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The Willie Stargell Story
By Richard "Pete" Peterson
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 Richard Peterson
All rights reserved.
Why Won't Time Stand Still?
Shortly after midnight on Monday, April 9, 2001, with the historic opening of PNC Park just several hours away, Willie Stargell, Pittsburgh's beloved "Pops," died at the age of 61. In the Pirates clubhouse, just before the start of the Opening Day ceremonies, All-Star catcher Jason Kendall remembered the night before. "It was thundering really, really hard last night, and then all of a sudden it stopped. ... I guess it was right around then ... it's really strange now. Three Rivers gone. New season. You just know Pops is watching us."
Just two days earlier, the Pirates had dedicated a 12-foot statue of Willie Stargell at the left-field entrance to PNC Park. When Nellie Briles, Stargell's teammate on the 1971 World Series championship team and president of the Pirates Alumni Association, and Chuck Tanner, manager of the 1979 World Series champions, with the help of Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy and general manager Cam Bonifay, unveiled the statue, those in attendance saw, in bronze and larger than life, what had struck fear in National League pitchers for nearly two decades: a powerful and coiled Stargell, bat drawn back, waiting defiantly for the pitcher to deliver the baseball.
Sprinkled on the statue's circular flat base, as if they had fallen from the statue, were images of "Stargell's Stars," those embroidered felt gold stars that Pops had passed out to his teammates to wear on their baseball caps when they had done something to help the team win a game. The base was encircled by an engraved quotation of Stargell's first impression of Pittsburgh when the Pirates called him up with Bob Veale in late 1962: "Last night, coming in from the airport, we came through the tunnel and the city opened up its arms and I felt at home."
Once the statue was unveiled, Chuck Tanner stepped forward, reached up, and rubbed his hand over Stargell's batting grip. Pointing to the way the little finger of the statue's lower hand overlapped the knob of the bat, he said, "That's incredible. That's how he held the bat right there." Moved almost to tears, Tanner told those at the ceremony, "Time goes so fast. ... Why won't time stand still so we can still watch Willie play?"
* * *
The historic Opening Day at PNC Park for the 2001 season should have been a welcomed relief and joyous occasion for the thousands of long-suffering fans streaming over the Roberto Clemente Bridge to the Pirates' new home. After a painful defeat in the 1992 playoffs and the loss of the reigning National League MVP Barry Bonds and former Cy Young Award–winner Doug Drabek to free agency, the Pirates, for the second time since the 1980s, were in a downward spiral of losing seasons, declining attendance, and mounting debt. Going into 2001, the Pirates had struggled through eight consecutive losing seasons.
The earlier downward spiral had begun in the early 1980s, just a few years after the "We Are Family" Pirates won the 1979 World Series. By the end of the 1985 season, the franchise's fortunes had deteriorated to the point that The Sporting News ran a story called "The Pirate Problem," just as the Pirates were about to finish in last place and end the season with a dismal attendance of 735,900. The article blamed the decline on everything from the Rust Belt depression and the city's racial divisions to drug scandals and fan perceptions, provoked by mounting drug allegations and millionaire salaries, that the Pirate players were spoiled rotten. The front-page photograph in The Sporting News of empty seats at Three Rivers Stadium appeared under the banner, "Empty Seats, Empty Hopes."
Pittsburgh's baseball franchise, on the verge of moving to another city, was rescued in late 1985 from becoming the New Orleans Pirates when the Pittsburgh Associates ownership, a loosely organized group of local business and civic leaders, purchased the ballclub from the Galbreath family, owners of the Pirates since 1946. The new ownership group, thanks to the strong efforts of Mayor Richard Caliguiri, received concessions and loans from the city to keep the franchise afloat.
By the end of the 1980s, with an influx of new talent, the Pirates became successful on the field again, if not financially. From 1990 to 1992, the team collected three division titles, two National League Manager of the Year Awards for Jim Leyland, a Cy Young Award for Doug Drabek, and two MVP titles for Barry Bonds. The franchise, however, continued to lose money and started losing key players to free agency. By the end of the 1995 season, after the team finished nearly 30 games under .500 and attendance dropped for the first time since 1985 to under a million, the Pittsburgh Associates, facing a mounting debt of over $22 million, put the franchise up for sale.
After 109 years, Pittsburgh was on the verge of losing, for the second time in a span of 10 years, the fabled franchise of Honus Wagner, Pie Traynor, Bill Mazeroski, Roberto Clemente, and Willie Stargell, until Sacramento-based Kevin McClatchy formed a limited partnership on February 14, 1996, and became the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Once McClatchy took over, however, he made it clear that the only thing that could keep the Pirates franchise in Pittsburgh was a new ballpark.
McClatchy faced immediate criticism from the press, questioning his baseball and business experience and, above all, his commitment to keeping the Pirates in Pittsburgh; but one of his first moves showed both a shrewd business sense and an understanding of Pittsburgh's baseball tradition. He convinced an estranged Willie Stargell to return to the Pittsburgh Pirates organization after an 11-year exile.
