This Big Man is the Cool Man
Willie Stargell, they all said, was the player who could make the Pittsburgh Pirates go. Last weekend he did and, man enough to win or lose, the Bucs' natural leader took winning in his stride
By Roy Blount Jr.
Issue date: October 5, 1970
Those people who love only excellence are probably Cincinnati sympathizers, inclined to agree with what Gene Mauch said last week. All three contenders in the National League East, according to the Montreal manager, "have looked exactly alike -- terrible. Yet I'm afraid that any of the three could handle Cincinnati in the playoffs because of the uncertainty of the Reds' pitching, and to me that's too bad because the Reds have proved they're the best in the league."
Those people, however, who value a rich blend of human interest should prize the National League East. They should set aside the fading out of the well-balanced Cubs in Philadelphia, which at least is a good place to fade out in. Set aside, even, the falling from grace of the New York Mets, the faulty base running and fielding of Tommie Agee and the faulty pitching of Jerry Koosman and Tom Seaver. Consider instead that last weekend in Pittsburgh, as the Pirates twice beat the Mets 4-3 and once 2-1 to clinch the division title, a lot of flavorful things were going on. A large share of them, fortunately for the home club, involved Wilver Dornel (Willie) Stargell, the Pirates 6-foot-2 1/2, 215-pound, left-hand-hitting big man.
On Friday, for instance, the Mets' Donn Clendenon, formerly of the Pirates, said of Stargell, "He's the big man. He and Clemente. Now that Al Oliver and Bob Robertson have been hitting so well, it's taken some of the pressure off Stargell, but for the Pirates to move, he's got to hit. And he's got the perfect temperament for a ballplayer. The game when he hit three home runs and just missed a fourth, I was batting behind him. Every time he came around I'd shake his hand and say, 'You hit that one good,' and he'd say , 'Ehh.' Every time, he was just doing a job -- and I was getting knocked down."
It was learned on Friday also that Pirates pitcher Luke Walker, a native of DeKalb, Texas had received a phone call from his father, who told him, "The pressure's off now." The elder Walker was referring to his own release from a Houston hospital, where he had lain since falling in July from a tractor into the path of a brush sweeper, a machine that mows grass along highways.
Stargell spoke of a time when he, too, had experienced pressures greater than those of a pennant race. "My first year in the minors determined that I would stay in baseball -- the fact that I got through that year without going home. That was in 1959, when segregation was part of our country and, being from California, I had never really felt it before. I was playing for Roswell, N. Mex. in towns like Odessa and Midland, Texas and Carlsbad, N. Mex. People would threaten to lynch me, tar and feather me, shoot me. I don't know whether they really would've done it or not, but I was just a kid. You'd beat their ball club with a base hit and they'd say, 'Nigger, you ain't goin' to live to beat anybody else.'
"I almost quit, but I'd call home and talk to my parents, and they'd say, 'O.K., if you want to come home, do. But sometimes you have to put up with things to get somewhere.' I was miserable, but I didn't see any point in inflicting it on somebody else. So I stuck it out, and the next year I played in North Dakota, where they'd hardly ever seen any black people before. They were better."
Stargell drove in the Pirates' second run with a ground ball to the right side, reaching first on the play to the plate. Someone in the second deck in centerfield released a bunch of balloons. Someone in the third deck caught it.
Stargell took too big a lead and was picked off first by Koosman. Stargell headed for second base and was met halfway there by the Mets' Bud Harrelson with the ball. Harrelson is about half the size of Stargell. Stargell hit the ground at Harrelson's feet and rolled under the tag like a bear rolling under a rabbit, then regained his feet and reached second base. On appeal, however, the first-base umpire reversed the second-base umpire's call and ruled Stargell out. A great to-do followed.
A cloud of smoke billowed out into the field-level seats along the first-base line. Patrons began to scurry about in fear of fire. Word got around that the smoke was only the built-up exhaust from the hot-dog stand beneath the seats, something that happens about once a game at Three Rivers Stadium.
The Pirates' bullpen threw gravel at the cars carrying the ground crew off after the midgame dragging of the infield.
