The only MLB player to win three Most Valuable Player awards in one season had played baseball for the Grand Forks (N.D.) Chiefs 19 years earlier.
In 1979, Willie Stargell won the MVP award for the season, the MVP award for the National League Championship Series, and the MVP award for the World Series. Since Stargell was 39 years old in 1979, he became the oldest player to win the MVP award for the season, and at the end of that year, the Associated Press named him Male Athlete of the Year.
Stargell also holds the record for hitting the longest home runs in three different major league ballparks: Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, and Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. During the 1970s, he hit 296 home runs, the most of any other major leaguer during that decade. Stargell was inducted into the Major League Hall of Fame, featured on a postage stamp and honored by having a statue of him erected outside the Pirates’ baseball stadium.
After playing for the Chiefs in 1960, Stargell was promoted, in 1961, to Asheville, a Class A team in the South Atlantic League, along with his best friend, Gene Alley, and his other two outfield teammates, Rex Johnston and Reg Grenald. Now confident that he was a legitimate professional baseball player, and having added several more pounds of muscle, he became a highly regarded power hitter. Fans gave him the nickname “On the Hill Will” because of “the long homers he hit onto a hillside far beyond the right-field fence.”
During the season, Stargell hit 22 home runs, batted .289 and his team won the league championship. In 1962, he was promoted to Columbus, the Pirates' AAA franchise in the International League, along with Alley and Johnston. After hitting 27 home runs and batting .276 in 138 games, he was promoted to the Pittsburgh Pirates in mid-September.
On Sept. 16, Stargell played in his first major league game, and for the remainder of the season, he batted .290 in 31 times at bat. The Pirates' manager, Danny Murtaugh, was very impressed with Stargell and kept him on the roster as a reserve outfielder when the 1963 season began.
Soon after the start of the season, it became apparent that Murtaugh’s young outfielder could become an everyday player. On May 23, the Pirates traded their regular left fielder, Bob Skinner, to the Cincinnati Reds, and Stargell became his primary replacement. Pitchers later began to identify some of his weaknesses as a hitter, and his batting average slumped as the season progressed. He ended the season batting only .243, with 11 home runs in 108 games.
Superstar Roberto Clemente, Stargell’s fellow outfielder with the Pirates, became his mentor and worked with Stargell to become more aggressive, yet remain selective of the pitches he would swing at. Stargell “asserted himself the following season (1964), raising his average 30 points, blasting 21 home runs, and appearing as a pinch-hitter in his first of seven All-Star Games.”
The 1965 and 1966 seasons were good examples of the kind of player Stargell was becoming. In 1965, he hit 27 home runs, drove in 107 runs and hit for a .272 average. In 1966, he hit 33 home runs, drove in 102 runs and batted .315.
However, over the winter he put on 20 pounds more than what was considered his ideal 215-pound playing weight, and his manager put him on a crash diet that sapped him of much of his strength. Stargell’s statistics dropped to 20 home runs, 73 runs batted in and a batting average of .271. Perhaps because of the confusion as to what his weight should be, Stargell’s batting average dipped to .237 in 1968.
Pie Traynor, a former Pirates shortstop of the 1920s and '30s, said to the press that the manager needed to stop worrying about Stargell’s weight and leave him alone, and word got back to the manager, who took his advice. Another bit of valuable advice came from Clemente, Stargell’s mentor, who encouraged him to use a heavier bat.
On Aug. 5, 1969, in Los Angeles, Stargell hit the ball 507 feet, becoming the first player to ever hit a ball out of Dodger Stadium, and he batted .307 for the season.
In the midseason of 1970, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh became the new ballpark for the Pirates. The stadium was a much better fit for Stargell since the outfield fences were not as distant from home plate as they had been in Forbes Field, the previous ballpark. On Aug. 1, two weeks after Three Rivers Stadium opened, Stargell tied a major league record when he had five extra-base hits in a single game. He had three doubles and two home runs that day.
Another incentive for Stargell that year was the return of Murtaugh as his manager. In 1971, his first full season in the new home park, Stargell began the season by hitting 11 home runs in the month of April, tying a National League record. On June 25, his home run off of Philadelphia’s pitcher, Jim Bunning, became the longest home run ever hit at Veterans Stadium. Stargell ended the regular season leading the National League in home runs with 48 and he also drove in 125 runs. The Pirates repeated as National League champions, but unlike 1970, they went on to win the World Series.
During the early 1970s, Stargell became one of the most feared hitters in baseball, but in 1975, he broke his ribs and it caused him great pain to swing the bat. Then in 1976, his wife, Delores, was stricken with a brain aneurysm and spent six weeks in a coma. Stargell said, “I couldn’t concentrate. I could only see Delores with all this equipment strapped on her and my mind drifted quite a bit.”
Because of a nagging elbow injury, Stargell only played in 63 games in 1977. Primarily because of these circumstances, Stargell was unable to play as well during those three seasons.
In 1978, Stargell revived his career, batting .295 with 28 home runs and 97 runs batted in, and he was named National League Comeback Player of the Year. Stargell had become the motivational leader for the Pirates and his teammates began calling him “Pops.” He brought the team together with the cohesive song, “We Are Family.”
Because of his leadership and hitting, Stargell won MVP co-honors with Keith Hernandez in 1979 as the Pirates won the National League East Championship. In a three-game sweep of the Cincinnati Reds, they won the National League Championship with Stargell hitting .455, and he was named MVP. Then, in a seven-game World Series against the Baltimore Orioles, Stargell collected 25 total bases, a World Series record. The Pirates won the series, and Stargell was again named MVP.
Stargell played for three more years with the Pirates, but because of recurring injuries, he was never able to be an everyday ballplayer. He retired after the 1982 season and became a coach for the Atlanta Braves, and as his health began to decline, he served as a roving minor league batting instructor for the Braves. In 1988, in his first year of eligibility, Stargell was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and he was also the only player elected that year.
After a number of years of suffering from serious health issues, Wilver Donnel Stargell died on April 9, 2001. Days before his death in 2001, a 12-foot, 1-ton bronze statue in Stargell’s likeness was unveiled near the left field entrance to PNC Park, the new ballpark for the Pirates.
In May 2012, the U.S. Postal Service announced that, in July, they would begin selling All-Stars Forever stamps featuring major league baseball greats Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Larry Doby and Willie Stargell. At that time, they also launched a pre-order stamp competition to “see which player would generate the most orders.” Stargell came out on top with 8,220,355 total orders, a fitting testimony of how much Americans appreciated Willie Stargell.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.