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Hall of Famer Willie Stargell dead at 61 after stroke

Kurkjian: 'Pops' forever a Pittsburgh presence

Morgan: Stargell was a star among men

Friday, May 4, 2001
The Leader of the Pirates
By Jim Murray
Special to

Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 15, 1979.

"I have made a marvelous discovery. I have found men are willing to die for ribbons." -- Napoleon Bonaparte, circa 1807

PITTSBURGH -- He looks like what you'd imagine Uncle Remus looked like, a great kindly giant of a man with sad eyes. When he talks in that deep bass voice, you'd imagine that's what God sounded like talking to Moses.

He may be the most popular man to play baseball since Babe Ruth. Booing him would be like booing Bambi, a Red Cross truck at a flood.

He could crush a Volkswagen, lift a freight car or swing a railroad tie with one hand. In another time, another age you would imagine him driving steel -- more steel than anyone in the rail gang.

He could mine 17 tons of No. 1 coal. It's a good thing for the world Wilver Dornell Stargell is a peaceful man with a heart so soft the left ventricle is full of mush. He is as peaceful as a monk. Wilver Stargell never gets thrown out of a game, boasts or complains.

He is the captain of the Pirates and leads by example not intimidation. Like the rest of the world, the Pirates do what Wilver Stargell tells them out of love, not fear. Bears would run from him in the woods but you never have to be afraid of approaching Wilver Stargell.

When he first became captain of the Pirates in 1973, it was a battlefield commission and he took it seriously. He noticed that baseball kept its rewards financial and institutional, a cold pat on the back, a headline occasionally.

Like Napoleon, Capt. Stargell wanted to motivate the troops, the little guys who did the little things that never made magazine covers or even The Sporting News. The give-up hits to right, behind the runner, the taking of strikes to let the runner steal, the going-in-left field for defensive purposes as the "caddy for the homer-hero who was not so serious with the leather.

"I saw the football helmets with buckeyes all over them for intercepted passes, downfield blocking, special-team tackling. Baseball just said 'Nice going!' "

Wilver Stargell stopped in a stationery store and bought a box of gold stars, the kind the nuns used to hand out in school if you got 100 in the spelling test or multiplied 12x12 correctly.

He pasted them on the hats of his colleagues. You would think big league ballplayers would be above or scornful of such schoolroom baubles but Napoleon was right. People want to know they're doing a good job. They will die for a ribbon.

In the Pittsburgh locker room, Wilver Stargell, like Napoleon, is an Emperor. His throne is sometimes the floor where he sits as unflappable as a Buddha, in the midst of the nosiest, motliest clubhouse in all of baseball, a patriarch at a tribal reunion.

But Emperor Stargell's saving grace is not his powerful, 6-3, 225-pound body or his deep commanding voice, it is his sense of humor.

People talk of "records that will never be broken." Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. Hornsby's .424 batting average. Wilver Dornell Stargell has one record he improves almost every league game he plays. "I'm putting that record out of reach," he says proudly.

The record is for strikeouts. He's gotten 1,851 of them, more than anyone who ever played the grand old game. He passed Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle long ago. The secret? Wilver grins. "You have to try not to get too excited and nervous with two strikes. Tell yourself you can miss that next one, too, if you don't get over anxious and hit it."

But he adds, "You have to remember you have to be awful good to pile up 1,851 strikeouts. No mediocre player has a chance at that record." He smiles. "If they don't throw where you're swinging, well, it's a U-turn at the plate. I've made a lot of U-turns."

He's also made a lot of trots around the bases, home runs -- 429 in league play. The over-400 country is rarefied atmosphere in baseball, a very exclusive club.

With Wilver, very few of those "K's" were called. "I'm a very aggressive hitter," he smiled as he sat in the clubhouse after his boys had won another hatful of stars, holding off the Baltimore Orioles' title-clinching by beating them, 7-1, in the fifth game of the World Series.

In a playoff game against the Reds last week, Wilver Stargell hit an apparent double off the right-field wall with two-on. A timid lead runner slowed up the conga line around the bases and Capt. Stargell ran up on the heels of the runner in front of him. He was thrown out trying to scramble back to first base. He had doubled into an out.

He was asked later what had happened. "Well, first, I tried to call 'time,' " he deadpanned as he sat in the dugout the other night. "You know every time they are in a tight situation in football, they do this. (And here, he crossed the upright palm of his left hand with the horizontal palm of his right.) I tried to signal the official time was out. But he dropped the handkerchief on me.

"Next, I knew I had to get back to first. But we didn't have no sign for going from second to first. Stealing from second to first you're on your own. We didn't even work on it in spring training. Also, I didn't get no good jump on the throw. I made a good slide, though. I just hope they scored it 'caught stealing' and not 'dumb running!' "

Capt. Stargell also made a throwing error in a pennant game at the close of the season. He threw wildly to third to catch a runner. The ball went into left field.

"I was throwing an 'out pattern' pass to Madlock (Pirate third baseman). He was supposed to take two fake steps and then buttonhook for it. Also, I was throwing out of bounds to kill the clock."

The Emperor also strips the epaulets off the troops when they misbehave. Teammates recall he gave a star to the manager when he gave him a day off once. And then took it back when he was called on the pinch-hit after all. He dispenses gold stars to visiting newspapermen -- subject to review by the military service board. Which consists of one board member. Stargell.

Capt. Stargell should get the gold star with oak leaf clusters for his performance in the World Series. He's got 2 home runs, 4 RBIs, 8 hits and an average of .381.

But Sunday night, good soldier Stargell did the kind of thing he hands out stars for -- little things like falling on a cannon or grenade, cutting barbed wire.

In the sixth inning with the score 1-0, favor of Baltimore, the Pirates advanced runners to second and third with a bunt. Stargell knew it was his turn to cut wire. He had to get that run in or the air might go out of his troops. "I opened up a little at the plate. Flanagan (Oriole pitcher) has such a damn good little running curve ball. I had to get it in the air out there."

He hit the fly to right center. It brought the run in. It bolstered the Pirates.

Baseball calls it a "sacrifice fly." It was an essential run, a dive bomb down an enemy smokestack. it put the Pirates back in the game, back in the Series. Capt. Stargell merits one of his own stars. "They're for little things we do that help us get where we are."

The captain is proud of his star system. But he wants recognition too. He wants his strikeout record honored with full drum roll before the assembled troops and kisses on both cheeks from the general.

"Dammit, if I got a major league record then I should have an award for it. And nobody gave me a big golden cape. I mean, that's a lot of U-turns!"

Capt. Stargell should win the league MVP this year. If he doesn't get it, one of his gold stars is almost as big an honor.

This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Jim Murray, the long-time sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, won the Pultizer Prize for commentary in 1990. He died Aug. 16, 1998. Help | Advertiser Info | Contact Us | Tools | Site Map | Jobs at
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