In the top of the eighth, with two out and the Pirates ahead 3-2 and with the Mets' Ken Boswell on second base, Harrelson looped a hit into left field and Boswell was waved around third to try for home. Stargell came charging in, grabbed the ball and threw a one-hop bolt of lightning that nailed Boswell by 10 feet.
In the bottom of the eighth Stargell swung his bat around in a complete circle in a plane perpendicular to the ground, as he does before every pitch, and then drove in the Pirates' fourth run -- as it turned out, the winning run -- with a line single to right. Pitching for the Mets was Tug McGraw, off whom Stargell had hit a game-winning 10th-inning home run the previous Sunday in New York.
Later Stargell was asked, "How would you characterize your arm?"
"I'd say I have a better than average arm," he said. He praised the fielding of Clemente and Manny Sanguillen.
Someone else asked the eight-year Pirate veteran, "Were you mean out there tonight, Willie?"
"Angry," he answered. "Like a tiger in heat."
On Saturday Three Rivers Stadium was invaded by small moths. They had first appeared in force the night before and one had landed in the eye of the Pirates' Dave Cash while he was batting, but their tribe had increased during the night. They were all over everybody. There was some discussion as to whether they had come to eat the Tartan Turf playing surface or the Pirates' new pullover uniforms. Everyone settled down to playing around them.
Sanguillen, the Pirates' Panamanian catcher, who had gone 3 for 4 for the last three nights and had thrown Agee out at third for the last out of Friday's game, looked across the dressing room at Stargell, made the peace sign with his fingers and said, "Hey, I have always like you."
"Hey, Sangy," said Stargell, "do me a favor. From now until the game starts don't say anything."
Utility man Jose Pagan came up to Stargell, said something in Spanish and struck him a loud punch in the upper chest.
Asked why it is that the whites, blacks and Latins get along so well on the Pirates, whereas they don't on many other teams, Stargell said, "It really doesn't make a difference what color you are, you're just a guy to me. I know some black so-called friends who are dogs."
Asked about his Chicken on the Hill restaurant venture, Stargell said, "I put money into restaurants in the hill section because there weren't any decent places for the people there to eat. I went into it expecting to lose money because black people don't tend to support black businesses. But we went into it thinking we'd treat people who came in nice, treat them like they were somebody, and it's done real well. We've got five locations now."
"He's got the ability to take over the team leadership," pitcher Dock Ellis said of Stargell, "but he refuses to do it. He has the respect and speaking ability, but he says he doesn't want to get into a spot where the players tell one thing and he passes it on to the general manager, only to have the players deny it when the general manager talks to them about it.
Of his work off season with kids in Pittsburgh ghettos, Stargell said, "I do it on my own. I find out who they respect the most, the bad man. He's usually the strongest one, the one who smokes the most pot and takes the most pills. I tell the kids that I did almost all the things they're doing, but somehow I always felt I wanted something more. I tell them they're not chained and bound. There's something they can do."
Cash said of Stargell, "If he hits, we win. It's as simple as that. He's have to be one of the most valuable players, along with Giusti and Sanguillen and Walker. He doesn't say too much. But after the game we lost to Chicago, when Alou dropped the flyball that would have been the last out, everybody came in with their heads down, griping and moaning, and Stargell said, 'If you win like men, you got to lose like men.' That got the heads back up."
Someone in the press box remarked that a Pittsburgh-Cincinnati playoff could be called a riverboat series, because each club's new stadium is on the Ohio River.
Stargell drove in the Pirates' second run with a line single and scored the third after leading off with a double.
"The only good thing about those bugs," said Cash, who was lying happily on the floor of the dressing room after the game, "they don't bite."
Stargell said to Sanguillen across the room, "Hey, I always like you."
Stargell sat in front of his locker, with Mudcat Grant -- who had won both Friday's and Saturday's games in relief -- to his left and Bob Veale to his right. Veale was hoarse from yelling, Grant was trying to figure exactly how many times he had warmed up during the year (137) and Stargell was sweating. "The Righteous Brothers," Stargell said.
Gordon Rowe, 14, one of the very few members of his and the Righteous Brothers' race in the crowd of 34,311, when asked on his way out of the stadium who his favorite Pirate was, said, "Stargell. Because he's the big man. And he's cool." And on Sunday he was on the finest team in the National League East. Real cool. Real big.
Issue date: October 5, 1970