SI Vault
Ron Fimrite
December 24, 1979
In these seasons of Pittsburgh's conspicuous content, that once "intolerably bleak" city hails Terry Bradshaw and Willie Stargell as singular heroes, as do we
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December 24, 1979

Two Champs From The City Of Champions

In these seasons of Pittsburgh's conspicuous content, that once "intolerably bleak" city hails Terry Bradshaw and Willie Stargell as singular heroes, as do we

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And Bradshaw now understands his audience. "The Steelers are the best example of what the city's personality is," he says. "This is a blue-collar, shot-and-beer town. The fans get up for big games. They're like us. They're good, honest working people who come out to be entertained. They lead a tough life, and they like a team with a tough defense because that's where character shows. We have it. We play tough and we play hard. We've got guys with names like Dirt Winston, Mad Dog White and Fangs Lambert. Pittsburgh names. And I tell you, it gets cold up there for our fans those last few games. That gets them all wound up, and they get us all wound up. I don't know how much they identify with me, but I do think at last they've accepted me. Anyway, they're stuck with me." Happily so.

If the Steelers held their fans, even in their losing years, the Pirates have had trouble attracting theirs, even in winning years. It has been variously advanced that Pittsburgh is a football town, that older baseball fans have never forgiven the Pirates for moving from Forbes Field to what is essentially a football stadium and, more prevalently, that there are too many black players on the team—15 blacks and His-panics on a 25-man roster in '79. This last seems a curious theory, because nearly 20% of Pittsburgh's population is black. Roberto Clemente was a black Latin, and Lord knows he was popular. And the man who may be the most beloved player in the modern history of the franchise is also black—Wilver Dornel Stargell.

Whatever the cause for past neglect, Stargell, the 38-year-old Pops of the Pirate family, did more than anyone this season to give his team a new and appealing mystique. It was Stargell who continually reminded the fans that the Pirates were something special, a collection of individuals from disparate backgrounds and cultures who worked together out of respect and even love for one another. And like a benevolent school master, he passed out gold stars to Pirates who performed above and beyond the call. The stars became badges of honor. The Pirates, he argued, were what the United Nations was intended to be. It worked. The fans believed. And winning did not hurt. This season's attendance of 1,435,454 was nearly 500,000 more than last year's and the highest since the last time the Pirates won the pennant, in 1971.

Detractors appeared along the way, of course, but Pirate unity was never broken, and when the team came from a one-game-to-three deficit in the World Series to win it all, there was Stargell, celebratory wine in hand, tearfully embracing on the stage of the press-interview room a member of his own family, his half-sister, Sandrus. Cynics be damned, Stargell was real. Not just Stargell the star, who set a Series record for extra-base hits (seven) and tied the one for total bases (25) and whose last-game two-run homer was the Series-winning hit, but Stargell the person. "He gives a lot of himself to other people and thinks very little of himself," sister Sandrus would say later. "I'd be just as proud of him if he were a steelworker." No one is perfect, Stargell himself would be the first to agree. But this man is genuine.

Somehow he did not look real arrayed in cowboy hat and boots and $9,600 black mink coat while speaking last month to guests of Gordon's Gin at a fund-raising luncheon in Des Plaines, Ill. for the cause he has so fervently embraced, the search for a cure for sickle cell anemia, the blood disease that affects blacks mostly but can afflict persons of Mediterranean heritage as well. The Willie Stargell Foundation, located over a store in the Squirrel Hill area, is a major contributor to such research efforts, and this year Stargell devoted a month of his ordinarily free time touring 13 cities under the sponsorship of Gordon's. The two oldest of Stargell's three daughters have sickle cell trait, which means that though they do not have the disease, they can communicate it to their offspring if the fathers also carry the trait. And a good friend of Stargell's died of the disease a few years ago.

His luncheon talk was relatively brief and refreshingly free of excessive sentiment. Any contributions, he told the gin salesmen, would be used to find a way of "eradicating a form of human suffering, of helping to eliminate something that is dreadful to other human beings." He acknowledged a standing ovation with a wave and a quiet smile and then cheerfully agreed to talk baseball to the businessmen, who swarmed around his gigantic black-coated presence like pilot fish. "I've been in the public-relations business a long time," said Herb Landon, representing Gordon's, "but this man has shown me a whole new world."

Stargell decided to live permanently in Pittsburgh some 10 years ago, because, he says, "I like the warmth of the place." "My brother has been here so long that everyone thinks he's from here," says Sandrus, who herself moved east from Oakland in 1978 to help him in his work with the foundation. "No, no, I tell them, we're Californians."

Stargell was, in fact, born in Oklahoma, and he lived for a time with an aunt in Florida, but he was reared in Oakland and Alameda, the "East Bay." It is an area that has produced a veritable Hall of Fame of black major-leaguers—Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Curt Flood. Joe Morgan and, more recently, Ruppert Jones, not to mention basketball's Bill Russell.

Stargell's mother, Gladys, and stepfather, Percy Russell, both worked, so Willie did turns as housekeeper, cook and baby-sitter for Sandrus, 10 years his junior. It was a close family, bulwarked by the strong-willed mother. There was some money, but for much of Stargell's childhood the family lived in a government housing project in Alameda. "Wilver was always Mr. Good Guy," says his mother, who lives now in Oakland. "He was such a soft touch he'd give his lunch money away. And he was a better housekeeper than his sister. He had such a drive to succeed."

"I'd walk along hitting rocks with a stick," Stargell recalls, "and people would come up and ask me why I was doing it. I'd say that someday I was going to be hitting a ball with a bat in a big stadium somewhere. They'd laugh and say, 'Man, you're in the projects. Forget it.' "

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