Willie Stargell

As a young slugger, a superstar, and a veteran captain, “Pops” always brought class — and often victory — to the Pittsburgh Pirates. A menacing figure at the plate, Stargell would slowly twirl his bat round and round as he prepared for the pitch, almost like winding a powerful spring. Among his “collect-call” homers were four into the upper deck at Three Rivers Stadium, seven over the right field roof in Forbes Field, two completely out of Dodger Stadium (one of two players ever to accomplish the feat), and a shot estimated at 535 feet into the 500-level at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, where a seat is painted gold to commemorate the shot.

On July 22, 1964, Stargell hit for the cycle. That year, the burly, lefthanded slugger began a string of 13 consecutive 20-homer seasons, and also made his first of seven All-Star Game appearances. In 1970 he tied a major-league record with five extra-base hits in one game. He opened 1971 on a tear, setting an April record with 11 dingers, and inspiring Pirate broadcaster Bob Prince to coin the phrase “spread chicken on the hill” (in reference to Willie’s chain of chicken restaurants) each time he blasted a homer. He spread chicken 48 times in 1971 and had 125 RBIs, both career highs (as were his 154 strikeouts), to help the Pirates to a pennant. In the World Series dominated by Roberto Clemente, he hit a disappointing .132.

When Clemente died, Stargell became the Pirates’ leader, but his spectacular 1973 season (.299, 44 HR, 119 RBI) went largely unrecognized because the team slumped. Knee problems forced his move to first base in 1974, and a series of injuries ended his string of 20-homer seasons in 1977. However, he earned The Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year award in 1978 when he batted .295, tallying 28 homers and 97 ribbies.

Although he’d had seasons with higher totals, 1979 was his most noteworthy year: At the ripe age of 39, Stargell was captain of The Family, driving the team to a pennant with his bat (.281, 32 HR, 82 RBI) and leadership, awarding “Stargell Stars” to deserving teammates. In the World Series win, he set records with 25 total bases and seven extra-base hits (three homers, four doubles). He also became the first person to win three major MVP awards — sharing regular season honors of the National League with Keith Hernandez, and also bringing home the NLCS and World Series MVP trophies. Stargell’s banner year also awarded him the titles of The Sporting News Man of the Year, and Sports Illustrated co-Man of the Year (with Steeler Super Bowl quarterback Terry Bradshaw). After playing three more painful seasons with arthritis tearing away at his knees, Pops retired in 1982 as the Pirate career leader in home runs, RBIs, and eight other categories.

A clubhouse drug scandal in 1985 involving Dave ParkerDale Berra, and even the Pirate mascot left a stain on the franchise and fans yearning for their former leader. Stargell returned to the Pirates as a coach after the scandal abated, but left with manager Chuck Tanner for the Atlanta Braves organization the following year. With the Braves, Stargell served as first base coach, hitting coach, and later as a Special Assistant to the Director of Player Development.

But despite his time with Atlanta, Stargell was always a Pirate at heart. One of the most popular figures in Pittsburgh sports history, he was given loud ovations at every public appearance. When he was selected for the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA in 1988, his first year of eligibility, the Bucs took the opportunity to retire his #8. Pops returned to the Pirates in 1997, working as an aide to GM Cam Bonifay. Around that same time, he developed a kidney disorder that would require constant dialysis, and leave him weak in the ensuing years.

At the Three Rivers closing ceremony on October 1, 2000, it was announced that a 12-foot high statue of Stargell would be erected outside the Pirates’ new home, PNC Park. The statue was to be unveiled on April 7, 2001, but Stargell was too sick to attend the event and the ceremony was postponed until two days later. On the morning of the 9th, he passed away.