Wilver Dornel Stargell is the only player in baseball history to be named Most Valuable Player of the regular season, League Championship Series, and World Series in the same year.
Born on March 6, 1940, in tiny Earlsboro, Oklahoma, Wilver’s name was derived from “William”—a father that skipped town before Wilver’s birth—and Gladys Vernell, his mother’s maiden name. William’s father took the mother and son into his home, where they stayed before Gladys remarried in 1945 and moved her new family to Alameda, California, outside Oakland. The marriage ended quickly, forcing mother and son to move into the public housing projects. A few years later, Willie moved to Orlando, Florida, to live with his aunt before returning to his mother in Alameda as a middle schooler. Stargell played baseball at Encinal High School—alma mater of 2003 Rookie of the Year Dontrelle Willis and 2007 NL MVP Jimmy Rollins—and played alongside future big leaguers Tommy Harper and Curt Motton. Upon graduation in 1958, he signed a pro contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates for $ 1,500 and was sent to the Class D League to play for the San Angelo/Roswell Pirates in Roswell, New Mexico. Stargell experienced extreme racism in West Texas, being forced to eat on the team bus while being denied access to “white only” restaurants and having to board with local families while his teammates slept in “white only” hotels. Baseball was his avenue out of the ghetto and his experience in the D League made him determined to succeed.
The Pirates called Stargell up to the big leagues for the final ten games of the 1962 season and he had a sluggish rookie season in 1963. The following year, he hit 21 home runs—the first of 13 straight seasons in which he would hit 20 or more—and played in the All-Star Game. Stargell drove in 100 runs in 1965 and hit .315 with 33 homers the following season. The Pirates moved from cavernous Forbes Field [436 feet to center field, 408 to right-center] to cozy Three Rivers Stadium for the 1971 season and Willie Stargell responded with a breakout year. He started by hitting 11 home runs in April—a major league record—en route to a league-leading 48 for the season while driving in 125 runs. The Pirates then beat the defending world champion Baltimore Orioles—with former Encinal High teammate Curt Motton on their roster—in seven games to win the 1971 World Series. The following year, the 6’4”, 230 pound first baseman hit 33 home runs and went on to smash 44 more in 1973. He led both leagues in OPS in 1973 and 1974 before injuries forced him to miss nearly 100 games in 1977. Stargell rebounded the following year, making the All-Star team and earning NL Comeback Player of the Year honors. In 1979, he led the “We Are Family” Pirates to the postseason, where he hit .455 as NLCS MVP and a return to the World Series, where the Bucs would again face the Baltimore Orioles. The O’s took to a three-games-to-one lead in the Series before Pittsburgh –led by Stargell’s .400 average and record-tying 25 total bases—stormed back to win Game 7 in Baltimore to win the title. Stargell hit .400, tied a World Series record with 25 total bases and seven extra base hits, clouted three home runs and was named Series MVP after going 4 for 5 with the Series-clinching home run in Game 7. Mr. Stargell played three more seasons before retiring in 1982.
Willie Stargell was a feared hitter who warmed up in the on-deck circle with a sledgehammer. He wind-milled the bat during the pitcher’s windup and hit monstrous home runs. Only six home runs ever landed in the upper deck at Three Rivers Stadium and Stargell hit four of them. Four balls have been hit completely out of Dodger Stadium in over five decades: Stargell hit two of them. In 61 years, only 18 homers cleared the right field roof at Forbes Field, seven of which were hit by Mr. Stargell. Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton said, “He doesn’t just hit pitchers. He takes their dignity.” He was also a beloved teammate and undisputed leader of the Pirates. “Pops” became a father figure to his teammates in the late 70’s, handing out “Stargell Stars” for great contributions to the team. “Having Willie Stargell on your ball club is like having a diamond ring on your finger,” said former manager Chuck Tanner. Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan remarked, “When I played, there were 600 players in the major leagues and 599 of them loved Willie Stargell.” Mr. Stargell was a seven-time All-Star, hit 475 career home runs and won two World Series titles. In 1979, he was voted AP Male Athlete of the Year and, along with Pittsburg Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw [Daily Dose, September 2], was named “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated.
On this date in 1988, Willie Stargell was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, becoming the 17th player in history to gain entry on the first ballot.