The Day I Made Willie Stargell Tear Up

The ball that Willie Stargell autographed for the author in 1989. (via Jeffrey Bobeck)

The ball that Willie Stargell autographed for the author in 1989. (via Jeffrey Bobeck)

Jackie Robinson Day always makes me think about a 10-minute conversation I had in 1989 with another African-American Hall of Famer, Wilver Dornel Stargell. Stargell is mostly remembered today as the aging first baseman nicknamed “Pops,” who led the Pirates to their last World Series victory in 1979, but I recall him as the fleet and strong left fielder from the 1960s who hit three of the only four balls that ever made it over the right field grandstand at Forbes Field. (Some guy named Ruth hit the other one.)

More important, as I wasn’t born when Robinson retired, Stargell was my Jackie Robinson: A larger-than-life presence, whose grace on and off the field deeply influenced the mostly white Pittsburgh fan base, especially my generation.

When we met in 1989, Stargell had come to Washington, D.C. for the Cracker Jack Old Timers Classic, a notable but short-lived series of games that attracted some all-century talent like Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller and Willie Mays. The games were played in then-baseball-starved D.C., which also offered the chance for the game’s luminaries to cross paths with the nation’s politicos. And so, the unlikely venue for my meeting with Stargell was a reception room in the Capitol that had hosted more lobbyists and foreign leaders than ballplayers.

Congress happened to be in session that evening (casting actual votes on actual legislation, something Congress  did in those days), so the room was mostly packed with interns seeking free food and a few young seamhead staffers like me, who could not resist the temptation to blow off work for a few minutes to meet the game’s greats.

I spotted Stargell standing alone along the wall and made a beeline for him. While many fans clam up when they meet their heroes, I tend to go full Bob Costas in such situations, trying to find insight and personal connection in the moment. (Yes, I know; just get the ball signed and move on, please. But then I wouldn’t have this story to tell.)

After he greeted me and reflexively reached out to sign the ball in my hand, I told him it wasn’t the first ball he had signed for me. At the height of Pirates’ power in 1972, my father had died suddenly, and a friend had gotten a ball to Stargell to sign for the grief-stricken 13-year-old. The ball came back to me with not only Stargell’s autograph, but also those of Dave Cash, Al Oliver, Manny Sanguillen and Dock Ellis, each personally inscribed. “Jeff, Hang Tough!”, wrote Ellis.

Stargell’s face changed; he had signed thousands of baseballs but seemed moved that this particular ball still meant so much to a fan like me so many years later. We chatted about how younger fans become attached to the game, and Stargell said he hoped that the new generation of players understood that reaching out to fans is “part of their job.” (I only wish Stargell had lived to meet Andrew McCutchen, a prolific ball signer and kid-thriller.)

I told Stargell that it wasn’t lost on me that all the signatures on my ball were from black players, and he asked me what I thought of that. I told him that, I really hadn’t thought about it at the time, those guys were just Pirates to me.

He said, “One of the great things about that ball club was that none of that mattered. We fielded the first all-black team in history, and [manager Danny] Murtaugh said he didn’t even notice it until someone told him during the game.”

I said, “Mr. Stargell, think about it: We lived in a time of riots and protest, and I’ll admit that some of our parents weren’t all that enlightened. But you truly can’t imagine the lasting impact you yourself had on kids back then.”

He said, “Yes, I can, it’s standing right in front of me right now.” He reached out to shake my hand and, I will swear to my grave that we both teared up in the moment.

Next to Robinson, no player has been canonized more than Stargell’s teammate Roberto Clemente. Deservedly so: Clemente was the first black Latin star, overcoming not only racial but also cultural prejudices with the proud fury of his game.

In Pittsburgh today, Clemente’s memory is revered. But, having grown up in the 1960s, I can say with certainty that Clemente wasn’t universally beloved at the time. Stargell was the cool counterbalance to the heat of Clemente, and his signature pre-pitch windmill windup with the bat was the one I practiced in front of the TV, much to my mother’s chagrin, and the detriment of one particular table lamp.

Stargell hit 475 home runs, won two World Series, and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But to me, his greatest impact on the game was taking the legacy of Robinson and Clemente to the next level. Willie Stargell, with grace, humor, and his enormous presence, made young fans see “black and gold,” not black and white.

