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Death Notice Guestbook

Obituary: Willie Stargell: Numbers couldn't measure the man

Tuesday, April 10, 2001

By Gene Collier, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Willie Stargell, whose great menacing bat and gentle patriarch's compassion were the hallmarks of his singular 21-year-career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, died of a stroke shortly after midnight yesterday. He was 61.

Willie Stargell tips his hat to the crowd at Three Rivers in 1982. (Marlene Karas, Post-Gazette)

The Pirates organization, already at the brink of emotional overload with the opening of its new ballpark just hours away, got the news from Wilmington, N.C., where he lived. Stargell had been in New Hanover Regional Medical Center since Feb. 23, when he underwent gall bladder surgery.

A stirring four-minute video presentation on the new PNC Park's electronic scoreboard moments before the Pirates' afternoon game with the Cincinnati Reds, showed Stargell in a series of quirky highlights from his playing career -- slapping a pie in the face of teammate Tim Foli during a TV interview, coming up short on a slide into second base and calling timeout, and, finally, stroking a two-run homer in Baltimore to push Pittsburgh ahead in Game 7 of the 1979 World Series.

Chins quaked from foul pole to foul pole.

"When we heard about [Roberto] Clemente's death at 4 o'clock in the morning, I went to Willie's house," said former teammate Steve Blass, now a Pirates broadcaster. "I'm not sure where to go this morning."

Some thought they knew where to go. They flocked to the statue of Stargell on Federal Street, unveiled only Saturday. Thick portions of the opening day crowd reached to touch it and laid flowers at Stargell's feet.

"Willie battled," said Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy, standing nearby. "He was pretty sick, but he battled, and Willie Stargell made it to opening day."

"He was really touched when we announced that we were going to build this statue. Willie knew how much everyone in Pittsburgh loved him."

 
 

Ron Cook: Pirates' family mourns death of beloved Pops

Long history of high blood pressure cited as the cause of Stargell's death

Editorial: The spirit of Stargell

Two days before his death, the Pirates unveil a statue honoring him outside PNC Park: Forever cast in bronze

Captain Willie was Pittsburgh icon

Fans recall 'Pops' at PNC Park

Former teammates remember their leader

Willie Stargell photo journal

   
 

In a sport forever enslaved by its statistical minutiae, Stargell's impact on the Pirates was far greater than the production that made him only the 17th player in baseball history to be elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. His numbers were dwarfed by his humanity.

For the record then, he was a seven-time All Star who hit 475 homers and drove in more than 1,500 runs. No Pirate in the 115-year history of the franchise posted greater numbers or had more extra-base hits. He was the Most Valuable Player in the 1979 National League Championship Series against Cincinnati and the MVP of the 1979 World Series, the last in which the club competed. His seven extra-base hits in that series remains a record.

And none of that begins to explain him.

Former Reds great Joe Morgan told an ESPN television audience last season, shortly after it first became widely known that Stargell was ill: "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."

There were times when that must have been difficult, for there was a period in the modern history of the game where it seemed that no one had its physical and psychological demands calculated so precisely as Wilver Dornel Stargell. At the height of his powers, in the fall of 1979, his wisdom and the windmilling mischief of his bat combined to write history.

In the next to last game of the regular season that year, Stargell made a throwing error that cost the Pirates the game in extra innings -- and with it a one-game lead on Montreal in the standings. In a deadly quiet locker room, Stargell regarded a flock of writers advancing and yipped, "Hey, you guys are always sayin' that Bradshaw is the only guy who can throw a down-and-out like that. Well Bradshaw couldn't have thrown that ball I just threw!"

His teammates smiled. One got up and turned on the stereo. The Bucs rocked on. Stargell homered the next afternoon and the Pirates won the Eastern Division title. Stargell and Terry Bradshaw, the stars of Pittsburgh's two championship franchises, shared the cover of Sports Illustrated as the magazine's Sportsmen of the Year.

"To learn how to win, you've got to learn how to lose," Chuck Tanner said yesterday. "I'd always find things that I liked in a loss, and Willie would help me."

