A decade after Willie Stargell’s death, and 30 years after he left the playing field, it’s easy for younger fans to know nothing about him. This post remembers a player and man who was the effective N.L. counter to Reggie Jackson in the 1970s (he, not Reggie, led MLB in homers that decade: 296 to 292). I met Stargell in a baseball card shop near San Jose in either 1988 or 1989, not long after he got into the Hall of Fame. He was signing autographs, for free, for a crowd of mostly kids born around the time he retired who knew little about him.
I remember a warm, friendly man who’d added mass in his retirement (he died from a stroke), but at the time I knew nothing about Stargell being one of the great black players who’d come out of Oakland and the East Bay.
Of course, Stargell was also the Pirates leader in the ‘70s, as the team added two World Series titles to a trophy case that’s had no real additions in the time since his retirement. 10-year teammate Al Oliver said: “If (Stargell) asked us to jump off the Fort Pitt Bridge (which crosses the Monongahela River), we would ask him what kind of dive he wanted. That’s how much respect we have for the man.”
When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in summer 1988, the Sacramento Bee took the occasion to recount his journey into baseball. Some excerpts:
As a youngster growing up in Alameda County, Willie Stargell was a fan of the Giants, especially Willie McCovey. Today, he joins his hero in the pantheon of baseball as a member of the Hall of Fame.
Stargell, 47, no longer calls the Bay Area home, having settled in Pittsburgh. Yet he holds fond memories of his Alameda roots and of the inspiration he derived from McCovey, who became a Hall of Famer in 1986.
“I can remember how tough my first season was in pro baseball,” recalled Stargell, who broke in with Roswell (N.M.) in 1959. “I went home in September and visited Seals Stadium to watch the Pirates play the Giants.
“It was McCovey’s rookie year. I saw him swing the bat, and I was impressed. I wanted to bang out hits like ‘Stretch’ did. I have very good feelings about the Bay Area and those cold nights at Candlestick.”
“I was a baaad dude,” Stargell recalled. “I got into trouble just like the other kids. I stole fruit off trees, I was a Peeping Tom and I played on the railroad tracks.”
Stargell, who was born in Oklahoma in 1941, moved to Alameda 10 years later and lived in a housing project. As a gangly youngster, Wilver was a good athlete, but there always was time for mischief.
“My parents didn’t even know about this one,” he said. “You know those ice cream three-wheelers with the bells on them? I filled out an application form at the plant, then I got on the bicycle and raced to the project.
“I rounded up my buddies, and we ate ice cream until we got sick. We started in the daytime and didn’t finish till late at night. Then I took the bicycle back to the plant and left it there.
“We’d also go down to the Skippy peanut butter factory on Webster Street,” he added. “There would be all those huge boxes of peanuts, and a sharp nail suddenly would jump into my hands. I’d pierce the boxes, peanuts would pour out and we’d take them home and roast them.”
There were no brushes with the law, and he grew up close to home, where his mother, Gladys, instilled in him values that still serve him well as an adult.
“Mom taught me that it’s important how you treat people,” he said. “When you grow up in a project, there’s no reason to be thin-skinned. If you were, they stayed on you. I’ve learned you’ve got to be able to take what you dish out.”
Stargell had no reason to become swell-headed over his talent as a youngster. In fact, he was probably the fourth-best athlete at Encinal High in the late ’50s. His teammates included Tommy Harper and Curt Motton, who also played in the majors.
“Tommy received a $20,000 bonus to sign, and I got $1,500. I had a summer job at the Chevy plant in San Leandro. I also worked there in the off-season for $1,200 a month. They wanted to place me in a management training program.”
Stargell appreciated the offer, but his desire was to play baseball. So he went to Roswell and began a painful climb to the majors — one that included his first serious experiences with discrimination.
“I gave that (the Chevy offer) up for an opportunity to make $175 a month and face racial insults in the minors,” he recalled.
“You’ve really got to work at hating people. I can’t be that way. The Bible says we’re all God’s children, and that’s more convincing to me. I’m colorblind.”
That definitely wasn’t the case when he played in the Southwest and the South during a four-year minor-league career, one that toughened him for the majors and taught him about life.
“Dealing with life in the minors was much more devastating than getting to the majors and hitting a baseball,” Stargell said. “I hit my crossroads the first year. I had my life threatened. It doesn’t get any tougher.
“We were in Plainview, Texas, and the blacks had to stay on the other side of town. A guy put a shotgun to my head and said, ‘Nigger, if you play tonight, I’m going to blow your brains out!’
