Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Willie Stargell dead at 61

Monday, April 9th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Willie Stargell, the thunderous home run hitter who carried the Pittsburgh Pirates into two World Series with his power and helped win them with his fatherly leadership, died Monday. He was 61.

Stargell, who had been in failing health for years with diabetes and a kidney disorder, died of a stroke at New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, N.C., where he had been since gall bladder surgery in February, said his physician, Dr. James McCabe.

He died on the day the Pirates were opening their new ballpark, PNC Park, where a 12-foot bronze statue of Stargell's likeness was unveiled Saturday.

``Now, every opening day at PNC Park, everybody will know this is Willie Stargell's day,'' said Chuck Tanner, Stargell's manager from 1977-82. ``He's up there, and he knows the Pirates are opening today.''

Fans gathered at the park to mourn Monday.

``He was just the heart and soul of the Pirates,'' said Don Clyde, 37, of Youngstown.

``He's everything to this town. He's Pittsburgh baseball,'' said Stephen Reiser.

Stargell hit 475 home runs, many of them soaring, majestic shots that rattled many a pitcher's confidence. With Stargell batting cleanup for most of his 20-year career, the Pirates won World Series championships in 1971 and 1979 and six National League divisional titles from 1970-79.

Nicknamed ``Pops,'' Stargell was a dynamic leader on the field and a fatherly yet forceful presence off it, distributing his coveted Stargell stars for extra effort to teammates who proudly attached them to their caps.

``When you had Willie Stargell on your team, it was like having a diamond ring on your finger,'' Tanner said.

At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, and with a deep, commanding voice, Stargell intimidated pitchers even before they delivered the ball by pinwheeling the bat in rhythm with their delivery.

Despite being overshadowed by the more prolific home run hitters Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, and by his own Hall of Fame teammate, Roberto Clemente, Stargell's sheer power was unrivaled. He hit seven homers over the right-field roof at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field and once held the record for the longest homer in nearly half of the NL parks.

``He didn't just hit pitchers, he took away their dignity,'' former Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton said.

For nearly 30 years, Stargell was the only player to hit a ball out of Dodger Stadium, and he did it twice. If he hadn't played his first 8 1/2 seasons at cavernous Forbes Field, then the majors' most spacious ballpark, he probably would have hit more than 600 homers.

Stargell's first wife, Dolores, kept detailed statistics on every ball he hit and estimated he would have had 22 more homers in 1969 if the Pirates had played in Three Rivers Stadium, which opened in 1970.

For his first 10 years in the majors, Stargell was content to play in Clemente's shadow, even after Stargell surpassed him in production. Stargell reluctantly became the Pirates' leader upon Clemente's death in a December 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 enjoyed his best season in 1971, with 48 homers and 125 RBIs. However, he was 0-for-14 in the NL playoffs against the Giants and had only one RBI in the Pirates' 7-game World Series victory over favored Baltimore. He left center stage to the 38-year-old Clemente, who, fearful he would never play in another Series, turned the postseason into a personal showcase of his grace, talent and determination. Only 14 months later, Clemente was dead.

In 1979, it was Stargell's turn to transform the World Series into a one-man act for an aging star. At 39, after knee injuries had robbed him of his mobility, Stargell's postseason performance was every bit as haunting and as driven as Clemente's.

After hitting 32 homers during a memorable regular season, he had two more during an NL playoff sweep of Cincinnati. He had three homers, including the decisive shot in Game 7, as the Pirates rallied from a 3-1 deficit to wrest the World Series from the favored Orioles.

Only months from his 40th birthday, he made an unprecedented three-way sweep of MVP awards, sharing the NL award with Keith Hernandez of St. Louis and winning it in the playoffs and World Series _ a feat still not matched. He was the oldest player to win be MVP. Stargell played three more seasons on arthritis-ravaged knees.

He returned to the Pirates as a coach in 1985. He later worked in the Atlanta Braves' minor league department for 10 years until returning to the Pirates in 1997 as an aide to general manager Cam Bonifay.

Although Stargell lived in Wilmington, N.C., with his second wife, Margaret, he remained one of the most popular athletes in Pittsburgh history and received thunderous ovations at any public function he attended.

One of the loudest came during the Pirates' final game at Three Rivers last October, several days after the statue was announced. Clearly not in good health, Stargell wiped away tears from his eyes as he hugged several players amid a wave of cheers.