In the 1979 playoffs, pitching to Willie Stargell was the baseball equivalent of playing Russian roulette. He lashed two homers and drove in six runs, and the Reds were gone in three straight. In the World Series, a cauldron of anxiety after Baltimore raced to a three-games-to-one lead, Stargell not only ripped that critical homer in Game 7, but steadied reliever Kent Tekulve as Teke tried to seal it in the Maryland darkness.

"Eighth inning of that game and I'm pitching to Eddie Murray with the bases loaded," Tekulve remembered once. "Willie comes over to me from first base and says, 'If you're scared, you play first and I'll pitch.' I figured if he can stay calm, so can the rest of us."

Murray flied softly to right.

"The thing about him I'll remember most," Teke said, "is how he could take all the guys, all different personalities, and simply bring them together."

Even more pointedly, Stargell's baseball pedigree was not exactly framed in harmony. A native of Earlsboro, Okla., he grew up in the projects near Oakland, Calif. Stargell's first professional experiences were laced with the constant indignity of segregation. In minor league towns like San Angelo, Tex., and Roswell, N.M., Stargell suffered what he called "aches and pains mentally" because he was forced to live apart from the white players.

Stargell told Roy McHugh, the sports editor and columnist for the Pittsburgh Press, that living on the road in those leagues was like living like a tramp, that housing in "the colored sections" of those towns was nothing more than shacks.

He once told of having a gun put to his head in Roswell, and of being advised by the man holding it, "Nigger, if you play in that game tonight, I'll blow your brains out."

"We had some Latin players, but they didn't speak English. There was no one to talk to. Nothing to do. Nowhere to buy a square meal. The only time I saw the rest of the team was at the ballpark."

"He internalized all of that," McHugh said yesterday about Stargell's tour of late '50s racism. "He didn't talk much about it and he didn't reveal his feelings in his behavior."

Stargell thought about quitting but kept getting inspirational letters from Bob Zuk, the scout who somehow signed him for $1,500 when it was said the Yankees were ready to offer $20,000.

So rather than an acquired bitterness, Stargell brought a purely joyous approach to Pittsburgh when he finally stuck in the big leagues in 1963. After a bad day at the plate, he once buried a bat in the dirt of a tunnel between the clubhouse and the dugout at Forbes Field. Called it the legendary sword of Kumasi, and claimed it was planted there 2000 years previous by an Ashanti sorcerer. Players tried to pull it out, but none could budge it. Finally, Cubs third baseman Ron Santo pulled the sword from the stone one day with minimal effort, and both he and Stargell were amazed to find that Pirates teammate Donn Clendenon, tiring of the ritual, had pried the bat loose with a crowbar.

Though Pirates manager Harry Walker occasionally would keep Stargell out of the lineup against left-handed pitching, other managers were relieved when he did. Former Phillies manager Gene Mauch once said, "I'd go across the street to Frank's Bar to get three left-handers just to keep that big guy out of the lineup."

During spring training, Stargell took to writing his offensive goals for the coming year inside his cap. In 1967, he wrote 30 100-.300 (homers, RBI, batting average). His actual numbers that year were 20-73-.271. For a while, Willie had bigger numbers in his March hat than on his baseball card, but he eventually sculpted some monster summers, like 48-125-.295 (1971) and 44-119-.299 (1973).

By then he was known throughout the game for Titanic homers, including the first one ever to leave Dodger Stadium, and a fistful of the longest hit at Three Rivers Stadium and in parks throughout the National League. Stargell routinely shrugged at that stuff.

"They don't pay you any more for distance," he said.

As the prototypical left-handed power hitter, Stargell was sometimes underrated as a fielder, but never by the players who'd seen his entire career.

"When he played left field and he wasn't very heavy, he threw as well as Clemente," former teammate Nellie King remembered last night. "He had as good an arm as Roberto, and he ran pretty decently, too."

As Stargell grew to embrace Pittsburgh and his leadership and natural people skills became evident, the greater potential of his persona became evident to people outside the game. He visited Vietnam and reported, "They're sick of the war. They just can't wait until that thing is over, and I'm on their side. I wish they'd get out of there."

