totals considerably his first few years with the team. Nevertheless, the slugger developed a reputation for being able to hit a ball out of any part of any ballpark. He hit seven of the 16 balls ever hit completely out of Forbes Field, and he also hit two of the four balls that left Dodger Stadium completely. Stargell's first tape-measure blast at the Dodgers' home ballpark was struck against Alan Foster on August 5, 1969. Measured at 506 feet, it remains the longest home run ever hit at Dodger Stadium. Four years later, Stargell sent an offering from Dodger starter Andy Messersmith soaring some 493 feet over the outfield fence in the same ballpark. Dodger hurler Don Sutton later said of Stargell, "I never saw anything like it. He doesn't just hit pitchers, he takes away their dignity."
After earning a spot on the National League All-Star Team three straight years, Stargell slumped badly the next two years, particularly in 1968, when he drove in only 67 runs and batted just .237. However, he was far more productive in 1969, hitting 29 home runs, knocking in 92 runs, and batting .307, to lead the Pirates to a third-place finish in the newly-formed National League East. Stargell had another solid year in 1970, helping Pittsburgh to the first of three consecutive N.L. East titles by hitting 31 homers and driving in 85 runs. The slugger then put together the three most productive seasons of his career from 1971 to 1973, a period during which he replaced Roberto Clemente as Pittsburgh's team leader both on and off the field.
In the first of those years, Stargell batted .295, led the league with 48 home runs, and finished among the leaders with 125 runs batted in, 104 runs scored, a .398 on-base percentage, and a .628 slugging percentage. He placed second to Joe Torre in the league MVP voting, and the Pirates went on to win the World Series. Stargell followed that up by hitting 33 homers, driving in 112 runs, and batting .293 in 1972, to earn a third-place finish in the league MVP balloting. He then honored his fallen teammate Roberto Clemente in 1973 by having perhaps the finest season of his career. After Clemente was tragically killed in a plane crash during the offseason while taking supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims, Stargell did all he could to lead the Pirates to another division title, batting .299, scoring 106 runs, and leading the league with 44 home runs, 119 runs batted in, 43 doubles, and a .646 slugging percentage. Although the passing of Clemente proved to be too much for Pittsburgh to overcome, Stargell finished a close second to Pete Rose in the N.L. MVP voting.
Fully entrenched as Pittsburgh's team leader by 1974, Stargell taught the same lessons to his younger teammates he learned earlier in his career from Roberto Clemente. The late Pirates outfielder had taught Willie how to play the game properly, and how to carry himself with dignity and class off the field. Stargell, in turn, passed on that knowledge to the next generation of Pirates players.
Pirates manager Chuck Tanner noted the totality of Stargell's contributions to the team by commenting, "Having Willie Stargell on your ball club is like having a diamond ring on your finger."
As his role of leadership on the Pirates continued to grow, injuries began to cut into Stargell's playing time and offensive productivity. After leading the Pirates to their fourth division title in five years in 1974 by hitting 25 home runs, driving in 96 runs, scoring 90 others, and batting .301, Stargell missed a total of 182 games over the next three seasons.
Knee problems forced Willie to move to first base in 1975, a season in which he batted .295 and drove in 90 runs despite appearing in only 124 games. An elbow injury limited Stargell to just 63 games in 1977, bringing to an end his streak of 13 consecutive seasons with at least 20 home runs. He returned to the Pirates' starting lineup the following year, though, to hit 28 homers, drive in 97 runs, and bat .295, en route to winning Comeback Player of the Year honors.
The Pirates elder statesman by the late 1970s, Stargell was admired and respected by every other member of the team. Stargell's younger teammates looked to him for advice and guidance, both on and off the field, and his wisdom and calm demeanor gave him an exalted position within the Pittsburgh clubhouse.
Teammate Al Oliver once stated, "If Willie Stargell asked us to jump off the Fort Pitt Bridge, we would ask him what kind of dive he wanted. That's how much respect we have for the man."
By 1979, a family-type atmosphere existed on the Pirates, and Stargell was considered to be the patriarch of that family. The closeness that existed on the team helped carry Pittsburgh to the division title during the regular season, and then to victories over both Cincinnati in the NLCS and Baltimore in the World Series. Stargell appeared in only 126 games during the regular season, hitting 32 home runs, knocking in 82 runs, and batting .281. But the baseball writers recognized his leadership skills, and the other intangible qualities he brought to his team, by splitting their MVP votes between him and St. Louis first baseman Keith Hernandez, awarding them each a share of the trophy.
The 1979 campaign ended up being Stargell's last big year. Injuries and advancing age severely limited his playing time the next few years, finally forcing him into retirement at the end of the 1982 season. Stargell ended his career with 475 home runs, 1,540 runs batted in, 1,195 runs scored, and a .282 batting average. He surpassed 40 homers twice, and he topped 30 homers another four times. Willie also drove in more than 100 runs on five separate occasions, scored more than 100 runs twice, and batted over .300 three times. He appeared in a total of seven All-Star games and finished in the top ten in the MVP balloting a total of seven times, winning the award once and making it into the top five on three other occasions.
Following his retirement, Stargell returned to the Pirates briefly as a coach before following Chuck Tanner to Atlanta after his former manager was named skipper of the Braves in 1986. He remained with the Braves several years, serving at different times as the team's first base coach, hitting instructor, and as a Special Assistant to the Director of Player Development. Stargell was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988, in his first year of eligibility, but he subsequently developed a kidney disorder that eventually took his life on April 10, 2001. He died of a stroke in Wilmington, North Carolina, on the same day that a larger-than-life statue of him was unveiled outside the Pirates' new stadium, PNC Park.
Willie Stargell saw a lot of himself in the city of Pittsburgh, describing his home for 21 major league seasons by saying: "Pittsburgh isn't fancy, but it's real. It's a working town and money doesn't come easy. I feel as much a part of this city as the cobblestone streets and the steel mills. People in this town expect an honest day's work, and I've given it to them for a long, long time."
Tommy Lasorda once expressed his admiration for Stargell by saying, "There's only one word to describe Willie Stargell, and that's class. He's been an inspiration to millions of youngsters all over America."
Ken Brett described his former teammate as: "that rare combination of athlete and gentleman. He is one of the very few to be a star both on and off the field."
- 1979 World Series, All Star, Baseball History, Coach, Hall of Fame, MVP, Members of the 500 Home Run Club, Pittsburgh Pirates, Stats, Willie Stargell