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Willie Stargell

Willie Stargell
Willie stargell 70topps super-19.jpg
Stargell in 1970
Left fielder / First baseman
Born: March 6, 1940
Earlsboro, Oklahoma
Died: April 9, 2001 (aged 61)
Wilmington, North Carolina
Batted: LeftThrew: Left
MLB debut
September 16, 1962 for the Pittsburgh Pirates
Last MLB appearance
October 3, 1982 for the Pittsburgh Pirates
Career statistics
Batting average.282
Home runs475
Runs batted in1,540
Career highlights and awards
Vote82.4% (first ballot)
Wilver Dornell "Willie" Stargell (March 6, 1940 – April 9, 2001), nicknamed "Pops" in the later years of his career, was an American professional baseball player. He played his entire Major League Baseball (MLB) career (19621982) as the left fielder andfirst baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates of the National League (NL). Over his 21-year career with the Pirates, he batted .282, with 2,232 hits, 423 doubles, 475 home runs and 1,540 runs batted in, helping his team capture six National League East division titles, two National League pennants and two World Series (1971, 1979). Stargell was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988.[1]                                                                                                                                                                           Early life
Stargell was born in Earlsboro, Oklahoma, but later moved to Florida with an aunt after the divorce of his parents. Later he returned to Alameda, California to live with his mother.[2] He attended Encinal High School, where his baseball teammates included future MLB players Tommy Harper and Curt Motton. Stargell signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization and entered minor league baseball in 1959.[3]
Stargell played for farm teams in New Mexico, Iowa and Texas.[3] While on the road with those teams, Stargell was not allowed to stay in the same accommodations as the white players. Lodging for black players was located in the poor black areas of those towns. While in Plainview, Texas, he was accosted at gunpoint by a man who threatened his life if he played in that night's game. Stargell played and nothing came of the incident.[4] He might have quit baseball over the racial difficulties that he experienced, but he was encouraged by letters he received from friend and baseball scout Bob Zuk.[5]

MLB career[edit]

Beloved in Pittsburgh for his style of play and affable manner, Stargell hit 7 of the 16 balls ever hit out of Forbes Field and several of the upper-tier home runs at its successor, Three Rivers Stadium. Though he became quickly known as Willie Stargell, his autograph suggests that he preferred his given name, Wilver. Biographer Frank Garland relates that Stargell's family and friends called him Wilver and that Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully also made a point of using Stargell's given name. Scully said that, because he used the name Wilver, he became Stargell's mother's favorite broadcaster.[4]
Standing 6 feet 3 inches with long arms and a unique bat-handling practice of holding only the knob of the bat with his lower hand to provide extra bat extension, Stargell seemed larger than most batters. Stargell's swings seemed designed to hit home runs ofRuthian proportions. When most batters would use a simple lead-weighted bat in the on-deck circle, Stargell took to warming up with a sledgehammer. While standing in the batter's box, he would windmill his bat until the pitcher started his windup.


Stargell made his major league debut at the end of the 1962 season at the age of 22. His 1963 rookie season was lacklustre, but he enjoyed much more success the following season, his first as an everyday player. Stargell began and ended the season as the Pirates' everyday left-fielder, but spent extended periods playing first base as well. He hit the first home run at Shea Stadium in the first game played in that stadium on April 17, 1964.[6] He made his first of seven trips to the All-Star Game that year. He returned to the All-Star Game the next two seasons, hitting over 100 runs batted in (RBI) in both years, and finishing 14th and 15th in MVP voting respectably. He won the first of the three NL Player of the Month awards of his career in June 1965 (.330, 10 HR, 35 RBI).
Frequent offseason conditioning problems came to a head in 1967, when Stargell showed up to spring training at a weight of 235 pounds. The team mandated that he diet to get down to a weight of 215 pounds. His batting average dropped more than .040 points that season; his home run total was reduced from 33 in 1966 to 20 in 1967. The team had a personal trainer work with Stargell before the 1968 season to get him in the best shape of his career, but Stargell had a poor season and manager Larry Shepard criticized Stargell's physique as too muscular.[7] He finished out the decade with a strong performance in 1969 (.307, 29 HR, 92 RBI), and finished 21st in MVP voting.