He was named one of Pennsylvania's outstanding young men by the Jaycees for his work in founding and serving as president of the Black Athletes Foundation, a group dedicated to fighting sickle-cell anemia. He served on the board of directors of United Mental Health Inc. He was invited to the Nixon White House in 1972 as part of an athletes-against-drugs effort. He narrated Aaron Copland's "A Lincoln Portrait" from the lawn of the U.S. Capitol on July 4, 1983, and did it again last fall at Heinz Hall.

He sobbed during the first Willie Stargell Day in July 1980, when members of the Los Angeles Dodgers lined up to shake his hand.

Former teammate Dock Ellis once said, "He was a friend to one who had no friends, a constant reminder that once a Pirate, always a Pirate."

On Oct. 3, 1982, the final day of his final season, he went first to third on a hit-and-run single by Omar Moreno. Doug Frobel then ran for him. When he came off the field, players in the Pirates' dugout wept, as did some of the 14,948 on hand at Three Rivers.

In Willie Stargell's Pirate afterlife, however, there were occasions that strained his mammoth credibility and even his relationship with the organization.

In September 1985, former teammates Dale Berra and Dave Parker, testifying in highly publicized drug trials, said they got amphetamines from Stargell and Bill Madlock. Though Stargell and Madlock immediately called a press conference to deny those charges, suspicion lingered until March of the following year when Peter Ueberroth, then commissioner of baseball, absolved both of any wrongdoing.

"And I mean any wrongdoing," Ueberroth said.

Another awkward public moment came in 1988 after Stargell joined Tanner's staff with the Atlanta Braves. Before a game at Three Rivers Stadium, Stargell's name was announced and boos from the crowd were more prominent than cheers.

The response grew out of the cancellation of Willie Stargell Hall of Fame Night. Stargell, still suspicious of new Pirates management for dismissing Tanner as manager and having already been honored in two such ceremonies since 1980 in the same stadium, resisted a third..

But in time, with another changing of the Pirates' ownership and administration, McClatchy helped bring Stargell back to the Pirates family as an assistant to General Manager Cam Bonifay. Stargell loved the opportunity to evaluate and instruct young players, especially at spring training in Bradenton. It was there a little more than a year ago that he first revealed the genesis of his medical problems in an extended chat with Post-Gazette sports columnist Ron Cook.

"Something distracted me on TV, and I looked up [while chopping meat in his apartment]," he said. "I ended up doing a better job on my finger than I did on the meat."

Stargell didn't think much of it -- just dressed his wound and had dinner. But a resulting infection spread throughout his body. He was in intensive care and eventually developed kidney disease, undergoing dialysis three times a week for more than three years.

In his last public appearance in Pittsburgh, on Oct. 1, 2000, for the final game at Three Rivers Stadium, he threw a depressingly feeble ceremonial pitch, its bounces telegraphing his growing weakness.

The next time the Pirates lined up to play for real in Pittsburgh, Willie would be gone.

"It was thundering really, really hard last night, and then all of a sudden it stopped," said catcher Jason Kendall in the Pirates clubhouse before the game yesterday. "I guess it was right around then . . . It's really strange now. Three Rivers gone. New season. You just know 'Pops' is watching us."

Blass brought a plaque Stargell once presented him to the park.

"This is going to be our 12th opener together," he said. "I don't know what happens when you die, but if where he's goin' has some kind of ballteam, they just got one helluva first baseman."

Stargell is survived by his second wife, Margaret Weller-Stargell; a son, Wilver Jr. of Atlanta; four daughters, three of whom -- Wendy, Precious and Dawn -- live in Atlanta, the other, Kelli, in Herndon, Va. He is also survived by his mother, Gladys Russell; a sister, Sandrus Collier, and five grandchildren.

The family will receive friends Friday at 8 p.m. at the Church of the Servant in Wilmington. Funeral services will be conducted Saturday at 11 a.m. at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in that city.



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