Willie Stargell 1979 Co MVP
- CF, LF, OF, RF, 1B
- March 6, 1940
- 6' 2"
- 188 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 9-16-1962 with PIT
- Allstar Selections:
- 1974 LG, 1974 RC, 1978 HA, 1979 BR, 1979 ML, 1979 MVP, 1979 NLCS, 1979 WsMVP
- Hall of Fame:
The images remain clear for those who saw them: the September call up striking out in his
|Willie Stargell Extras|
|Hall of Fame Speech|
first at bat; the developing power hitter who battled weight problems and lost countless homeruns to the deep dimensions of Forbes Field; the premiere homerun figure in baseball, cranking his bat in a windmill at the plate as he prepared to send the next pitch somewhere beyond the outfield walls at Three Rivers Stadium, passed over on not one but two occasions when deserving of his league’s Most Valuable Player Award; the patriarchal figure bringing his family home to the promised land with a final grand season, passing out encouragement as well as stars to his teammates when they performed some heroic feat; the aging pinch hitter, beloved by all in his adopted city, some 3,000 miles from where he grew up and finally the ailing man who’s last appearance at a baseball game had those who loved him better than they knew him fighting back tears and praying for one more miracle.
Wilver Stargell was born in Oakland, California. His family struggled at times to make ends meet and at an early age, Stargell saw sports as a chance to escape poverty. He was an eight letter man at Encinai High School in Alameda and played Connie Mack, Babe Ruth and American Legion Ball, leading the Connie Mack League one year with a .518 average. Pirate scout Bob Zuk signed Stargell quickly after Willie’s graduation and the Pirates assigned him to Roswell in the Class D Sophomore League. Considered a firstbaseman, Bob Priddy, Stargell’s teammate that year remembered Stargell was moved to the outfield because Willie had difficulty with pop flies, but Priddy also remembered Willie was an excellent hitter even as a youngster and his superb arm helped him make the transition to centerfield where Willie greatly improved his ability to judge fly balls.
Still, Willie was playing in the south before segregation and faced many prejudices. He was once threatened by a couple of men, one baring a shotgun, stating if he got a hit that night, he would be killed. Fly balls certainly must not have seemed to be much of an obstacle in comparison. Stargell persevered. He was not going to let the threats of a couple of cowardly idiots deprive him of what he was destined for. Willie continued to work hard and in 1961-led Ashville to the South Atlantic League championship with 22 homeruns and 89 RBI’s. Moved up to AAA Columbus in 1962, Stargell hit 27 homers and batted .276 as a 21-year-old to earn a September trip to Pittsburgh.
Willie often remembered his first at bat, which came against slowballer Stu Miller of the Giants. Sent up as a pinch hitter, Dick Stuart kidded him, “Don’t feel bad when you strike out.” Willie did, the first of 1,932 times he fanned in the majors. At the time of his retirement, Stargell held the all-time strike out record, but was later passed by Reggie Jackson; one record Willie certainly didn’t mind relinquishing.
As a rookie in 1963, Stargell began doing what he became most famous for, hitting the first 11 homeruns of his career while batting .243 as a platoon outfielder. He became a fulltime regular in 1964 and hit 21 homers, including the first ever at Shea Stadium and boosted his average to .273. Stargell would hit 20 or more homeruns the next 12 years as well. Recognized as one of the game’s top young power hitters, Stargell made his first All-Star appearance in ’64. Even as a young man, Willie battled to keep his weight down and prior to spring training 1965, Stargell received a letter from Joe L. Brown stating he needed to keep his weight under 210 or he would be fined.
Stargell became the power man in a strong lineup, which fought for the pennant in 1965 and 1966. Following off-season knee surgery, Stargell got off to an excellent start in ’65. But on June 24, a great day led Willie into a bad habit. He hit three homers at Dodger Stadium and missed a fourth by a foot that afternoon. The barrage gave him 20 fourbaggers for the season, but Willie said later that the game disrupted his hitting as he started swinging for homeruns on almost every pitch. He added only seven the rest of the year. While his season total tied Dale Long’s club record for a left-handed hitter and he knocked in 107 runs, Stargell was disappointed that his homerun pace had dropped so dramatically, especially when the Pirates finished just three games out of first.
