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PITTSBURGH – The Family has lost its patriarch.
Hall of Famer Willie Stargell, who led the Pirates to two World Series victories with his tape-measure homers, died of a stroke Monday at age 61. He had been in failing health for several years with a kidney disorder, according to officials at New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, N.C., where he died. The Pirates opened their new ballpark Monday and unveiled a 12-foot bronze statue of the man known as “Pops.” They postponed a formal ceremony dedicating the statue because Stargell could not attend. “Now, every Opening Day at PNC Park, everybody will know this is Willie Stargell’s day,” said Chuck Tanner, Stargell’s manager from 1977-82. “He’s up there, and he knows the Pirates are opening today.” One of the greatest home run hitters ever, in volume and in distance, Stargell hit 475 homers – many of them soaring, majestic shots that rattled a pitcher’s confidence. With Stargell batting cleanup for most of his 20-year career, the Pirates won World Series championships and NL pennants in 1971 and 1979 and six NL East titles from 1970-79. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988. Stargell was a dynamic leader on the field and a fatherly yet forceful presence off it. The 1979 Pirates were nicknamed “the Family” from the Sister Sledge song, “We Are Family,” and Stargell said years later that it wasn’t a misnomer. “We won, we lived and we enjoyed as one,” Stargell said. “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.” He distributed his coveted stars for extra effort to teammates who proudly attached them to their ballcaps. “We fought for those stars,” former teammate Bill Robinson said Monday. “Those were precious. If he forgot to give you one, we’d be at his locker saying, `Willie, I did this’ or `Willie, I did that.’ To get those stars from your leader and captain, that was special.” Tanner agreed that Stargell’s personal magnetism was a key ingredient in the clubhouse. “When you had Willie Stargell on your team, it was like having a diamond ring on your finger,” Tanner said. Big and powerful at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, with a deep, commanding voice, Stargell intimidated pitchers even before they delivered the ball by pinwheeling the bat in rhythm with their delivery. Despite being overshadowed at times by more prolific home run hitters Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, and by the play of his own Hall of Fame teammate, Roberto Clemente, Stargell’s sheer power was unrivaled. He hit seven of the 18 homers over the right-field roof at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field from 1909-70 and once held the record for the longest homer in nearly half of the National League parks. “He didn’t just hit pitchers, he took away their dignity,” former Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton said. For nearly 30 years, Stargell was the only player to hit a ball out of Dodger Stadium, and he did it twice. If he hadn’t played his first 8 1/2 seasons at cavernous Forbes Field, then the majors’ most spacious ballpark, he probably would have hit more than 600 homers. Stargell’s first wife, Dolores, kept detailed statistics on every ball he hit and estimated he would have had 22 more homers in 1969 if the Pirates had played in Three Rivers Stadium, which opened a year later. Stargell hit 29 homers in 1969. “Nobody could hit a ball as far as Willie,” Tanner said. “In 1979 in Montreal, he hit a ball so far there they painted the seat gold. I went up there the next day and sat in that seat, and everybody on field looked like puppets, that’s how far it traveled.”
