He was a great big bear hug of a man, as comfortable with a smile and a worthy cause as he was with a Louisville Slugger. When Willie Stargell came to the plate, you knew you were in for something special — whether it was one of his 475 home runs, a breath-stealing fly to the warning track or even just a hearty, heaving strikeout.
To an entire generation of Pittsburghers, he was family — simply “Pops” or “Captain Willie.” But Wilver Dornel Stargell, who died Monday at 61, was something more, a rare paradox in an age of expanding salaries and expanding egos: He carried a big, intimidating stick, but he always spoke softly, too.
In the 1970s, a decade when free agents proliferated and managers became journeymen, Stargell offered the occasionally directionless Pirates stability and institutional memory. He was a bridge from the dark-capped years of Roberto Clemente and Roy Face and Vern Law to the raucously gaudy pinstripes and custard yellows of Chuck Tanner, Kent Tekulve and the City of Champions.
You could spend entire innings watching him at first base — totemic, relaxed, the Buddha of the basepaths, holding court for whoever managed to make it to his little realm. They all knew him; they all had a word for him, and he for them.
But it was at the plate where he did his best work. He’d lope up, usually batting just behind Dave Parker or Bill Robinson. He’d schmooze with the catcher — Ted Simmons, maybe, or Gary Carter. He’d look around, take it all in, maybe hike up his pants over the paunch he could never seem to lose. Each plate appearance was a tiny one-man show, a curious mix of humility and utter confidence.
Make no mistake, though: Stargell’s friendliness, while genuine and expansive, was merely the yin to his baseball yang. He wielded his bat like a twirler does a baton, cranking it round and round as he awaited his pitch. No tiny little test swings for him; each practice was as roundhouse as the man himself. And when he connected, it went — even into Three Rivers’ distant upper deck now and then.
He was generous of heart and spirit. He tirelessly campaigned to raise funds to cure sickle cell anemia. And for a while, when he owned a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, he instituted a tradition: Whenever he hit one out of the park, whoever was at the restaurant’s counter at the time got free chicken.
Pirates 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.
At the height of the 1979 season, Stargell showed up at his children’s school in Pittsburgh’s Oakland section for a class play and strode into the cafeteria-cum-auditorium clad in a white leisure suit and exuding confidence. The audience — schoolchildren and parents alike — stood and began to applaud.
He waved them off with a sheepish grin. “Please,” he said, “I’m just a dad today.”
Then, afterward, when the kids were done performing, he signed autographs anyway — and distributed a few of the coveted Stargell stars that festooned his teammates’ hats during the championship season.
Stargell was a 22-year-old from Earlsboro, Okla., when the Pirates brought him up in 1962. The next year he hit 11 homers, and his homer tally would remain in double digits for the next 18 seasons.
In 1971, his most powerful season, his 48 homers coupled with friend Roberto Clemente’s hitting and fielding and Steve Blass’ pitching led the Pirates to a World Series victory over Brooks Robinson’s Baltimore Orioles. And a year later, when Clemente was lost in a plane crash while delivering supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, Stargell became the team’s leader — a role he did not take lightly.
“Willie was our crutch,” said Bill Robinson, who batted ahead of Stargell in the lineup of the 1979 Series champions. “Anything you needed, any problems you had personally or in baseball, he took the burden.”
It was the 1979 season — the year the Pittsburgh Steelers also won the Super Bowl — when Stargell made his career immortal. He tore through the playoffs and the World Series. And in the seventh game, he came up to the plate in the sixth with the Pirates down 1-0. He hit a Scotty McGregor slider over the fence, and suddenly the Pirates were world champions again.
A couple months later, he and Terry Bradshaw wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It remains, yellowing and laminated, on the walls of seedy bars all around Pittsburgh.
Three Rivers is dust and rubble now, razed in February. On Monday, as the Pirates inaugurated a new ballpark next door, a statue of Willie Stargell greeted people, joining another old Pirate, Honus Wagner.
It’s a good likeness, people say. But the bat won’t be twirling. The grin won’t be flashing. The bear hugs won’t be forthcoming. And for Pittsburgh, there will be no more chicken on the Hill.