As we honor Jackie Robinson across baseball, each of us who loves this game should also give thought to other players who may have touched us personally. For this fan, Willie Stargell had an influence—as much as any teacher, pastor or coach—that endures to this day.

Jeffrey Bobeck lives and writes in Washington, DC, but his heart is in PNC Park somewhere, probably the cheap seats. His first live MLB game as a toddler was Game 6 of the 1960 World Series, a game no Pirates fan would lie about having attended. Bobeck is a longtime advocate for the civil rights of left-handers to catch or play third base, and proves his commitment to same each Sunday in an over-30 hardball league.
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7 years ago

Very nice piece, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey Bobeck
7 years ago
Reply to  MB

Thank you, and thrilled to have been able to tell this story on Jackie Robinson Day, all these years later.

7 years ago

There’s a reason 8 is my favorite number

Sharon Kinsman
7 years ago

Great read. Can’t wait to share with my husband, my boys and my cousin’s husband, Bill Almon, who (I’m sure you know) played for the Pirates ’85-’87.

7 years ago

As a pirate fan since birth, my mom loved the Bucs….we went to all the games at Forbes Field and 3 Rivers. Willie became very good friends with my mom, as she ran the cookware department at a Department store in Downtown Pittsburgh. He would only buy his cookware from her, and they spent many hours taking about cooking over the years…when my mother passed away, I was going through her things, I found a box filled with many of Willie’s autograph’s, and notes telling her how good the food ended up using her cookware. She said Willie was a Hall of Fame player, but even more so a Hall of Fame person. She used to talk about how much he knew he was bridging the racial divide in Pittsburgh. He took it upon himself to be a role model in race relations. I met him a few times over the years….and he always made each person feel like they were the most important person in the world. I share this story to add to the kind of man Willie was. I agree with you totally, Willie in addition to my parents, Bobby Clemente and Matty Alou they all taught me to judge a person by their actions, not the color of their skin or anything else . Thanks for sharing.

7 years ago

As someone who sat in the cheap seats at Three Rivers Stadium scoring those games as a young girl, this is perfection.

Barry Gilpin
7 years ago

As someone who lost his father at age 12, thanks for this. Great piece.

7 years ago

Amazing story Jeff!

R.B. Ripley
7 years ago

Simply put, a heater right down the middle.

Tom Garlick
7 years ago

Who knows how young boys become attached to a certain team when their city does not have one. The Pirates have always been my team, and Willie was and is my favorite player of all time. Truly enjoyed your story. In Buffalo, I remember the Bills 64-65 AFL Championships. But I will always have the 2 Pirates World Series Championships as my best baseball memories. Go Bucs! Tom Garlick.

Rich Lambert
7 years ago

Thanks for puttin’ some chicken on the hill for Will!

Stephen Zielinski
7 years ago

It’s true: Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell did more for race relations amongst Western Pennsylvanians than they may have known. Most human beings would find it difficult to consider either or both of them heroes while also identifying black people in general as n******. Cognitive dissonance, and all. I recall hearing white Pittsburghers racially taunt Don Clendenon while he played First Base at Forbes Field. I may have been very young and naive, but I knew these individuals were idiots. These lessons stuck with me since then.

A nice read. Thanks!

Jack Zerby
7 years ago

I’m very happy to have come across this through Fangraphs. The essay and comments bring back a lot of great memories to a Pirate fan who grew up 90 miles north of Pittsburgh and lived and died with The Gunner and The Possum on KDKA, including Harvey Haddix’s heartbreaker in Milwaukee in ’59. First game in Forbes Field in 1951, Game 1 of the ’60 Series in the right field bleachers, and a batch of $1 Sunday games in right field in Three Rivers with a good friend, now passed on . . .

Thanks, Jeff and all who’ve commented. Hardball Times scores again.

Glenn Graney
6 years ago

Nice job Jeff – I was a Scoops Oliver fan and loved that same team. I always thought that those years of platooning with Bob Robertson cost him the stats that he needed to get to Cooperstown. Nobody hit it any harder!

priya misra
6 years ago

Thanks for sharing nice post please do share such post

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6 years ago

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