For his first 10 years in the majors, Stargell was content to play in Clemente’s shadow, even after he passed Clemente in production. Stargell reluctantly became the Pirates’ leader upon Clemente’s death in a Dec. 31, 1972, plane crash, saying, “There’s a time in a man’s life when he has to decide if he’s going to be a man.” Stargell wore the mantle of leadership as well as he did an outfielder’s glove or a first baseman’s mitt as an unappreciated defensive player. Stargell enjoyed his best season in 1971, with 48 homers and 125 RBI. However, he was 0-for-14 in the NL playoffs against the Giants and had only one RBI in the Pirates’ seven-game World Series victory over favored Baltimore. He left center stage to the 38-year-old Clemente, who, fearful he would never play in another Series, turned the postseason into a personal showcase of his grace, talent and determination. Only 14 months later, Clemente was dead . In 1979, it was Stargell’s turn to transform the World Series into a one-man act for an aging star. At 39, seemingly several years past his prime, and after knee injuries had robbed him of his mobility and some of his strength, Stargell’s postseason performance was every bit as haunting and as driven as Clemente’s. After hitting 32 homers during a memorable regular season, Stargell had two more during an NL playoffs sweep of Cincinnati. Stargell also had three homers, including the decisive shot in Game 7 in Baltimore, as the Pirates rallied from a 3-1 deficit to wrest the World Series title from the favored Orioles. Only months from his 40th birthday, he made an unprecedented three-way sweep of MVP awards, sharing the NL award with Keith Hernandez of St. Louis and winning it in the playoffs and World Series – a feat still not matched. Stargell remains the oldest player to win an MVP award. Stargell played three more seasons on arthritis-ravaged knees, the last at the request of former MVP teammate Dave Parker, but had only 14 more homers and 64 more RBI. He was honored with two elaborate days during those last three seasons, and later turned down another. Born in Oklahoma on March 6, 1940, of African-American and Seminole Indian descent, Stargell himself listed the date as March 7, 1941. He grew up in Oakland, Calif., where he was spotted by Pirates scout Bob Zuk as he played on the same high school team as future majors leaguers Tommy Harper and Curt Motton. Stargell was subjected to racism in the minor leagues, where an angry fan once confronted him with a shotgun, but quickly won them over with his power and personality. While playing for the Pirates’ farm club in Asheville, N.C., he was nicknamed “On the Hill Will” for the long homers he hit onto a hillside far beyond the right field fence. The nickname was revived when Stargell bought a chicken restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Pirates announcer Bob Prince urged Stargell to “spread some chicken on the Hill,” once picking up a $400 tab after telling listeners he would pay for free chicken if Stargell homered – which, of course, he did. Despite playing the front half of his career in Forbes Field, a graveyard for left-handed hitters with a right-field power alley of 436 feet, Stargell averaged 24 homers from 1963-69. Stargell’s career took off after the Pirates vacated Forbes Field’s vast acreage for symmetrical Three Rivers and its 375-foot power alley. “I was like a kid on Christmas Eve who couldn’t wait to open his presents,” Stargell said of the mid-1970 move into Three Rivers. “I dreamed of the big crowds, artificial turf, our new tradition and my increased home run power.” Stargell never hit more than 33 homers in Forbes Field, but hit 48 in his first full season in Three Rivers in 1971 and had 125 from 1971-73 until knee and elbow injuries cut into his production. He slumped badly in 1976, after Dolores developed a blood clot on her brain, but won the comeback player of the year award in 1978 after hitting 28 homers and driving in 97 runs in 390 at-bats. The Pirates fell apart after Stargell retired in 1982. A clubhouse drug scandal and subsequent 1985 federal court trial in Pittsburgh implicated more than 30 major leaguers and badly tarnished not only the Pirates’ image, but baseball’s as well. Trying to win back their disillusioned fans during that 104-loss season, the Pirates had rehired Stargell as a coach but he left again a year later to rejoin Tanner, who was hired by the Atlanta Braves after being fired in Pittsburgh. Despite developing a kidney disorder that required frequent dialysis, Stargell later worked in the Braves’ minor league department for 10 years until returning to the Pirates yet again in 1997 as an aide to general manager Cam Bonifay. Stargell, who was divorced from Dolores, continued to live in Wilmington, N.C., with his wife, Margaret. Unlike Parker, whose popularity in Pittsburgh ended with his involvement in the drug scandal, Stargell remained one of the most popular athletes in the city’s history and received thunderous ovations at any public function he attended. One of the loudest came during the Pirates’ final game at Three Rivers on Oct. 1, 2000, several days after it was announced the statue would be erected at PNC Park. Clearly not in good health, Stargell wiped tears from his eyes as he hugged several players, including catcher Jason Kendall, amid a wave of cheers that rolled across the stadium that he closed as impressively as he opened it. “He’s Pittsburgh baseball,” said Stephen Reiser, among the fans passing by the new stadium. Another fan, Rich Cromer, recalled the anticipation in the crowd every time Stargell came to the plate. “There was energy on the field when Stargell picked up the bat,” Cromer said. “You just felt for pitchers facing him. They didn’t know whether to pitch or run.” Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy, who employed Stargell as his special baseball adviser, stood at the base of the Stargell statue with a tear in his eye hours before the Pirates’ first game there. “He was the ultimate class act,” McClatchy said.