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Willie Stargell; Power-Hitting Patriarch of Baseball’s Pirates

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Stargell, who led the Pittsburgh Pirates to two World Series titles with tape-measure home runs and patriarchal leadership that earned him the nickname “Pops,” died of a stroke Monday at 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 stadium, PNC Park, on Saturday and unveiled a 12-foot bronze statue of Stargell. They postponed a ceremony dedicating the statue because Stargell could not attend.

One of baseball’s greatest home run hitters, in number and in distance, Stargell hit 475 in his 20-year career. With him batting cleanup, the Pirates won World Series championships in 1971 and 1979 and six National League Eastern Division titles between 1970 and 1979. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988.

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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 caps.

“We fought for those stars,” former teammate Bill Robinson said Monday. “Those were precious. . . . To get those stars from your leader and captain, that was special.”

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Chuck Tanner, Stargell’s manager from 1977 to 1982, said 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 feet, 4 inches and 225 pounds, with a deep, commanding voice, Stargell intimidated pitchers even before they delivered the ball by pinwheeling his 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 was unrivaled for sheer power. He hit seven of the 18 homers that cleared the right-field roof at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field between 1909 and 1970, and once held the record for the longest homer in nearly half of the National League parks.

For nearly 30 years, Stargell was the only player to have hit a ball out of Dodger Stadium, and he did it twice. The first, on Aug. 5, 1969, traveled 506 feet, 6 inches, the longest homer in Dodger Stadium history.

“He didn’t just hit pitchers, he took away their dignity,” former Dodger pitcher Don Sutton said.

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’s best season was in 1971, when he had 48 homers and 125 runs batted in. However, he was 0 for 14 in the National League playoffs against the San Francisco Giants and had only one RBI in the Pirates’ seven-game World Series victory over the Baltimore Orioles. He left center stage to the 38-year-old Clemente, who turned the postseason into a personal showcase of his grace, talent and determination.

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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, Stargell delivered a postseason performance every bit as driven as Clemente’s.

After hitting 32 homers during a memorable regular season, Stargell had two more during a playoff sweep of the Cincinnati Reds.

Stargell also had three homers, including the decisive shot in Game 7 in Baltimore, as the Pirates took the World Series from the favored Orioles.

He made an unprecedented sweep of most valuable player awards, sharing the National League award with Keith Hernandez of the St. Louis Cardinals and winning it in the playoffs and World Series--a feat still not matched. Stargell remains the oldest player to win an MVP award.

He was born Wilver Dornel Stargell in Oklahoma on March 6, 1940, of African American and Seminole Indian descent, though he listed the date as March 7, 1941. He grew up in Oakland, where he was spotted by Pirate 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 people 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 beyond the right-field fence.

The nickname was revived when Stargell bought a chicken restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, and he instituted a tradition: Whenever he hit a home run, whoever was at the restaurant’s counter at the time got free chicken.

Pirate announcer Bob Prince adopted it immediately: “Chicken on the Hill!” he’d yell when one sailed over the fence. Once, Prince said on the air that if Stargell homered, everybody in the restaurant would eat free. Stargell promptly did, the chicken was distributed--and Stargell sent Prince the bill.

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Despite developing a kidney disorder that required frequent dialysis, Stargell worked in the Atlanta Braves’ minor league organization for 10 years until returning to the Pirates in 1997 as an aide to General Manager Cam Bonifay.

He appeared at the Pirates’ final game at Three Rivers Stadium on Oct. 1, 2000, several days after it was announced that the statue would be erected at PNC Park.

Clearly not in good health, Stargell wiped tears from his eyes as he hugged several players, amid a wave of cheers that rolled across the stadium.

“He’s Pittsburgh baseball,” fan Stephen Reiser said Monday.


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