“I went to the stadium very bravely, but with weak kidneys,” he continued. “I was willing to come face to face because I wanted to play ball. I made a decision not to let anyone stop me from doing what I had to do.”
“You always talked about Stargell. He was the highlight of the city,” said Alameda resident Nick Cabral, who graduated from Encinal with Stargell in 1958. “You can talk to many, many people in the city of Alameda, especially Encinal High School students who went to school back in those times, and you will always find someone who will say something nice about him.”
In April 2001, on the day after his death on April 10, the S.F. Chronicle added:
Willie Stargell is to Pittsburgh what Willie McCovey is to San Francisco, and maybe that says it all about the humble and lovable man who spoke softly and carried an extra big (36-inch, 36-ounce) Louisville Slugger.
Like McCovey, who played with Willie Mays, Stargell played first base in the shadow of a baseball god, Roberto Clemente. He was No. 2 on the stat sheet but in a lot of ways No. 1 in the hearts of fans, especially in the Three Rivers Stadium era.
Stargell died yesterday of a stroke at age 61, and Pittsburgh mourned on a day that should have been set aside for glory, a day when the Pirates opened their new downtown ballpark featuring outside its gates a 12-foot statue of his likeness.
Stargell was born Wilver Dornell Stargell in Earlsboro, Okla., of African- American and Seminole Indian descent. Oklahoma records list the birth date as March 6, 1940, but Stargell always put it on March 7, 1941.
He grew up in Orlando, Fla., and in a government housing project in Alameda, reared by his mother and, for a time, an aunt after being abandoned by his father. He played high school baseball at Alameda’s Encinal High School on the same team with future major leagues Tommy Harper and Curt Motton.
His mother and stepfather worked two jobs each much of the time and young Willie spent after-school hours baby-sitting his sister, cooking, cleaning and running a paper route.
His first bat was a two-by-four whittled down, his first organized team was with the police activities league in the projects.
At Encinal, Stargell preferred football, but a knee injury kept him out of it. In baseball, it was teammate Tommy Harper who got all the attention, although Stargell was even then a powerful hitter.
After Encinal, he went to Santa Rosa Junior College. When he broke his pelvis during practice, doctors advised him to give up competitive sports.
Stargell was spotted by Pirates scout Bob Zuk, who offered him a $1,500 bonus to sign. That gave him the chance to fulfill his oft-expressed intent to use his already awesome baseball skills as his ticket out of the projects.
But baseball 40 years ago was still almost as tough on young black men as the housing projects were.
Fellow Hall of Famer Joe Morgan knew Stargell better than most, having grown up in the East Bay (Castlemont High School).
“We go back a long way, and he was a very special individual, not just a great baseball player,” Morgan said. “I used to say we were 600 major-league players — he was one, and all the other 599 liked him. No one disliked Willie Stargell. He was a player’s player and the greatest teammate ever, from what I hear from his teammates. One of the things lacking in my life is that I was never his teammate.”
Morgan was asked what he’d tell an East Bay kid who inquired about Stargell.
“I would probably say he was the greatest leader of men I ever knew,” he said. “He led the Pirates to championships and respectability.”
In the days after Stargell’s death, journalists followed Morgan in recognizing his massive power and status as one of the greatest players of the post-WWII era. The Charlotte Observer wrote:
In the three decades that baseball was played in Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, six home runs reached the upper deck beyond right field.
Willie Stargell hit four of them.
That tells you more about the slugger Stargell was than his statistics.
Stargell hit 296 home runs in the decade of the 1970s, an average of fewer than 30 a season. In the `90s, Ken Griffey Jr. hit 382. So Stargell’s total doesn’t seem like many until you realize that no one in baseball hit as many over that same period; Jackson was second with 292.
Those of us who remember him at the plate do so with a sense of awe. Stargell, a fearsome presence batting from the left side, waiting for the pitch and windmilling the bat in his hands as if he were twirling a pencil. You would watch and think, how far will he hit the next one?
In 1969, Stargell hit a 506-foot shot clear out of Dodger Stadium. In 1973, he hit another out of that ballpark. 1978, he hit a 535-footer in Montreal.
Before the Pirates moved to Three Rivers Stadium, they played for 61 years in Forbes Field. Many great Pirates walked through those gates, including slugger Ralph Kiner, who led the National League in home runs seven times. Over those 61 years, the 86-foot-high right-field roof was cleared 18 times.
Seven of those home runs were hit by Willie Stargell.