Stargell resolved to overcome his exaggerated stroke in 1966, but, after more knee surgery, came into camp above his recommended weight, upsetting his manager, Harry Walker. However, another great start made the front office forget the few extra pounds. Stargell was the biggest long ball threat in a lineup of great hitters in ’66. In late May, he posted another three homer game but this time he did not let his success change his approach as Willie was now confident if he met the ball he would drive it far. Willie collected nine strait hits on June 4 and 5 against the Astros and he feasted on Houston and New York pitching all year, batting .400 with 18 homeruns against them. Demonstrating what was to become his trademark modesty, Willie remarked it was hard for him to believe he had stroked nine consecutive hits, stating, “That’s something I could see Clemente doing, but not Stargell.” By the All-Star Game, Willie was third in the league behind teammates Manny Mota and Matty Alou in batting average, but even with his gaudy stats, Stargell seemed to take more delight in the team’s achievements than his own. Willie finished with his best season to date, setting new highs in hits, doubles, homeruns, runs, RBI’s and slugging percentage, but when the season ended, the Pirates were again three games behind the Dodgers.
Besides the slugger’s modesty, Stargell displayed a playful nature. He enjoyed having a good time with teammates and other players. Joe Morgan, who delivered a eulogy at Stargell’s funeral in 2001, remembered a time he and Houston teammate Jimmy Wynn had gone out on the town with Stargell the night before a Sunday afternoon doubleheader. Morgan called it a night at a fairly reasonable hour, telling his compatriots he wanted to get some rest, but Wynn and Stargell stayed out much later. The next day, as Morgan fought to recover from the indulgences of the night before, Stargell enjoyed an excellent game. Standing at second base following a double, Wilver turned to the keystoner and laughed, “Rest is overrated.”
Willie’s production fell off in 1967. With Mota continuing to hit .300, Stargell found himself often benched against lefthanders. He suffered through injuries as well that year, crashing into the wall twice in a span of three days and experienced tendonitis in his shoulder. His weight remained and issue and inactivity did not help it. In 1968, Stargell first injured a knee and later suffered a concussion and face lacerations making a spectacular catch while crashing into the Forbes Field scoreboard and ended up hitting .237, the lowest of his career as a regular player as he battled headaches for the rest of the season. While Stargell lacked the speed to be a topnotch outfielder, he had an excellent arm, some arguing the best in the league after Clemente’s.
Willie was healthy again in 1969. He became the first player to hit a ball completely out of Dodger Stadium and quickly familiarized himself with Montreal’s Jerry Park by driving a ball well beyond the field’s confines into a swimming pool beyond the rightfield fence. Stargell finished with excellent numbers, 29 homeruns, a .302 average and 92 RBI’s.
Most of the veteran players, other than Clemente and Bill Mazeroski, were gone from Stargell’s younger days and Willie was now being looked up to by a group of brash young talent which came to the team in the late ‘60’s. Stargell was still the Bucs #1 power man, but with players like Al Oliver, Richie Hebner, Manny Sanguillen and Bob Robertson joining the team, Willie’s long drives were helping to win games of greater consequence and he looked forward to the team moving into Three Rivers Stadium in July, 1970. While Stargell had had many great moments at Forbes Field, such as hitting seven of the 18 balls to clear the right field grandstand, he had lost many homers to the ballpark’s deep power alleys. One season, his wife kept track of the number Willie would hit playing in a park with the dimensions of the then-planned Three Rivers and calculated he would have ended up with 52. Stargell gleamed at the idea of hitting in Three Rivers and helped open the Pirates’ new home by hitting the team’s first homerun there. His 31 homeruns for 1970 was the top mark on the team, which won the Eastern Division Title. Stargell hit .500 in the playoffs, but the Reds swept the Bucs in three strait games.
