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Hall of Famer Willie Stargell dead at 61 after stroke

Users remember Willie Stargell

Fans remember 'Pops' as Pirates open new stadium

Willie Stargell's career statistics

Quotable Willie Stargell

Players, managers remember Willie Stargell

Monday, April 9, 2001
Stargell made Pirates a 'family'
By Tim Kurkjian
Special to

PITTSBURGH – The cab dropped a visitor in front of PNC Park at 9 a.m Monday at, of all places, the Willie Stargell statue.

Willie Stargell
Willie Stargell helped guide the Pirates to World Series titles in 1971 and 1979.

"You heard, didn't you?" the cabbie said.

"No," the visitor said. "I just got off a plane."

" 'Pops' died," the cabbie said. "The greatest Pirate ever is gone."

Willie Stargell, at 61, was too young to go. He was on a ventilator for days before his death, which is sadly ironic, for it was he who breathed life into the Pirates for so many years, especially after the loss of the great Roberto Clemente.

Greatest Pirate ever? It wasn't Stargell. It was Honus Wagner, then Clemente, but Stargell was a first-ballot Hall of Famer who hit 475 homers, drove in 1,540 runs and hit some of the most prodigious homers in history.

His greatest attribute, beyond his remarkable strength, was his spectacular smile. The 1979 world champion Pirates, the famed "We Are Family" team, was mostly about Stargell and his enthusiasm. Although he was 39 years old, he was the National League's co-MVP with Keith Hernandez that season.

The Pirates won mostly because of him. Along with the numbers he produced, the team's success could be attributed to the leadership he brought to that great clubhouse. They were a family. And he was "Pops."

When the Pirates fell behind to the Baltimore Orioles 3-1 in the '79 World Series, it was Stargell who rallied them.

"He wasn't down, and he wouldn't let us get down," said Reds coach Tim Foli, who played shortstop on the '79 team. "He said, 'This is just a little obstacle. It's no big deal.' So we relaxed and played."

When the Pirates won the next two games to tie the series, Orioles manager Earl Weaver told the writers before the game, "I don't have a good feeling about this." Something special was happening with the Pirates -- you could sense it -- and it had everything to do with Stargell.

In the sixth inning of Game 7, the Orioles led 1-0 when Scotty McGregor flipped in one of his arching curveballs. The pitch seemed too low to hit out of the ballpark, but Stargell golfed it over the right-field fence for a 2-1 lead. The Pirates won the game, 4-1, and the series. The final scene we all remember is Stargell leaping in the air, arms extended, his smile filling the ballpark.

"I was in awe of him as a player," Foli said Monday. "Then I got to know him, and that's when I really learned to respect him. He used to tell me, 'Tim, we won, it's OK to be excited.' We have a major-league uniform on. How many people want to wear a big-league uniform?

"I don't remember him for the two-run homer, I remember his presence. He was a kid, a big kid. Every time he put that uniform on, he became 16 again. He was a rookie. A lot of guys get hits, (and) a lot of guys do well on the field, but no one ever led like him. My kids knew him. I don't want my kids to have my personality. I want them to have Willie's personality."

Then Foli looked beyond the right-field seats at beautiful PNC Park. The Allegheny River is all that separates the ballpark from the downtown area.

"Willie was so strong he could have hit those buildings over there," Foli said. "He was an amazing player, and a better guy."

"Pops" never saw the new ballpark. He was too sick to get here. But three hours before the start of the Monday's home opener, Pirates announcer Steve Blass, one of Stargell's teammates on the 1971 championship team, was taking the elevator to the press box. He was holding a picture of himself and Stargell, arm in arm, with a marvelous inscription Stargell had written.

Blass looked at the picture.

"Willie will be here today," he said.

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