After another fine season in 1970 (.264, 31 HR, 85 RBI) in which he finished 15th in MVP voting, Stargell's career moved to another level in 1971. At age 31, he won the first of his two home run titles in 1971; his 48 edged out Hank Aaron's 47 on the final week of the season and, to date, trail only Ralph Kiner's 54 and 51 in 1949 and 1947 respectively for most by a Pirate in one season. He won the final two NL Player of the Month awards of his career in April (.347, 11 HR, 27 RBI) and in June (.333, 11 HR, 36 RBI); yet he did not win the MVP award, finishing second to Joe Torre. In seven of the next nine seasons, Stargell would finish in the top ten in MVP voting, as his career moved onto a Hall of Fame track.
He was a member of the Pirates' World Championship team, the Pirates defeating the Baltimore Orioles in seven games. The Pirates lost the first two games of that series, which Stargell said that media began referring to as "the St. Valentine's Day Massacre" before Pittsburgh's comeback.[8]
Stargell continued to post excellent numbers in 1972 (.293, 33, 112) finishing third in MVP voting behind Johnny Bench and Billy Williams.
In 1973 Stargell achieved the rare feat of simultaneously leading the league in both doubles and homers. Stargell had more than 40 of each; he was the first player to chalk up this 40-40 accomplishment since Hank Greenberg in 1940; other players have done so since (notably Albert Belle, the only 50-50 player). Stargell won his second home run title that year, edging out three Atlanta BravesDavey Johnson's 43, Darrell Evans' 41 and Aaron's 40. For the third year in a row he was narrowly edged out of the MVP award, asPete Rose took the honour.
Beginning in 1975, after years of experimenting at the position, Stargell moved permanently to first base. He would never play another game in the outfield.
In 1977, Stargell hit his 400th career home run on June 30 against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Stargell mans first base, 1979
Stargell originated the practice of giving his teammates embroidered "Stargell stars" for their caps after a nice play or a good game. The practice began during the turbulent 1978 season, when the Pirates came from fourth place and 11.5 games behind in mid-August, to challenge the first-place Philadelphia Phillies for the division title. The season was scheduled to end in a dramatic, four-game showdown against the Phillies in Pittsburgh, in which the Pirates had to win all four games to claim the title. Following a Pirate sweep of the Friday-night double-header, Stargell belted a grand slam in the bottom of the first inning of the season's penultimate game to give the Pirates an early 4-1 lead, although the Pirates would relinquish that lead later in the game and fall two runs short after a four-run rally in the bottom of the ninth inning,[9] thus eliminating themselves from contention for the pennant. Stargell called that 1978 team his favorite team ever, and predicted that the Pirates would win the World Series the following year.
The Pirates did win the World Series in 1979, in a similar style as they had ended the 1978 season: from last place in the NL East at the end of April, the Pirates clawed their way into a first place battle with the Montreal Expos during the latter half of the season. They excited fans with numerous come-from-behind victories along the way (many during their final at-bat) to claim the division pennant on the last day of the season. At his urging as captain, the team adopted the Sister Sledge hit song "We Are Family" as the team anthem. Then his play on the field inspired his teammates and earned him the MVP awards in both the NLCS and the World Series. Stargell capped off the year by hitting a dramatic home run in Baltimore during the late innings of a close Game 7 to seal a Pirates championship. The home run was his third of the Series and, coincidentally, credited Stargell with the winning runs in both Game 7's of the two post-season meetings between the Pirates and the Orioles (1971 and 1979). The 1979 World Series victory also made the Pirates the only franchise in baseball history to twice recover from a three-games-to-one deficit and win a World Series (previously they had done so in 1925 against theWashington Senators). For the Series, Stargell went 12-for-30; along with his three home runs, he also recorded four doubles for 25 total bases, which remains tied as a World Series record, Reggie Jackson having set it in the 1977 World Series, and his seven extra-base hits (3 HRs and 4 doubles) in the 1979 World Series also set a record.
In addition to his NLCS and World Series MVP awards, Stargell finally took home the elusive MVP award (as co-winner along with St. Louis' Keith Hernandez) at the age of 39. Stargell is the only player to have won all three MVP trophies in a single year. He shared the Sports Illustrated magazine's "Sportsmen of the Year" award with NFL quarterbackTerry Bradshaw, who also played at Three Rivers Stadium, for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pirates manager Chuck Tanner said of Stargell, "Having him on your ball club is like having a diamond ring on your finger." Teammate Al Oliver once said, "If he 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."


Stargell played until 1982, but he never appeared in more than 74 games after 1979.[10] He retired with 475 home runs despite playing much of his career at Forbes Field, whose deep left-center field distance was 457 feet. Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente estimated, perhaps generously, that Stargell hit 400 fly balls to the warning track in left and center fields during his eight seasons in the park. The short fence in right field (300 feet to the foul pole) at Forbes Field was guarded by a screen more than 20 feet high which ran from the right-field line to the 375-foot mark in right center. Three Rivers Stadium, a neutral hitter's park, boosted Stargell's power numbers. The Pirates moved into Three Rivers in mid-1970, and he hit 310 of his 475 career home runs from 1970 until his retirement, despite turning 30 in 1970. Stargell's two home run titles came in his first three years at Three Rivers.

