My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was a thoroughly enjoyable book on one of the greatest players in baseball history — Pittsburgh’s Willie Stargell. I grew up in the Pittsburgh area and he was my favorite player. I always loved seeing his towering home runs get hit out of the park. Shoot, even infield outs were crazy! I once saw him hit the ball straight up so high, it went out of the stadium before coming down and being caught for an out. He started his career as a left fielder, but finished as a first baseman to save his perpetually painful knees he played on for most of his career. Early in his career, he was overshadowed by Hall of Fame teammate Roberto Clemente. But Stargell was named team captain following Clemente’s untimely death, and proceeded to do a masterful job. Toward the end of his career, Dave Parker named him “Pops” because of his advancing age and his stature in the clubhouse. It stuck.
Stargell always wanted to win the World Series with a seventh game home run, just like Pittsburgh’s Bill Mazeroski did in 1960 against the Yankees. He finally got to the World Series in 1971 against Baltimore, but he had a miserable series and Roberto Clemente won it for them, winning MVP honors. In 1971, Stargell had probably his greatest year, hitting .295 with 48 home runs and 125 RBIs. He expected to win the MVP award for the season, but came in second in voting with four writers leaving his off their ballots entirely. He never really got over that. He had another stellar season in 1973 and expected to win the MVP that year too, but didn’t get it. Still, he didn’t let those disappointments dampen his spirit. He was a very positive individual and a great influence on the other players.
Even though he was injured and didn’t play full seasons from 1976-1978, he did something I never knew. He led the 1970s in most home runs hit. That’s pretty impressive. Finally, in 1979, the Pirates made it back to the World Series, also against Baltimore, and this one was pretty special. Down three games to one, the Pirates used as inspiration the fact that the Baltimore mayor had already released the World Series champion parade route to get them back in it and force a Game Seven. And in Game Seven, Stargell finally hit that elusive World Series Game Seven home run to win the game that he had dreamed about his whole life. And he won the Series MVP. And he won the elusive National League MVP award too, so that was good. Indeed, I remember that year well, and attended many of the games. It was the year the Pirates were “the Family” and Sister’s Sledge’s “We Are Family” was played at the bottom of each seventh inning, per Stargell’s orders. It just seemed to bring the city together. So too did Stargell’s stars he handed out to his teammates for great plays so that they could put them on their hats.
It was great reliving old times by reading about Stargell’s teammates, many of whom I remember clearly and fondly. I can still name the starting lineup in the World Series. Stargell at first, Garner at second, Foli at short, Madlock at third, Robinson in left, Moreno in center, Parker in right, Ott behind the plate. And our pitchers were really good. Berty Blyleven, Don Robinson, John Candelaria, Jim Rooker, Jim Bibby, with Kent Tekulve relieving. How could we not have won???
Of course, Stargell was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on his first ballot, only the 17th player to ever receive that honor. He finished his career with a .282 average, 475 home runs (which left him at 16th all time at the time), and 1540 RBIs. Great numbers. He would have had better numbers if he hadn’t played half of his games at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, the biggest ballpark in the majors, where center was 475 feet away. If he had played his whole career at Three Rivers Stadium, he could have had 600 home runs, I’m convinced. Oh well. My only real disappointment is in the fact that Willie died in 2001, right after they unveiled his new statue at Pittsburgh’s ballpark. Stargell will always be revered in Pittsburgh for being a great player and a great person. This book was a joy to read and I’m glad I was able to relive so many memories. Highly recommended.