Storming out of the gate in 1971, Stargell swung an electrified bat, setting a new major league record with 11 homers in April. The power surge continued through midseason. He ended July with 36 homeruns, tying the National League record and already besting his career high. Talk of his challenging Roger Maris’s 61 ended when Stargell began to experience knee problems. He was advised at one point to have season ending surgery, but continued to play despite sometimes terrible pain. Finishing with 48 homeruns, Willie fell short of Maris, but led the majors. He also hit .295 and drove in a career high 125 runs. The Pirates won the East by 7 games, but other players such as Robertson and Hebner starred in the playoffs against the Giants as Willie went 0-for-14, striking out six times as his knee continued to pain him.
The knee, combined with Earl Weaver’s Baltimore pitchers not giving Willie many good pitches to swing at, kept Stargell’s bat relatively silent in the World Series as he hit .208, while drawing seven walks. Stargell did contribute to two key rallies, doubling in a run in the first inning of Game 4 to help the Pirates get off the deck after falling behind 3-0 and he singled in the eighth inning of a 1-0 Game 7, scoring on Jose Pagan’s hit and run double a few minutes later. The Orioles got a run in the bottom of the inning, but Steve Blass shut the door and Stargell had his first World Series ring.
Even though he maintained a truly professional exterior, Stargell’s World Series performance bothered him. A few years before his death, while signing a piece of 1971 World Series memorabilia, Stargell almost apologetically said, “You know, I had to have knee surgery the next day.”
Stargell’s great 1971 season was not sufficient in the eyes of the baseball writers to win him the MVP Award. Writers defended their choice, Joe Torre, who’s .363 average and 126 rbi’s had led the league by saying he had a better year than Stargell, even though his team, the Cardinals finished second to Stargell’s Pirates. While he admitted some disappointment, the slugger was taking on important roles outside the ballpark. He had already become a business owner in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, opening a fried chicken restaurant called “Willie’s Chicken on the Hill.” As a promotion, anyone in the restaurant when Stargell homered would get their order free. Broadcaster Bob Prince would encourage Stargell to make diners happy by barking, “Let’s spread some Chicken on the Hill, Will!” when the Pirates would come to bat. Stargell also became president of the Black Athletes Foundation, an organization that fought sickle cell anemia, an illness that afflicted Stargell’s daughter. He organized popular bowling tournaments bringing in some of the most popular names in sports to help raise money for his cause.
Even with knee surgery, Stargell continued to ache through the 1972 season. He found the turf at Three Rivers especially unkind to his knees and was moved to first, partly because of Robertson’s slump, but also to put less strain on his knees. Stargell had another fine year in 1972 (33-112-.293), but admitted it could have been better as he slumped badly in September. The late season slump didn’t matter much during the season as the Bucs made a mockery of the Eastern Division race, but when it continued into a terrible 1-for-16 in the playoffs, Stargell and his teammates could not escape defeat at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds.
The death of Clemente on New Year’s Eve that year tore away a friend and mentor from Stargell. With Mazeroski retiring at the end of ’72 to become a coach, Willie was appointed team captain. He was now thrust into the role of team leader, but some wondered how the easygoing player would accept it, noting he was not the outspoken figure Clemente had been. Healthy again, Stargell returned to leftfield and his onfield performance could not have exhibited leadership any better. He carried the team on his shoulders as several of his teammates sputtered. He led the majors in homeruns (44), RBI’s (119), doubles (43), game winning hits (28) and slugging (.646). His 90 extrabase hits was a new team record and instead of experiencing a late season slump, Stargell’s red-hot bat produced 14 hits in 17 at bats in early September as he kept the team in the race until the last day of the year. Still possessing a powerful arm, he collected 14 assists and enjoyed excellent personal moments such as hitting his fourth upper deck homerun at Three Rivers Stadium, his sixth All-Star appearance and became the Pirates’ All-Time homerun leader passing Ralph Kiner. Stargell easily had the best season of any player in baseball, but was bypassed again in the MVP voting. The award went instead to Pete Rose, who won the batting title and collected 230 hits. Impressive as his numbers were, most writers agreed they were nowhere near as outstanding as Stargell’s, but those who voted for Rose stated, in reversal of opinion from 1971, that the Reds had won and the Pirates had not.