Long home runs

At one time, Stargell held the record for the longest homer in nearly half of the NL parks. On August 5, 1969, Stargell hit a home run off of Alan Foster that left the stadium and measured 507 feet, the longest home run ever hit at Dodger Stadium. He hit a second home run out of Dodger Stadium on May 8, 1973 against Andy Messersmith, measured 470 feet. Dodger starter Don Sutton said of Stargell, "I never saw anything like it. He doesn't just hit pitchers, he takes away their dignity." Only two other home runs have been hit out of Dodger Stadium.
On June 25, 1971, Stargell hit the longest home run in Veterans Stadium history during a 14-4 Pirates win over the Philadelphia Phillies.[11] The spot where the ball landed (the shot came in the second inning and chased starting pitcher Jim Bunning) was eventually marked with a yellow star with a black "S" inside a white circle until Stargell's 2001 death, when the white circle was painted black.[12] The star remained in place until the stadium's 2004 demolition. In 1978, against Wayne Twitchell of the Montreal Expos, Stargell hit the only fair ball ever to reach the club deck of Olympic Stadium. The seat where the ball landed (the home run was measured at 535 feet) was replaced with a yellow seat, while the other seats in the upper deck are red. Upon the Expos departure in 2004, the seat was removed and sent to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
Bob Prince, the colorful longtime Pirate radio announcer would greet a Stargell home run with the phrase "Chicken on the Hill". This referred to Stargell's ownership of a chicken restaurant in Pittsburgh's Hill District. For a time, whenever he homered, Stargell's restaurant would give away free chicken to all patrons present in the restaurant at the time of the home run, in a promotion dubbed "Chicken on the Hill with Will". Prince himself once promised free chicken to listeners if Stargell hit a home run; Stargell did homer and Prince picked up a $400 bill at the restaurant.[13]

Later life

Stargell signs autographs after his retirement in 1983.
After retirement, Stargell spent several years as a coach for the Atlanta Braves. He was the first minor league hitting coach for Chipper Jones.[14] He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988, his first year of eligibility. He had an awkward interaction with the Pirates that season when the team wanted to schedule a Willie Stargell Night to honor his Hall of Fame election. Stargell refused to participate in the team's plans, still stinging from the team's refusal to even consider him for its managerial job that season.[7]
In the 1985 trial of alleged cocaine dealer Curtis Strong, Stargell was accused by Dale Berra and John Milner (both former Pirates teammates) of distributing "greenies" (amphetamines) to players.[15] Berra said that he obtained amphetamines from Stargell and Bill Madlock; he said he could get them from Stargell "on any given day I asked him for one."[16] Stargell strongly denied these charges.[15]Commissioner Peter Ueberroth later cleared Stargell and Madlock of any wrongdoing.[5]
Stargell returned to the Pittsburgh club in 1997 as an aide to Cam Bonifay, the team's general manager. He also worked as a special baseball adviser to Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy, who called Stargell "the ultimate class act".[13] Stargell was hospitalized for three weeks in 1999 to treat undisclosed medical problems with one of his organs. A source close to the Pirates blamed Stargell's health issues on his weight gain after retiring as a player. Stargell lost some of that weight, but gained weight again while working for the Pittsburgh front office.[17]
After years of suffering from a kidney disorder, he died of complications related to a stroke in Wilmington, North Carolina, on April 9, 2001. In his later life, Stargell had also suffered from hypertension and heart failure. A segment of Stargell's bowel was removed more than two years before he died. He had been in the hospital recovering from a gallbladder surgery at the time of his death.[4] On April 7, 2001, two days before Stargell died, a larger-than-life statue of him was unveiled at the Pirates' new stadium, PNC Park, as part of the opening-day ceremonies.[13]


Pirates Willie Stargell.png
Willie Stargell's number 8 wasretired by thePittsburgh Pirates in 1982.
The Pirates retired his number in 1982. In 1999, he ranked 81st on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players,[18] and was also nominated as a finalist for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. He threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the 1994 Major League Baseball All-Star Game. Stargell was the last person to throw out the first pitch at Three Rivers Stadium before the team's move after the 2000 season.
After Stargell died, Joe Morgan said, "When I played, there were 600 baseball players, and 599 of them loved Willie Stargell. He's the only guy I could have said that about. He never made anybody look bad and he never said anything bad about anybody."[5]
The Willie Stargell Foundation was established to promote research and treatment for kidney disease.[19] Champion Enterprises sponsors a Willie Stargell Memorial Awards Banquet which raises money for disadvantaged children in Pittsburgh.[13]
Stargell also worked to raise awareness of sickle cell anemia. He formed the Black Athletes Foundation shortly after President Richard M. Nixon identified the disease as a "national health problem" in the early 1970s. For a decade, BAF, renamed the Willie Stargell Foundation, raised research money and public awareness about the disease. Starting in 1981, sickle cell awareness and fundraising was gradually being assumed by The Sickle Cell Society Inc. The Willie Stargell Foundation transitioned to raising money for treatment of and research into kidney disease.[20][21][22]