On Aug. 14, 1971, Bob Gibson was one out away from pitching a no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium. Only Willie Stargell was standing between one of the meanest pitchers to ever toe the rubber and history.
Gibson detested hitters. He would never speak to them because he didn’t want to get friendly with the enemy. They had to know that if they ever became comfortable in the batter’s box, the next pitch would be aimed at their head.
As Stargell whipped his bat in a clockwise fashion before stepping in to bat against Gibson, the St. Louis Cardinals right-hander realized that he has allowed himself to make an exception of Stargell.
He remembered once speaking to a writer about Stargell.
“Willie was such a congenial fellow I had allowed myself to make an exception and become friends with him,” Gibson said. “Putting that out of my mind, I got two quick strikes on Willie, then slipped a slider over the outside corner … “
Gibson had his no-hitter.
Willie Stargell, like teammate Roberto Clemente, was an exceptional individual. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Gene Collier, writing about Stargell, summed it up succinctly: “His numbers were dwarfed by his humanity.”
Mickey Mantle hit some of the longest home runs ever, but Stargell didn’t have to take a back seat to him. A home run that he hit in Montreal hit a seat 535 feet from home plate. The seat was painted gold.
When Willie passed away on April 9, 2001, flowers were put in the seat.
Stargell was socially active. He was unafraid to speak his mind. When he visited Vietnam, he denounced the American presence there. He was at the forefront in educating the public about sickle-cell anemia and he fought against drug use.
He said that he suffered “the aches and pain mentality” of racism, but he was beyond the reach of bitterness. He loved to play baseball.
“The umpire says `play ball,’ not `work ball,’” Stargell said.
As a young player, Stargell was sleek, fast and trim at 180 pounds. Unlike a thin player who joined the Pirates in 1986 and who became bigger and heavier by means frowned upon by baseball, Stargell’s weight increased naturally.
Late in 1979, Stargell made a crucial throwing error that cost the Pirates a game. Gene Collier wrote,
“In a deadly quiet locker room, Stargell regarded a flock of writers advancing and yipped, `Hey, you guys are always sayin’ that Bradshaw is the only guy who can throw a down-and-out like that. Well, Bradshaw couldn’t have thrown that ball I just threw!’”
The reference to great quarterback Terry Bradshaw eased the situation and broke the gloom. The stereo went back on, the room was again filled with the noise the players loved and everyone relaxed.
The next day, Stargell hit a home run as the Pirates clinched the division title on their way to the World Championship.
Manager Chuck Tanner knew Wilie Stargell.
“Willie had the feet of a dancer, the heart of a lion, and he hit home runs where nobody ever hit them,” Tanner says. “But his greatest ability was handling adversity. In hard times, he made it look easy.”
Kindred, Dave. “The sweetheart called Pops.” The Sporting News 7 May 2001: 62.