McClatchy, regarded as an outsider when he took over the Pirates, told reporters, "When you got a Willie Stargell out there, you hear from a lot of people. A lot of people said I should talk to Willie. ... It sounded like a good idea. We spent some time on the phone." That phone call led to McClatchy making a job offer to Stargell more than a decade after he left the Pirates to join the Atlanta Braves. "Pittsburgh is Willie's home, and he should be at home with the Pirates."
When Stargell first received McClatchy's phone call, he admitted that he had mixed feelings, "I felt good, yet I felt kind of strange. I hadn't entertained it. I had almost forgotten about the idea of coming back." But, in February 1997, after telling the Pirates that he "would love to come back, but only in a meaningful position," Stargell returned to the Pirates as an assistant to general manager Cam Bonifay. Remembering the first time he saw the Pittsburgh skyline back in 1962 and felt at home, he said, "They say sooner or later good things will take place. I realize now that it's not how long it has taken, but that it is here. It couldn't have come at a more perfect time."
* * *
Before Willie Stargell retired as a player at the end of the 1982 season, he wanted his picture taken with each member of the Pirate family. He then wrote a personal message on each photo. In his dedication to the outspoken Jim Rooker, one of the heroes of the 1979 World Series, he wrote, "You have always stood for what is right, what is real. I admire the man in you. I'm glad I know you. Willie." In his dedication to Sally O'Leary, the Pirates' assistant director of media relations at the time, Stargell wrote, "Sally — Don't think for one moment because you're not seen that much that we don't realize how much you meant to all of us. I just want to say, God bless people like yourself. A real joy over the years for me. Willie."
Stargell's elegant farewell and departure from the Pirates family, however, was short-lived. During spring training of the following year, Stargell returned to the Pirates "to perform various duties" as an assistant to executive vice president Harding "Pete" Peterson. Stargell admitted at the news conference that the one thing he wanted "more than anything else" was to stay in the Pirates organization. After kiddingly saying that "they want me to bat leadoff and steal 80 bases," he told reporters that he hoped to spent most of his time helping younger players, "Just more or less be a friend to kids in the minor leagues."
Stargell, however, missed the camaraderie of being a player. At spring training in Bradenton in 1984, he walked into the clubhouse, looked around, and shouted, "Where's the music? You've got to have music. This isn't the Pirates clubhouse." A year later, in June 1985, the Pirates, coming off their first last-place finish since Stargell's retirement and desperate for a morale boost, asked the popular Stargell to give up his work in the minor leagues and return to the Pirates clubhouse as one of Chuck Tanner's coaches. At the time, the Pirates were 18–37, the worst record in major league baseball, and were averaging 10,100 fans at their home games. But Stargell was eager to help and hoped he could bring "some fun" again to Pirates baseball, "and that's what the game is all about."
When Stargell first took the field at Three Rivers as the Pirates' first base coach, he received a standing ovation from the fans. The move was the only bright spot in a disastrous season in which the Pirates eventually lost 104 games (third worst in franchise history at the time). With attendance dropping to the lowest full-season figure in nearly 20 years, the Galbreath family, owners of the Pirates for nearly 40 years, decided they wanted out.
One of the first casualties of the Galbreath decision was Chuck Tanner, who'd been the manager of the Pirates since 1977 and led them to a World Series championship in 1979. As the 1985 season came to an end and the Pittsburgh Associates took over ownership of the franchise from the Galbreath family, Tanner told his coaching staff, which included Stargell and two other veterans of Pirate championship teams, Bob Skinner and Grant Jackson, that the new owners wanted a fresh start, so he wouldn't be asked back to manage the Pirates next season.
It was a dark moment for Pirate fans, who remembered how Tanner, who'd grown up in New Castle, just 45 miles from Pittsburgh, continued to manage the Pirates in the 1979 World Series after his mother died the morning before Game 5. With the Pirates trailing 3–1 in the Series, Tanner told his players, "My mother is a great Pirates fan. She knows we're in trouble, so she went upstairs to get some help." For Stargell, who believed that Tanner's courage in staying with the team was the inspiration for the Pirates comeback victory in the World Series, the decision to fire Tanner was unfathomable and unforgivable.
When Stargell accepted the offer to become a Pirates coach, he saw it as the first step toward becoming a manager. As a player, he said he'd never manage, but after two years of working part-time in the Pirates minor league system with young players, he decided that if he waited a few more years "I would not have to worry about managing the guys I played with and not have to contend with managing friends." He even agreed to manage a team in Puerto Rico during the winter in preparation for managing in the major leagues.
But, if Stargell held any hope that the new Pirate ownership would turn to him to lead the Pirates, it was quickly dashed when Jim Leyland, a third-base coach with the Chicago White Sox under manager Tony LaRussa, was named the team's new manager. When the Atlanta Braves organization subsequently signed Tanner to a contract to manage its ballclub for the 1986 season, Stargell, still hoping to become a big-league manager, gladly accepted an offer from Tanner to join him as a Braves coach. It was the first time Stargell would not be a part of the Pirates organization since signing his first professional contract in 1958.
