Stargell, Willie c. 1940–2000
Willie Stargell c. 1940–2000
Professional baseball player
One of the great sluggers in baseball history, Willie Stargell ranks among the top 20 home run hitters ever to play the game. Over the course of a two-decade career with the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise, Stargell set numerous team records and led the Pirates to two World Series championships. Yet, as important as his exploits on the field was, the role Stargell played in the clubhouse, as friend, comedian, inspirational figure, dampener of potential conflict, and eventually team captain was immensely valuable to the team. Baseball-writer Roger Angell, quoted in Newsday, called Stargell “the most admired and most admirable player of his time.”
Wilver Stargell was born in Earlsboro, Oklahoma, on March 6, 1940 (some sources give the year 1941). The name Wilver combined elements of his parents’ names. He grew up in Oakland, California, and in nearby Alameda, raised by an aunt after his teenaged parents deserted him. In his autobiography, Willie Stargell, the athlete described harsh treatment at the hands of his aunt but nevertheless credited her with instilling in him a sense of discipline. A giant of a man who stood six feet, four inches tall and weighed well over 200 pounds in his prime, Stargell was a natural home run hitter. He attended Santa Rosa Junior College for a year, but dropped out in 1959 to sign with the Pirates organization for a bonus of $1,500.
Integration proceeded slowly in baseball after Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough of 1948, and in the small Southwestern towns where Stargell put in his time in the minor leagues it was largely nonexistent. As a member of a team based in Roswell, New Mexico, Stargell often endured segregated dining facilities, and once, before a game in Plainview, Texas, he was threatened by a Ku Klux Klan member who placed a shotgun against his head and threatened to blow his brains out if he took the field. Stargell experienced a moment of sheer terror when a nearby car backfired during the game. “But I played an outstanding game,” he was quoted as saying by the Montreal Gazette. “I had made up my mind that if I was going to die, I was going to die doing what I really wanted to do. I didn’t want to go back to the projects in California. I wanted to play baseball, in the worst way.” Stargell hung on, and was elevated to the Pirates’ major-leageue squad in Pittsburgh in 1962. He would remain with the team for 21 seasons and never played for any other professional-baseball organization.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Pirates fielded a series of powerhouse teams. At their core was the duo of
Born March 6, 1940 (or 1941) in Earlsboro, OK; died on April 9, 2001, in Wilmington, NC. son of William Stargell and Gladys Vernell Russell; married three times; children: Wendy, Precious, Dawn, Kelli, and Wilver Jr. Education: Santa Rosa Junior College, attended.
Career: Professional baseball player. Signed by Pittsburgh Pirates, 1959; played minor league baseball in Roswell, NM, and San Angelo, TX; joined Pirates team, 1962; holds records for longest home run hit in several National League stadiums; became Pirates’ team captain; retired, 1982; Pittsburgh Pirates, coach, 1980s; Atlanta Braves, coach, early 1990s; Pirates’ general manager’s office, assistant, 1997-01.
Awards: Named to National League All-Star Team, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1978; shared National League Most Valuable Player award, 1979; named World Series Most Valuable Player, 1979; Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, 1979; Baseball Hall of Fame, inducted, 1988.
Stargell in left field and the pioneering Latin American star Roberto Clemente in right field. Playing against the New York Mets in their brand new home of Shea Stadium in 1964, Stargell christened the stadium with its first home run. His home run totals increased steadily over the 1960s, and he caught fans’ attention with towering long balls that often cleared not just the outfield fences but also the stadium’s outer walls. Stargell still holds the record for the longest home run ever hit in several different National League parks.
In 1970, Stargell hit home runs in all 13 National League stadiums, and the following year he enjoyed the best season of his career, with 48 home runs and 125 runs batted in. The Pirates went to the 1971 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles, and Stargell’s bat fell almost silent. He batted only .208 for the series and hit no home runs. Taking the slump with equanimity where a less mature player might have indulged in a tantrum, Stargell rallied in the seventh game to score the winning run against the Orioles and gave the Pirates the world championship.
Stargell began to emerge as the Pirates’ de facto leader after the plane crash in 1972 that killed Clemente as he delivered relief supplies to Central American earthquake victims. Noted far and wide for his sense of humor—he once flashed a football time-out sign at the umpire on finding himself well short of the bag after a miscalculated slide into second base—Stargell developed an easy rapport with the Pirates squad at a time when American baseball clubhouses were not always peaceful places. “To keep factions from developing,” Pirates player Phil Garner was quoted as saying in the New York Times, “you have to have someone that the blacks respect and the whites respect, and the guy that puts that all together for us is Stargell.”
Stargell for his part, according to Newsday, told the team that “you can’t play piano with just white keys or black keys.” Some of his leadership ability was born of personal misfortune and the inner processes of having overcome it. Stargell’s first marriage ended in divorce, his second wife suffered a paralyzing stroke, and one of his four daughters—he also had one son—developed sickle-cell anemia. Stargell himself frequently suffered from poor health even during his years on the field.
Everything came together once again for the Pirates in 1979, a year in which Stargell, at an age when many baseball careers have already ended, hit 32 home runs and shared the National League Most Valuable Player award. At 39, he was the oldest player ever to win the award. Known by then as “Pops,” Stargell was also the team’s central motivating force. He adopted the Sister Sledge hit “We Are Family” as the Pirates’ unofficial team anthem, a choice so successful that the team became known to one and all as “The Family.” Stargell also had a say in team attire and dispensed little “Stargell Stars” that could be sewn into players’ caps in recognition of special accomplishments. After notching seven extra-base hits and helping to win the crucial seventh game with a home run, Stargell was named the series’ most valuable player.
When Stargell ended his career in 1982 with 475 home runs and 1,540 runs batted in, the Pirates permanently retired his uniform number of 8. The new PNC Park built in Pittsburgh featured a 12-foot statue of the slugger. Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988, Stargell served as a coach and as the general manager’s assistant in the Pirates’ organization in the 1980s and 1990s, and also coached in Atlanta for former Pirates manager Chuck Tanner.
Plagued by high blood pressure and kidney disease, he died in Wilmington, North Carolina, on April 9, 2001, of a stroke. Before his death, Stargell recalled the Pirates’ team he had helped to mold. “We won, we lived, we enjoyed as one,” he told the Hartford Courant. “We molded together dozens of different individuals into one working force. We were products of different races, were raised in different income brackets, but in the clubhouse and on the field, we were one.”
Stargell, Willie, and Tom Bird, Willie Stargell, HarperCollins, 1984.
Hartford Courant, April 10, 2001, p. C1.
Los Angeles Times, April 10, 2001, p. D1.
New York Times, April 10, 2001, p. B8.
Newsday (New York, NY, Nassau and Suffolk ed.), April 15, 2001, p. C25.
Sporting News, April 23, 2001, p. 36.
Sports Illustrated, April 16, 2001, p. 25.
Additional material was obtained online at the Biography Resource Center Online, Gale, 2001.
—James M. Manheim