In 1974, Stargell hit .301 and added 25 homeruns and 96 RBI’s to what was starting to become qualifications for the Hall of Fame. The length of some of his homeruns continued to be impressive. Dodger ace Don Sutton once said, “Willie Stargell doesn’t just hit pitchers. He takes away their dignity.” The Pirates returned to the playoffs with a great second half and Stargell had a strong playoff, batting .400 with two homeruns, but he could not carry the Pirate offense past Sutton and his fellow Dodger moundsmen.
Moved to firstbase by Danny Murtaugh so that Dave Parker might play everyday at the end of spring training, Willie put up similar numbers in 1975, but cracked a rib in August. He missed nine games during a terrible streak in which the team went 2-12, but with their captain back in the lineup, the Pirates turned it around down the stretch and again won the East. Facing the Reds in the postseason for the third time in six years, the more dominant Cincinnati club swept the Bucs three in a row, with Stargell held to 2-for-11.
As disappointing as the playoff losses had been in ’70, ’72, ’74 and ’75, they were nothing compared to what Stargell faced in 1976. His wife, Delores, was diagnosed with a life threatening blood clot on her brain. Willie’s incredible concentration was broken for much of the season and he hit only .257 with 20 homeruns. His wife recovered and Stargell got off to a much better start in 1977. New Manager Chuck Tanner made sure the 37-year-old Stargell got plenty of rest and Willie responded with 13 homeruns in his first 186 at bats despite battling dizzy spells early in the season. It was a shame there would be no 187th at bat. Captain Willie suffered a pinched nerve a few days after becoming the first Pirate to hit 400 homeruns in his career trying to break up a fight between Bruce Kison and the Phillies Mike Schmidt. After hoping rest would solve the problem, Stargell was placed on the disabled list on August 5 for the rest of the season. The injury stopped Willie’s streak of 13 consecutive years with 20 or more homeruns.
Some questioned how much Stargell would be able to help the Pirates in 1978, given his age, injuries and history of weight problems. When he got off to a slow start, Tanner defended his decision to stick with Stargell, noting Willie still had terrific bat speed, stating it was much better than 1977’s National League Comeback Player of the Year, Willie McCovey. When McCovey hit a homerun to help win a game against Tanner’s team, the manager was laughed at in some of the newspapers. The laughter died quickly when Stargell started to hit, as he hadn’t in a number of years. His 28 homeruns and 97 rbi’s were his top totals since 1973 and all the more impressive considering Tanner continued to see his slugger would not be worn down by the long season, limiting Willie to 105 games. Willie also hit .295 in his 390 at bats and succeeded McCovey as Comeback Player of the Year. Picked for the All-Star team for a final time, Willie certainly played the role of captain with several big hits to keep the Pirates in the race until the final weekend of the season. After the Pirates had swept a double header from the firstplace Phillies on Friday, September 29 to move to within 1 ½ games with two to go, Stargell slugged a first inning grand slam on September 30, but Phils pitcher Randy Lersch hit a pair of homeruns to stave off the Pirate juggernaut.
Willie was a year older in 1979, and when his team adopted Sister Sledge’s We Are Family as its theme song, Willie became known as “Pops.” Stargell continued to lead with his bat, humor and gentle counsel and also passed out clothe stars to players who contributed in some way to a Pirate win. The stars became the symbol of Pirate togetherness and the players proudly displayed them on their caps. On the field, Pops led the Bucs in homeruns with 32 and drove in 82 runs while hitting .281. He also led NL firstbasemen in fielding (.997) and had four two-homerun games. Eight of Stargell’s homeruns won games during the year, four of them coming in September, when Willie totaled 5 GWH including the division clincher played on the final day of the season. Stargell became the team’s all-time RBI leader and extra base hitter as well during the championship campaign. Tanner continued to see Willie got plenty of rest early and when not starting, Willie hit .467 with six pinch hit rbi’s. For his leadership and big September hits more than his overall numbers, Stargell finally won the National League MVP Award, sharing it with the Cardinals’ Keith Hernandez, who, not surprisingly given Stargell’s two previous close calls were to batting champions, had led the NL in hitting.
