Some of the most inspirational players in sports history have endured incredible hardships early in life. These players are left craving for a better life, a life they didn’t know as a youth. Willie Stargell was one of those players. Growing up, he often lacked the structure of family that a child needs to develop. When he moved to Alameda, California he found the structure that he needed to thrive in society. When he grew older, he used the lessons he learned in Alameda to push his team to a championship. This is his story.
Wilver Dornell “Willie” Stargell was born on March 6, 1940 in Earlsboro, Oklahoma. His father left before Stargell was even born and both he and his mother stayed with his grandfather for the next three years. When he was three years old, his mother remarried and took him to California. When her second marriage abruptly ended, they moved into a public housing project in Alameda. His mother married for a third time in 1946 and shortly after the wedding, her sister offered to let Stargell stay with her in Orlando until they were more financially stable.
It was a painful six years in Orlando. His aunt Lucy was quick with a switch and repeatedly intercepted the letters and money that his mother sent him. He returned to Alameda in 1952 and soon learned the game of baseball in his new neighborhood. Still, life was not easy in the projects and baseball became an outlet for a life so burdened with uncertainty and struggle.
Stargell enrolled in Encinal High School in the fall of 1954 and was initially drawn to the gridiron over the diamond. Entering high school, he had aspirations of a career in football but baseball soon became his best sport. He played well at Encinal and became known for his towering home runs. However, he had two teammates who were superior, Tommy Harper and Curt Motton, each of whom would both go on to play professional baseball. Still, Stargell persisted and by the time he graduated was given a $1,500 contract from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Willie Stargell’s indoctrination in the life of a professional baseball player was a cruel start to a legendary career. He experienced racism while playing in the Pirate’s minor league affiliate in New Mexico. While his teammates ate in restaurants on the road, he would often eat on the team bus, all the while craving the surrounding presence of his teammates. Sleeping arrangements on the road were much the same, with him and his minority teammates having to make do with the often inferior conditions. He knew that the true value of sports was to bring people together, but he had not achieved status as team leader yet. He yearned for the day that he could bring his team together for a common cause; much like a family.
After spending four years in the minor leagues, Willie Stargell was called up to the major league on September 16, 1962. In ten games, the left fielder/first baseman recorded nine hits, four RBI and scored one run. Playing in 108 games the following season, he made the most of his limited opportunities, hitting 11 home runs and batting .243.
He exploded in 1964, recording 115 hits and 21 home runs and earned the first of three straight All Star Game invitations. The next two years were even better as he improved to 145 and 153 hits respectively. The home runs followed the hits as he recorded 60 home runs between those two years.
While Stargell was consistent the next four years, he did not reach an All Star Game between 1967 and 1970. He did average more than 20 home runs per season and collected a career best 160 hits in 1969. After the 1970 season, Willie Stargell experienced seasons which he would never forget and his legend would grow exponentially more than he ever could have realized.
The First Championship
Since winning the World Series in 1960, the Pittsburgh Pirates had failed to find that same championship formula. That all changed in 1971 when they faced the mighty Baltimore Orioles. Stargell played well that year, hitting a career best 48 home runs and throughout the season learned to soak up the wisdom that legendary right fielder Roberto Clemente yielded on a daily basis.
Traveling to Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium for the first two games, though the Pirates scored three runs in each of those games, they could not slow down a dominant Oriole lineup. Down by two going into game three, the Pirates knew that they had to win that game otherwise they would be in an impossible predicament. Clemente lead the team to a 5-1 victory after recording an RBI and suddenly Pittsburgh was back in the thick of the battle.
In game four, Baltimore built an early 3-0 lead but both Stargell and Al Oliver recorded back to back doubles to pull the team to 3-2. Two innings later, Oliver tied the game on an RBI single. In the seventh inning, backup catcher Milt May batted for Bruce Kason and hit an RBI single to give the Pirates a lead they would not relinquish, pulling them even with Baltimore the series.
The Pirates won game five but lost game six, setting up an epic game seven in Baltimore. Clemente started the scoring in the fourth inning by hitting a home run and the game remained scoreless for four more innings. In the top of the eighth inning, Jose Pagan drove in Stargell from second base. Though the Orioles would score a run of their own late in the inning, it was too little too late. Willie Stargell was a World Series champion and he would use the lessons he learned about teamwork from that series later in the decade.
The following year, after having just hit his 3,000th hit, Roberto Clemente went on a plane ride to his native Puerto Rico to help in a disaster. His plane went missing and his body was never found. All of a sudden, Willie Stargell was the Pirate’s leader.
We Are Family
All of his life, Willie Stargell had prepared for this moment. From his rough childhood to battling racism in the minor leagues to witnessing what a champion looks like, Willie Stargell had developed a simple yet powerful hunger; he craved a family atmosphere. Stargell set out to create the atmosphere in an arena that he was familiar with, an arena that had already given him so much. When Clemente died, Stargell took over as the Pirate’s leader, their voice of reason during a tumultuous decade.
At this later stage in his career, his teammates gave him a nickname which emulated all that he would become for the franchise: Pops. While he still played at a high level and made two more All Star Games in 1973 and 1978, Willie Stargell’s greatest feat during this time was creating the atmosphere that the Pirates needed to win another championship.
In 1979, Sister Sledge came out with the hit single “We Are Family”. When Stargell heard that song, he knew that that would be the theme for the season. He embraced the identity of the song and the team soon followed. Since the death of Clemente, they had been building the identity of a family and felt like 1979 was their year to win another World Series. Once again, standing in their way were the Baltimore Orioles.
The Pirates were enthusiastic to be back in the World Series but soon found themselves in down 3-1 in the series. But with “We are Family” ringing in their ears and a natural harmony built through the years, the Pirates were ready for the challenge. They slaughtered Baltimore at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium in game five 7-1. Game six was a pitcher’s duel until the seventh and eighth inning where the Pirates scored two runs in each inning. Game seven was Willie Stargell’s biggest moment as a professional, going four for five and recording a two run home run in the sixth inning to put Pittsburgh ahead. The Pirates won the game 4-1 and Willie Stargell earned the series MVP after batting .400 and slugging three home runs. Having already won the league MVP, it had been quite a year for him.
After 1979, the rest of Willie Stargell’s career was anti climactic. He retired after the 1982 season with 475 home runs, 1,540 RBI, two World Series titles and the heart of Pittsburgh in the palm of his hand. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988 and passed away on April 9, 2001 due to complications from a stroke. Willie Stargell’s legacy can be felt in Alameda, where a street is named in his honor and a monument was dedicated in his memory, and in Pittsburgh where a statue of him sits outside PNC Park, the home of the Pirates. The statue had been unveiled just two days before his passing. Willie Stargell understood the value of family and because of that he became a champion.