Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Hall of Famer Willie Pops Stargell led the 1979 We are Family Pirates to the World Series Championship.
Awards: Baseball Hall of Fame
Major League Baseball player Willie Stargell was born in 1940 in Earlsboro, Oklahoma. Having a fairly mobile childhood, Stargell ended up in Alameda, California with his mother. In Alameda, he attended and played baseball for Encinal High School. Out of high school, Stargell's powerful bat was recognized by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Throughout his 21-season career with the Pirates, Stargell received seven All-Star nominations, and helped lead his team to two World Series victories. Stargell died of kidney disease in 2001.
Wilver Dornell Stargell was born on March 6, 1940, in Earlsboro, Oklahoma. At the age of six, Stargell's parents divorced. Upon their separation, Stargell was shuttled about the country between relatives. His most substantial stay landed him in Orlando, Florida, with an aunt. Unable to bear her own children, his aunt forcibly held Stargell away from his mother and subjected him to do her menial daily tasks. Stargell's mother was persistent and, at the age of 12, he was reunited with her and his step-father in Alameda, California.
In Alameda, a small town on the outskirts of Oakland, California, Stargell still lived an economically impoverished life. Stargell's humble upbringing in the projects, however, benefited him in other ways. Having to contribute towards supporting his family, Stargell worked several jobs, gaining a strong work ethic and leadership mentality. When not working, Stargell would take advantage of the social aspects of the projects. The greatest and most influential of these activities was baseball.
Pickup games in the streets eventually led Stargell to play for his Encinal High School team. From the same team, two other major leaguers would arise, Tommy Harper and Curt Motton. Stargell and Motton, who played for the Baltimore Orioles, would later be on opposing teams during the 1971 World Series. A powerful bat and overall successful high school baseball career from Stargell did not go unnoticed. Hard work and determination paid off, and Stargell was soon recognized by the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1959, he was signed by the Pirates and placed into their minor league farm system.
Stargell's life as a minor league baseball player in some ways mirrored his childhood. Constantly moving, Stargell played for teams from New Mexico, Iowa, and Texas. The drama from his life as a child was far exceeded by what he saw. Getting some of his first tastes of the harsh outside world, Stargell faced challenges that many other players of color were confronted with. In a minor game in Roswell, New Mexico, Stargell was approached by a man with a shotgun. Pointing it at his head, the man threatened to kill Stargell if he played in that night's game. Nothing more resulted from the incident, and the determined Stargell still played in the game. The drama of minor league ball would soon be over, as with the constant moving. Stargell would spend his next 21 years in the same place. In 1961 he was called up to play in Pittsburgh--he had made it to the big leagues.
"Strike three." These words met Stargell during his first attempt at major league glory. His first at bat ended with a lonely walk back towards the bench. Stargell was met with more opposition by local media, criticizing his training camp weight. Luckily, things began to turn around for the outfielder. He was soon able to handle major league pitching and the big time media. His charisma helped him become a beloved icon to the city of Pittsburgh, while his bat helped him hit some of the farthest home runs in baseball history.
Stargell soon became known not for just hitting the ball out of the park, but hitting it out of the actually stadium, which he did on several occasions. His mastery of the long ball paid off in 1964 with his first of seven All-Star selections. In 1971 he led the league in home runs, and his team to a national title. Stargell's leadership could be felt throughout the clubhouse, and was given the nickname "Pops." Father figure to "The Family," as the Pirates of that era were called, Stargell gave out positive reinforcement to his fellow teammates in the form of small yellow stars that could be sown onto their hats. Earning these "Stargell Stars" for great plays and performances, helped boost team morale and further added to Stargell's likeability. When he was not giving away stars to team, he was giving away food to his fans. For a brief promotional period, Stargell's 'Chicken on the Hill' restaurant would give away free chicken if he blasted one out of the park.
He reclaimed his home run title again in 1973 and helped the Pirates win another championship in 1979. In 1979 he also warranted the National League and World Series Most Valuable Player awards, the oldest player to do so. Sports Illustrated named Stargell, along with Terry Bradshaw, Sportsman of the Year for 1979. With a new decade approaching, so was Stargell's retirement. By the end of his career he had successfully won two World Series, six division titles, and was the most prolific home run hitter of the 1970s. After his retirement, Stargell spent time as a Pirates coach, and later coached the Atlanta Braves. In 1988, Stargell was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Pirates retired his number.
Willie Stargell died on April 9, 2001, in Wilmington, North Carolina, of a kidney disorder. A 12 foot bronze statue of Stargell was erected in front of the Pirates PNC Park to honor one of the town's true sports legends. The Sporting News ranks Stargell 81st on the top 100 baseball players of all time.
Willie Stargell: An Autobiography. (With Tom Bird) New York: HarperCollins, 1984.