Willie’s great year continued into the postseason. He was named the NLCS MVP going 5-for-11 with two homeruns and 2 doubles driving in six runs. His three run shot won Game 1 in the tenth inning and he also homered to help seal Game 3 and the pennant. Pops became the only man in baseball history by completing a Most Valuable Player triple play, winning the World Series MVP for his outstanding play. He hit .400 (12-for-30) with a record seven extra base hits and tied the record for WS total bases with 25 and four hits in a game. Willie’s third Series homer, a two-run shot to right field in the sixth inning of Game 7, gave the Pirates the lead and proved to be the Series winning hit. Other postseason awards followed, including The Sporting News’ Man of the Year and Sports Illustrated’s Sportsmen of the Year, an honor he shared with the Steeler’s Terry Bradshaw. Pops Stargell had become Pittsburgh’s, perhaps the nation’s most beloved athlete and while some wrote Willie should go out on top, Willie knew what he meant to his Family and had no doubts about returning in 1980.
But at 40-years-old, Captain Willie could not escape injury. He missed several early season games but got hot late in May to raise his average 40 points to .316. He tried to stay active as a pinch hitter after suffering a hamstring injury, but had to be placed on the disabled list and after injuring a knee diving for a groundball on August 12, Stargell was forced to shut it down for the season after appearing in just three more games. He underwent arthoscopic surgery, but was unable to return until spring training.
Recognizing Stargell’s advancing age would be against him making another comeback as a fulltime player, the Pirates obtained Jason Thompson in March, 1981. Willie pinch-hit almost exclusively and while he hit a respectable .283, he did not homer in 60 at bats. Willie played one more season in 1982. He added three more homers to bring his mark to 475, tying Stan Musial for 14th place on the all-time list. His final blast was a pinch-hit off the Reds’ Tom Hume, the same pitcher Stargell had tagged for the drive, which had won Game 1 of the 1979 NLCS, on July 21. The Pirates offered Willie the opportunity to provide his bat off the bench in 1983, but Stargell, realizing his knees could not take the riggers of spring training declined. He was honored one last time as an active player in early September and singled off Expos’ pitcher Steve Rogers’ glove in his final at bat. Keeping with his sense of humor, the slow moving Stargell took off on the next pitch, only to have the hitter foul the ball off.
Stargell coached in the minors for the Bucs the next two years. When everything else seemed to be going wrong for the team in 1985, the Pirates brought Stargell back to Pittsburgh as its first base coach. However, it became obvious Tanner would not be asked back in 1986 and Stargell went with him to Atlanta, continuing to work as a coach from 1986-1988 before becoming a special assistant in the front office, often working with young hitters.
In 1997, Pirate owner Kevin McClatchy returned the Pirates’ all-time homerun leader back to Pittsburgh where he belonged to work in the front office. It was obvious, however, that Stargell was in ill health. He had battled obesity and diabetes since his retirement and, although the Pirates kept his health issues a private matter, rumors spread that Willie was receiving dialysis. Willie remained as active with the team as his health would permit. In 2001, after having a finger amputated due to his diabetes the previous winter, Stargell spent most of the summer at his home in Wilmington, North Carolina. His last appearance for the Pirates came during the team’s closing of Three Rivers Stadium when he bounced a ball to Jason Kendall to close out the facility where he hit more homeruns than any other player. Earlier that weekend, the Pirates had displayed a model of a statue of Stargell planned for their new home, PNC Park. The actual statue was unveiled to the public a few days before the first game there. The figure shows Stargell, pulling back his bat, ready to lift the ball into the heavens. The base of the statue is decorated with Stargell stars.
In one of the franchise’s saddest ironies, The Captain passed on to join Clemente, Wagner and many of the other Pirate greats the morning the new ballpark opened, April 9, 2001. Fans garnished his new statue with cards and flowers, cried and wondered how many Willie could have hit playing in PNC.
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