* * *
In 1988, after Stargell, now wearing a Braves uniform, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, he rejected an offer from the Pirates to hold a Willie Stargell night in his honor. Stories began circulating in the local press that Stargell had asked for financial compensation, ranging from an expensive car to a share of gate receipts, but Stargell made it clear that he still remembered his last days with the Pirates: "The last dealing I had with these Pirates, the new Pirates, the last thing they said to me was 'You're fired.' I haven't heard a word from the new Pirates since and now they want to honor me."
A few weeks later, when the Braves came to bat in the first inning of their next series with the Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium, there were fans who, remembering Stargell's rejection of a night in his honor and believing the recent stories about him, booed the Pirate legend as he stood in the third-base coaching box. Chuck Tanner was so upset with the mistreatment of one of the greatest heroes in Pirates history that he told reporters after the game, "I wanted to go out there at that moment and pat that guy on the back 10 times. You don't boo Willie Stargell. ... I felt so bad for the guy."
Shortly after the incident, Braves general manager Bobby Cox, unhappy with the team's 12–27 start in 1988, decided to fire Chuck Tanner, but the Braves eventually offered Willie Stargell a job as a roving batting instructor in the Braves organization. Tanner went on to work in the front office for the Milwaukee Brewers and Cleveland Indians, before returning to the Pirates in 2007 as a senior advisor. Stargell, who never received an offer to manage, despite the strong recommendation of Tanner, remained with the Braves until he received the call from Kevin McClatchy that brought him back to the Pirates family.
When he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on July 31, 1988, Stargell made no mention of the booing incident. After thanking his family, friends, teammates, coaches, and managers, he turned to the issue of honor and told the crowd that the "greatest honor" of his baseball career came when he first arrived in Pittsburgh.
* * *
Besides the booing incident, Stargell had suffered another indignity while he was wearing a Braves uniform. Before the start of a game at Three Rivers, an arrogant Barry Bonds approached Stargell and yelled, "Get out of here, old man! ... They forgot about you in Pittsburgh. I'm what it's all about now." Failing to see any humor in Bonds' taunting, Stargell told him, "Boy, you'd better get some more lines on the back of your baseball card before you can talk to me like that."
The irony of the confrontation was that by the time Bonds added a few more lines to his baseball card, including two National League MVP awards in 1990 and 1992, he'd become one of the most unpopular players ever to wear a Pirates uniform. Just before the Pirates home opener in 1992, after a much publicized confrontation between Bonds and manager Jim Leyland during spring training, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Bob Smizik wrote a column pleading with Pittsburgh fans, who'd booed Willie Stargell just four years earlier, not to boo Barry Bonds.
In the 2001 season, Bonds, with an inflated body to match his inflated ego and now in the Giants uniform worn by his father, Bobby, and his godfather, Willie Mays, became the home run king of the steroid era by shattering Mark McGwire's single-season record. Mourning Pirate fans attending the historic home opener at PNC Park at the beginning of the 2001 season, however, had a far different slugger in their hearts and minds as they made their way to the ballpark. Not only was their Pops Stargell the greatest home run hitter in Pirates history, he'd had so much raw power that often his home runs, without a boost from steroids, were so prodigious in flight and distance they became the stuff of baseball legend. Hall of Fame–pitcher Don Sutton once said Stargell "doesn't just hit pitchers, he takes away their dignity."
* * *
The powerful Stargell began his career with the Pirates while they were still playing at cavernous Forbes Field. In his nine seasons at Forbes Field, Stargell hit seven of the 18 home runs that cleared the right-field roof, a feat first accomplished in 1935 by Babe Ruth (it was the last home run of Ruth's career) and later by another Yankee slugger, Mickey Mantle, in an exhibition game. He also hit a towering homer over the massive scoreboard in left field, an amazing accomplishment for a left-handed batter.
Stargell played nearly half of his career at Forbes Field, a ballpark so unfriendly to home run hitters that in 1947, Hank Greenberg, one of the greatest right-handed power hitters in baseball history, refused to play for the Pirates until they shortened the distance in left field. The Pirates accommodated Greenberg by fencing off a bullpen area in left field that became known as Greenberg Gardens.
Shortening the distance in left field from 365 to 335 feet wasn't much of an aid for Greenberg in his one season with the Pirates, but it helped slugger Ralph Kiner who "was ready to throw in the towel" the first time he saw Forbes Field; but with the help of the Greenberg Gardens, Kiner actually tied or led the National League in home runs for seven consecutive seasons. When Branch Rickey traded Kiner in the middle of the 1953 season, the Pirates immediately dismantled Greenberg Gardens, but the National League, pointing out that there was a rule against altering the dimensions of a ballpark in the middle of a season, made them put it back up the next day and wait until the season was over.
Excerpted from Pops by Richard "Pete" Peterson. Copyright © 2013 Richard Peterson. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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