Willie Stargell is the Pittsburgh Pirates,” says relief pitcher Kent Tekulve. “Every quality this ball club shows is a reflection of him.” That would make the 1979 world champions a proud and selfless group—for their first baseman and captain, Stargell, 38, is more than one of the game’s great hitters.
In 18 major league years Stargell has brought as much dignity to baseball as any player since Joe DiMaggio. His adopting We Are Family as the Pirates’ theme song this season was not just boogeying. Although on the free-agent market he probably could have doubled his $250,000 salary, Stargell stayed with Pittsburgh. He lives there in and out of season and may be the most popular man in town; he assuredly is among his teammates, rookie and veteran, black and white.
“Pop Stargell?” kids All-Star right fielder Dave Parker, 28. “He can’t hit, can’t run, can’t throw. But I love him. He’s our leader, our stabilizer and, for me, my baseball father.” (At tense moments, pitcher Don Robinson adds, Stargell walks over from first base to ask, “You want me to pitch?”)
Stargell was voted Most Valuable Player in this year’s World Series. He shared the regular season award with Keith Hernandez of St. Louis. While Stargell performed magnificently during the pennant drive, his stats—32 home runs and 82 runs batted in—were weak for an MVP. But when the joint award was announced, Willie cracked, “I’ll take it. What are we going to do, break it in half?”
Soon after he was born in Oklahoma, his parents were divorced. Willie (his real name is Wilver) moved to Oakland at age 11 when his mother remarried. “My stability comes from her,” he says. After a year at Santa Rosa Junior College he signed with Pittsburgh in 1958.
Four years in the minors sharpened his awareness of bigotry. “We had to eat behind the restaurant in a shed with the garbage and flies,” Stargell recalls of Jackson, Miss. “I was hurt.” Discrimination still angers him. “If I you’re qualified to do a job,” he says, “no one should stop you from doing it.”
Living well has also become a form of revenge. He drives a Corvette, Mercedes and Rolls-Royce and is an astute enophile. He chose the wine, a 1976 blanc de blancs, that the Pirates drank to celebrate their Series victory.
Not until Roberto Clemente died in a 1972 plane crash did Stargell emerge as the Pirates’ leader. Then in 1976 his second wife, Dolores, developed a brain tumor. Though she recovered, the distracted Stargell had a terrible season. In 1977 and 1978 injuries slowed him. Now his career home run total is 461. He has also struck out 1,805 times, a major league record.
The Stargells live with their two children in a ranch house in a middle-class neighborhood. (His daughters from the first marriage, Precious, 16, and Wendy, 15, live in California with their mother.) Off-season this winter he wanted to “lay back and listen to my whiskers grow” and work on The Willie Stargell Cookbook, due out next year with such recipes as his stuffed pork chops with cornbread.
Stargell is also devoting a month to the campaign against sickle-cell anemia, a sometimes fatal blood condition that strikes blacks primarily. “I hadn’t even heard of it until 1970,” he explains. “My daughter Wendy was having some tests and they found out she carried the sickle-cell trait. A doctor said she could lead a normal life, but if she married a man who also had the trait, her children would stand a chance of having it too.” The Willie Stargell Foundation, run by his sister Sandrus Collier, has collected $125,000 this year for sickle cell research, about $25,000 of that from the $1 donation Willie asks for each autograph he gives.
Although a wealthy man from his investments, Stargell wants to play “as long as it’s fun”—fortified by 76 vitamin pills a day (recommended by Dick Gregory). “I’d rather push the wagon,” Willie says, “than ride in it.”