ATLANTA (CNNSI.com) -- Willie Stargell was supposedly way past his prime when he powered the Pittsburgh Pirates to their second World Series title of the 1970s. His two-run homer in the seventh game of the 1979 Series against the Baltimore Orioles decided it, and the man they called "Pops" went home as the Series MVP.
But it was a true measure of the man that Stargell probably isn't remembered for that Series win -- or the other one in 1971, again against the Orioles -- as much as he is for his leadership and his demeanor. "Pops" took a diverse team of youngsters and cajoled, disciplined and willed them into a confident band of champions.
As the song that the entire city of Pittsburgh adopted as its theme in the summer of '79 proclaimed, the Pirates were family.One big loose, happy family.
"You have only a few years to play this game, and you can't go out and do it when you're tied up," Stargell said after the win in '79. "You come into the game without ulcers and you should go out without ulcers."
Willie Stargell, team leader, Pittsburgh icon, prodigious home run hitter and the man Sports Illustrated once called "the slumbering giant of the Monongahela," died early Monday after a long illness. He was 61.
Stargell's death comes on the official Opening Day of PNC Park, the new baseball-only stadium in Pittsburgh. Stargell had been in frail health for years while battling a kidney disorder, but he had long planned to be at the park for Monday's opener against the Cincinnati Reds. The Pirates unveiled a 12-foot bronze statue of Stargell there on Saturday.
"He fought all the way to get here to Opening Day," said Pirates general manager Cam Bonifay. "Willie Stargell is so much a part of our history that it's only fitting that he did make it as far as he did after his long struggle."
Said former Pittsburgh manager Chuck Tanner: "He's up there, and he knows the Pirates are opening today."
The lumbering Stargell, who was at least 6-foot-2 and played most of his career at more than 200 pounds, hit 475 home runs in a 20-year career, all with the Pirates. He was a seven-time All-Star who led the Pirates into the postseason six times. He was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1988 in his first year of eligibility.
He had a .315 batting average in the two World Series, but "Pops" remains best known for the effect he had on those around him. His teammates revered him. His opponents feared him.
"He didn't just hit pitchers," Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton said. "He took away their dignity."
His effect on his teammates may have been even more pronounced. In both Series against the favored Orioles, the Pirates trailed three-games-to-one. They came back to win the 1971 series as Stargell scored the winning run from first base when Jose Pagan doubled to center. Stargell's sixth-inning homer to right was the game-winner in 1979.
"I'm so happy about the way this turned out," Stargell said after the 1971 Series. "When it began you would have thought the Pittsburgh Pirates were nothing more than the invited guests at the St. Valentine's Day massacre."
Stargell's popularity in Pittsburgh is perhaps matched only by his one-time teammate, Roberto Clemente, who died in a 1972 plane crash. Players like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays often overshadowed Stargell throughout the rest of the nation, but Stargell still was one of the most respected hitters in the game. His big left-handed swings often produced awesome home runs. He led the league in homers twice (with 48 in 1971 and 44 in 1973) and was among the league's Top 10 home run hitters 10 times. His 475 career homers rank 19th on the all-time list.
His best year was probably 1971, when he had 48 homers and 125 RBIs while batting .295.
"One of the greatest ballplayers that ever was. A great guy," said Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox. "He was a wonderful person. A giving guy, fun to be around, talented individual."
Stargell retired after injuries limited his playing time in 1981 and '82. He escaped the worst parts of a 1985 federal drug investigation that implicated 30 players in the Pittsburgh clubhouse and worked briefly for the Pirates afterward. He later went to work for Tanner with the Atlanta Braves.
He returned to work for the Pirates in 1997 as an aide to Bonifay.
"Willie Stargell was a very, very important member of this family as a player, as a staff member," Bonifay said Monday, "and we're going to miss him."
Stargell, when he was well enough, still mixed with the Pittsburgh players. And they all felt his influence.
"He's meant a lot to me. He's meant a lot for my career, he really has," said Pittsburgh catcher Jason Kendall. "You get a compliment from Willie Stargell -- it meant a lot and I've taken it a long way.
"He is Pittsburgh baseball."
Wire services contributed to this report.