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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 838

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This is the grave of Willie Stargell.

Born in 1940 in Earlsboro, Oklahoma, Stargell spent much of his early years living with his grandmother in Florida after his parents split. His mother then moved to California, following defense industry jobs and he eventually joined her in Alameda. He became a fantastic baseball player on a high school team there that included three future major leaguers–himself, the very good Tommy Harper and Curt Motton, who floated around as an infielder for several years.

In 1959, Stargell signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He paid his dues in the minor leagues. Although baseball had desegregated over a decade before, life for Black players was still very rough, especially in the small little crappy minor league towns. Hotels and restaurants were still segregated, racial taunting was common. Stargell was once accosted at gunpoint in Plainview, Texas, no one’s idea of a livable place, and told he would be shot if he played that night. He still played, but he had real thoughts of leaving the game. Luckily, he did not.

Stargell made the majors in 1962, getting a cup of coffee late in the year. He was more or less a regular in 1963, but was pretty marginal, though of course was quite young. He improved pretty much every year for awhile, making his first All Star Game in 1964. He became a stalwart power hitter for the next fifteen years in Pittsburgh. Now, most of the time, Stargell was more of a very good player than a great player. He couldn’t really run, he was terrible defensively, and he didn’t walk much for a man with his power. But he sure could hit some home runs. He led the NL in 1971 with 48 homers and 1973 with 44. That latter year, he also led the NL in doubles with 43 and RBI’s with 119, as well as in slugging, OPS, and OPS+. According to Baseball Reference’s WAR stat, 71 and 73 were his best years, being worth 7.9 WAR in 71 and 7.2 in 73, making him MVP material those years. He did once win the MVP, in 1979, when the Pirates won the World Series in the “We Are Family” year, a song with Stargell had urged his team to embrace. But like so many MVPs, he really did not deserve it that year. He was already declining was worth only 2.5 WAR. He did finish second both in 71 and 73. He was also third in MVP balloting in 72 and was an All Star seven times. After 1979, he became a part-time player, retiring after the 1982 season. Among his legacy is that Stargell could hit very, very, very long home runs. At the time of his retirement, he held the all-time record for the longest HR in Dodgers Stadium, in Veterans Stadium, then the home of the Phillies; and in Olympic Stadium, home of the Expos.

After he retired, Stargell became a coach for the Braves from 1986-88 and was Chipper Jones’ minor league hitting coach. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988. He was pretty angry at the Pirates for not making him manager and refused to participate in a Willie Stargell Night to honor him. He also got in some trouble during the drug scandals of baseball in the 80s, when it came out that he was a major speed dealer to his teams. But hey, steroids totally ruined baseball amirite? Peter Uberroth cleared Stargell of any wrongdoing, but there’s little reason to think the players were lying about this. Baseball fans have a highly selective history over being upset about players using performance enhancing substances.

In 1997, the Pirates finally brought Stargell back into the family as an assistant to the GM, but this was probably more about just letting him be Willie Stargell than any real deep interaction in baseball operations. His health was also starting to fail by this time. He had gained a lot of weight after he retired and it began to impact his health. He had a lot of problems with his kidneys and had to spend time in the hospital. Finally, in 2001, Stargell had a massive stroke and died at his home in Wilmington, North Carolina. He was 61 years old.

Willie Stargell is buried in Oleander Memorial Gardens, Wilmington, North Carolina.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader donations, from my trip in January to the South. Thanks!! This was a fun one. If you would like this series to visit other left fielders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. According to Baseball Reference’s JAWS stat, Stargell is the 15th best left fielder of all time. Sherry Magee, the Phillies left fielder in the early twentieth century who ranks #14 is in Philadelphia and Zack Wheat, the Dodgers stalwart in the 1910s and 1920s and who ranks #16 is in Kansas City. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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