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The View From The Cheap Seats by Hollis T. Russell

Chemistry 101 – A Tribute to Wilver Dornel Stargell

Fans hear about it all the time, "Chemistry in the Clubhouse."  Professional athletes in any team sport talk about it all the time.  Managers and coaches at all levels know how important it is to their success.  Sports writers and broadcast media around the world dwell on it all too often.  If this chemistry business is so important, there must be a way to unravel the mystery of how it works, write software programs and launch a DOT.com with an Initial Public Offering (IPO) in the billions.  After all, the biotech sector has the technology available to clone human beings; chemistry in the clubhouse should be no hill for a climber.

Unfortunately, it is not that simple.  The recipe deals with good coaching and strong leadership by respected members of the team.  This leadership must be evident to everybody in the organization, on the field and off the field.   One of best examples of leadership yielding chemistry in the history of team sports was a man who played 21 seasons in the uniform of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Willie Stargell.

Born Wilver Dornel Stargell in Earlboro, Oklahoma on March Sixth, 1940, his first name combining the first syllables of his parents' given names, William and Vernell.  They divorced when he was six and he went to live with his aunt in Florida.  A few years later he moved to Alameda, California to rejoin his mother.  As money was tight in postwar America for a single mother, Willie worked a variety of odd jobs while attending school.  Baseball was always his first love.

Upon graduation from high school, he attended Santa Rosa Junior College for one year.  The Pirates signed him to a contract and sent him to their rookie club in Roswell, New Mexico.  Willie moved steadily up through the ranks of the minors and at the end of the 1962 season, he was called up to the big club for a cup of coffee.  In 1963, his official rookie year, he played in 108 games and hit .243 while adjusting to life in Major League Baseball.

Stargell’s career took off in 1964 and his reputation for hitting towering home runs began.  That year was the first of 13 consecutive seasons in which he hit at least 20 home runs.  He was named to the 1964 National League All Star team for what was his first of his seven appearances.  

As great a player as Willie was becoming, he was only the second best outfielder on the Pirates.  Roberto Clemente, arguably the finest right fielder in the history of the game, was the undisputed leader on the team until his tragic death on New Year’s Eve, 1972.

After Clemente died while attempting to deliver emergency supplies to earthquake torn Nicaragua, Stargell slowly emerged as the dominating force of the Pirates.  A menacing figure at the plate, he would slowly twirl his bat round and round with his wrists waiting for the pitch.  Then he would lean into it from his left-handed stance and pound it out of the park.

In his career, he hit 475 home runs.  Some of them were legendary.  He hit two balls out of Dodger Stadium, one of only two players to do so.  He hit one into the upper level of Olympic Stadium in Montreal that was measured at 535 feet.  He hit four homers into the upper deck of Three Rivers Stadium and seven over the roof at old Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, a feat only accomplished 18 times in 45 years.  More than one expert has said that if he had played his entire career at Three Rivers, his home run total would have been well over 500. 

In addition to his 475 homers which ties him with Stan Musial at 18th all time, Stargell drove in 1,540 runs with 2,232 hits for a career batting average of .282. Sluggers strike out a lot and he was no exception, he stands second on the career list behind Reggie Jackson.  

Playing left field for the first half of his career and first base after a series of knee injuries slowed him, Willie won the National League home run title in 1971 and 1973.  He helped the Pirates win World Championships in 1971 and 1979.  Willie played in six League Championship series.

"Pops," as he was affectionately known by his teammates, almost retired after the 1977 season when he was plagued with injuries.  He made a decision to give it one more try in 1978 and was rewarded by being voted Comeback Player of the Year when he hit 28 home runs, drove in 97 runs, all while making a late season charge for the playoffs.  It was not enough.  The Phillies took the title in the last week of the season but "Pops" knew 1979 would be a different story.

In spring training the next year, Willie began handing out cloth gold stars to teammates who made great plays.  Be it a good at bat, a fielding gem, or a well pitched game, the gold stars were awarded in a post-game ceremony that brought the entire team together as one.  To recognize their unity, "Pops" instigated a tradition of playing the song by Sister Sledge, "We Are Family" in the clubhouse before every game.  On the field he hit 32 homers leading the "Family" to the National League West crown.

In the NL Championship series against the Big Red Machine, Stargell led the Pirates to a three game sweep by breaking up game one with a homer in the 11th inning and homering again in game three to seal the victory and move on to the World Series.

In the series against Baltimore, which went to seven games, Willie put on a hitting exposition that will not soon be forgotten.  He batted .400 on 12 hits including three homers and four doubles while driving in seven runs.  Those seven extra-base hits set a World Series record.  Willie shared the NL’s MVP award with Keith Hernandez that year.  Stargell was also voted MVP in the World Series.

For all the personal statistics and awards he amassed during his career, Willie is best remembered as a human being who led his team to hundreds of victories.  He provided the leadership that was necessary to bond his teammates together.  Infielder Phil Garner said, "To keep factions from developing, you have to have someone that the blacks respect and the whites respect and the guy that puts it all together for us is Stargell."  Willie always took the younger players under his wing and showed them the way.  He never let stardom change his personality.

Chuck Tanner, the Pittsburgh manager said "You can tell about people, and with Willie, you always knew he was sincere. He enjoyed the game and was thrilled to play it. He never lost that and it’s helped all of us keep our youth."  

Call it chemistry in the clubhouse when everybody is on the same page or call it worldwide respect for a great leader, Willie Stargell knew how bring people together.

"One of the reasons we’ve gotten along here is because I never felt that I should ever be a judge of someone.  Everybody is somebody no matter what their nationality or religion.  You have to work together.  I could never go to bed at night thinking I misused someone.  Before we put titles on anyone, we have to remember we’re people."

---Willie Stargell

Hollis T. Russell takes "The View From The Cheap Seats" for The Baseball Report.