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Stargell's image forever cast in bronze outside PNC Park

Sunday, April 08, 2001

By Dan Gigler, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

With a No. 8 Pittsburgh Pirates jersey on his back, a "We are Family" era pillbox cap on his head, and a tear in his eye, Mike Schwab waited reverently to see his hero cast into immortality.

Dignitaries pull the cover from the new statue of Willie Stargell, the heart of the Pirates' 1970s championship teams, outside the left field entrance to PNC Park yesterday. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

The Pirates yesterday unveiled a bronze statue of Willie "Pops" Stargell, the heart of their 1970s championship teams.

The 12-foot, one-ton statue stands guard on Federal Street, at the left-field entrance to PNC Park.

This tribute was bittersweet, as Stargell, who is suffering from an undisclosed illness, was not feeling well enough to make the trip from his home in Wilmington, N.C.

"He was my childhood idol," Schwab, an ambulance driver from Greenfield and Pirates season ticket holder, said through a lump in his throat. "I hope he can make a full recovery. I was born in 1970 and when I met him I had him sign his 1970 baseball card for me."

Amid cheers of "We love you Pops!" several hundred fans from as near as the North Side and as far as Seattle gathered outside PNC Park to honor the hall-of-famer.

"It's a great day, but it's not 100 percent great, because my friend isn't here," Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy said of Stargell. McClatchy said the team plans to have an official dedication some time in the summer, when Stargell's health is better and he can attend. The team wanted to unveil the statue in time for tomorrow's first ever home opener at PNC Park.

The cast to honor Stargell yesterday was vast.

Former Pirates' manager Chuck Tanner and former players Bobby Del Greco and Nellie Briles were on hand. So was Vera Clemente, wife of Pirates' legend Roberto Clemente, and their two sons, Luis and Roberto Jr. Pirates General Manager Cam Bonifay, Pittsburgh city Councilman Sala Udin and the statue's sculptor, Susan Wagner, also were there to unveil the statue.

Wagner, of Friendship, created a powerful Stargell cocked in his batting stance, as if he were waiting to smash one of the three home runs he hit in the Pirates' 1979 World Series victory.

To create her work, Wagner said, she used old photographs and film of Stargell as well as vintage uniforms and bats. The statue took Wagner a year to complete at the Polich Artworks Foundry in upstate New York.

One person quite familiar with Stargell's batting stance was impressed with the resemblance. "That's just how he held the bat!" Tanner exclaimed. Tanner was Stargell's manager from 1977 to 1982.

Roberto Clemente Jr. remembered being a young boy playing with Stargell in the Pirates' clubhouse. "He's like an uncle to me," said Clemente, now 35.

To him, the statue captured Stargell's essence as a ballplayer.

"I came across the bridge and could not believe my eyes. I was so impressed with [Wagner's] work."

Clemente jokingly added, "Everything is there, right down to the big butt."

His hope is that Stargell will soon get to see the statue and PNC Park.

The granite base of the statue, designed by Pittsburgh-based architects Astorino & Associates, features a quote from Stargell on his first impression of Pittsburgh after being called up to the major leagues in 1962: "Last night, coming in from the airport, we came through the tunnel and the city opened up its arms and I felt at home."

Schwab was overcome with emotion.

"I can't say much," he said after seeing the finished product and reading the inscription. "It's beautiful."

Welcome home, Pops.

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