As a young baseball fan growing up in the 1970s, I liked and admired Willie Stargell so much that I was once motivated to do something very foolish: at the age of nine, I stole his elusive 1974 baseball card from my next door neighbor’s house. (I’m not sure why I became so infatuated with the 1974 card; I actually liked the 1973 card a lot more, since it was an action shot, showing a massive Stargell stretching to receive a throw at first base ahead of the arrival of Philadelphia’s Del Unser. I also preferred the 1973 card of Bobby Bonds, which features an unexpected appearance by Stargell, who is attempting to retire Bonds in a rundown play. Two stars on one card, yes!)
Fortunately, my neighbor Hank Taylor—the older brother of one of my best friends, Alec—knew about my infatuation with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ slugger and quickly confronted me about the pilfered card. Feeling humiliated at being caught and guilty over what I had done, I returned the stolen item. As I look back at that incident today, I’m tempted to make the following conclusion: in a strange and indirect way, Willie Stargell taught me a simple but important lesson about how it was wrong to take things that didn’t belong to me.
Although my friends and I grew up in Westchester County as fans of either the Mets or Yankees, we loved to imitate two “out-of-town” hitters of the day. One was Cincinnati Reds superstar Joe Morgan, who regularly flapped his left elbow like a fluttering chicken wing. The other was Stargell, for the way that he “windmilled” his bat in a rhythmic circle. As he awaited each pitch, Stargell rocked back and forth in the batter’s box, motioning his bat forward, pointing it for a moment toward center field, and then bringing the bat backward for another swirl. The windmilling seemed to relax Stargell and aid his timing at the plate. At the same time, the constant motioning of the bat must have frightened opposing pitchers, as they envisioned the massive Stargell preparing to unleash his ferocious uppercut swing.
The Stargell that we enjoyed watching was in the prime of his Hall of Fame career. Given our youth, we didn’t realize what Stargell had overcome in reaching the major leagues. At the time, we didn’t understand that he had grown up poor, in contrast to our relatively wealthy upbringing.
For much of his youth, Stargell lived in a governmental project in Alameda, California. Stargell certainly experienced poverty, but on the favorable side, encountered relatively little racism while growing up in the projects. Those circumstances began to change in 1959, when he signed his first professional baseball contract and reported to the Pirates’ minor league affiliate in the Class-D Sophomore League. There he discovered a different world, one more antagonistic and harsh toward African Americans. Since many hotels did not permit black residents, Stargell often slept in cots on the back porches of private homes owned by other blacks. Restaurants also discriminated against blacks. Stargell often had to wait in restaurant kitchens, where he was handed small scraps of foods. At other times, Stargell had to sit on the team bus while the white players ate comfortably in roadside diners. Other devices of segregation were just as infuriating to Stargell. “We had to drink from different fountains,” Stargell recalled. “There was always a constant reminder that we were less superior.”
The severe racial hostilities that Stargell and other black players experienced left the slugger feeling understandably bitter—at least early in his career. On one occasion, a white man threatened Stargell with a shotgun. The man told Stargell that if he dared to hit successfully in the game that night, he would shoot him. “I couldn’t understand how the color of my skin could make people hate me for something I had never done,” Stargell recalled in the Syracuse Herald American.
Stargell first arrived in the major leagues in 1962. At 6’2” and 225 pounds, Stargell was a massive but mobile outfielder with a surprisingly strong arm (second only to Clemente among the Pirates), who showed flashes of promise at the plate. Yet, he really didn’t begin to commit himself to the game until after he suffered a disappointing 1968 season, when he batted.237 with 24 home runs. “I wondered if all I wanted to be was a player who stayed around for 10 years and didn’t really accomplish anything,” Stargell told Baseball Digest, “or did I want to make myself a real good ballplayer, an outstanding ballplayer?” Stargell realized that he had been cheating himself. “Once I used to think that all there was to this game was to show up at the ballpark a couple of hours before gametime, go through the usual routine, play nine innings, and go home.”
Stargell began to hit more consistently in 1969 and ’70, but it was in 1971 that he emerged as a star. After reporting to spring training in the best physical condition of his career, he enjoyed a torrid first month of the season, making a successful run at the April home run record. He became an important part of the Pirates’ team—a World Championship team in 1971.
Stargell inspired his Pirate teammates and fans—with his tape-measure home runs, the longest the game had seen since Mickey Mantle’s heyday in the 1950s. Stargell’s resume of tape-measure home runs included two launched completely out of Dodger Stadium, one of the toughest parks for hitters of that era. During Stargell’s career, no other player even managed to hit one home run out of the ballpark in Chavez Ravine.
As much as lengthy home runs defined Stargell on the field, they only scratched the surface of portraying his overall contributions to the game, including his relationship with teammates and the general public. Unlike some self-centered athletes, Willie knew how to connect with fans. For example, after he bought a restaurant in The Hill section of Pittsburgh in 1970, he conjured up a special promotion: every time, he hit a home run, the restaurant would give free chicken to anyone placing an order at that time. The giveaway prompted legendary Pirates announcer Bob Prince to proclaim, “Spread some chicken on the hill!” when Willie blasted another long ball. More importantly, Stargell didn’t merely focus his efforts toward patrons of his restaurant. He reached out to all Pirate fans by regularly chatting with them prior to games and willingly signing autographs.
For years, Stargell impressed the baseball world with his success in hitting home runs and driving in runners. People within the game also took notice of Stargell’s Clemente-like willingness to devote time to humanitarian causes. During the 1970-71 off-season, he participated in a USO tour for the benefit of American soldiers in Vietnam. On the local front, he performed volunteer work for the Job Corps and the Neighborhood Youth Corps in Pittsburgh, working in the ghettoes as part of the “War on Poverty.” He became president of the Black Athletes Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping African-American athletes earn better contracts and endorsement opportunities while also addressing problems that affected the black community at-large. And in perhaps his most well known cause, he served as chief spokesman for the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, successfully mobilizing public awareness of a disease that had received very little publicity in the 1960s. Stargell made numerous public appearances throughout his playing career in efforts to raise money to combat the sickle cell disease, which attacks blood cells, mostly in African Americans. “So many people know so little about this disease,” Stargell once said in an interview with the New York Times. “These people live a short, miserable life. We need the help of everyone.”
In 1998, just three years before his death from kidney disease, I was privileged to meet Willie Stargell for the first time. In January of that year, during the depths of another Northeast winter, he came to Cooperstown as part of a program put together by the U.S. Postal Service. He agreed to speak to a group of children who had assembled in the Hall of Fame’s Grandstand Theater. Although most of the kids didn’t know who he was—and none of them ever saw him play—they were still captivated by the positive messages of inspiration coming from this once-great player. In spite of the generational divide, he was able to reach those children, just as he had always reached me, starting with those days in the early seventies when I collected his cards and imitated his swing.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com.