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Hall of Famer Willie Stargell dead at 61 after stroke
Sunday, April 15, 2001
Stargell was a star among men
By Joe Morgan
Special to ESPN.com
Speaking at Willie Stargell's memorial service on Saturday in Wilmington, N.C., was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. It's not often when your hero is also your friend, but he was both to me.
Everyone knows how great a baseball player he was. But he was actually a better person than he was a baseball player. Willie personified the words "gentle giant." His personality and his everyday life earned respect from anyone he ever met.
There were around 600 major-league baseball players when he and I played, and Willie was the only person who was liked by the other 599 players. Not one person ever disliked Willie. Some disliked me, or Pete Rose or other players, but not Willie.
Gene Clines, Willie's former teammate who is now the Giants' hitting coach, said, "If you ever talked to Willie Stargell for five minutes, you realized how special a person he was." When his name is mentioned, his 475 home runs and his greatness as a player are the last things people who knew him talk about. You are only a baseball player for a short period of time, but you are a person all your life. And his baseball feats were secondary to his qualities as an individual.
The first thing that struck people about Willie was how big he was. He had a commanding presence. But even though he was a big man, he never made you feel small or like you were less than a giant of a person. He made everybody feel that way.
Willie and I both grew up a couple of blocks apart from each other in Oakland, although he went to high school in nearby Alameda. I met him in 1961 during my senior year in high school. At the time he was a minor-league baseball player, but he would come back to California and work out with my high school team like he was just one of the guys.
He always gave me support. Even though I wasn't as big as he was, Willie said I could make it to the major leagues if I played and worked hard. That had a positive influence on my development as a player.
The only time he and I were teammates was during a winter semi-pro instructional league in the Bay Area one year. Our team included me; Willie; Leroy Reams, who appeared briefly in the major leagues; and Mike Murphy, who has been the Giants' clubhouse guy since the team moved to San Francisco.
Later, we were teammates several times in the All-Star Game. And whenever my team played Pittsburgh, Willie and I would go out. We always seemed to have a great time together. He was always taking me to dinner.
The day before I won the All-Star Game MVP award in 1972, he and I spent the day together, just having lunch and talking. Willie was already a star, and it was the first All-Star Game I ever started.
He reinforced all the positives, telling me I probably should have made the the All-Star team before that year. He also told me I should do something special, now that I was there. At the time I didn't think about being the game's MVP, but every time I was at bat or on the field, I thought about what he said to me.
In the 40 years I knew Willie, he never said anything negative. And you couldn't say anything negative around him because he was such a positive person. No matter what, he was always able to turn negatives into positives.
When we played against the Pirates, he might be stuck in an 0-for-10 slump. But Willie would always say, "I'm fine. Today's my day." Regardless of the situation, today was always going to be a better day. Only Reggie Jackson struck out more times than Willie in major-league history. But it didn't matter; he felt his next at-bat would be better. And that's the way he lived his life.
In 1979, Willie united his teammates and led them to a championship. But he also united an entire city. He made everyone in Pittsburgh feel like they were part of "We Are Family," the theme of their ballclub. But that was Willie -- a man of inclusion, including everyone he met into part of who he was and what he was about.
He was the kind of leader we need to lead our nation. I don't know if we have had a leader like Willie even in the White House. He is the greatest leader I have ever seen or been around. Anyone you talk to would tell you the same thing.
When our careers ended, we didn't spend as much time together because he lived in Wilmington and I lived in the Bay Area. We would talk on the phone and see each other at least twice a year. As a broadcaster, I would see him more often when he was coaching with the Atlanta Braves. Before he passed away, I had not seen him in six months. I knew he was very ill because I was told he didn't look good when he threw out the last ball at Three Rivers Stadium last year.
Anyone who knew Willie has lost a great friend. I will miss seeing him each summer at the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Cooperstown. Forty years after our first meeting, it's ironic that the big guy and the little guy from Oakland ended up in the Hall of Fame together.
Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan is a game analyst for ESPN.
'Pops' had power
Mark McGwire is now the Paul Bunyan of baseball. But Willie Stargell was Paul Bunyan before McGwire. He hit two balls out of Dodger Stadium, an unbelievable feat. He hit them over the roof, not just on the roof, at Dodger Stadium in right field.
But even those home runs pale in comparison to one of the four upper-deck home runs he hit at Three Rivers Stadium. The seat where the ball landed was marked; when you stood at home plate, you couldn't even see the sign. When you stood in right field where where you could see the sign, you almost had to look straight up. I couldn't imagine ever seeing a ball hit that far.
Babe Ruth was the first player to hit a ball on the roof at old Forbes Field, a Grand Canyon of a ballpark. It happened 18 times in 61 years, and Willie hit seven of them. His balls were hit farther than any balls I've seen in any games I have played or covered. I saw McGwire hit a ball off the Coke sign at Busch Stadium. But I don't think anybody I've ever been around has hit the ball farther than Willie Stargell in all directions -- to straight-away center, to left-center, or to right-center.
The balls were not as lively then as they are now. I'd hesitate to say how far he could hit one of the balls now. Willie used a 36-inch, 38-ounce bat, which he swung like it was a little bat. That's why he generated so much power. If you use a heavy bat and swing it like that, you'll hit the ball farther. And he did.
Today, players don't use heavy bats. Even McGwire's bat is small. Ken Griffey Jr uses a 31-32-ounce bat. But Stargell generated bat speed with a 38-ounce bat, a testament to how strong he was.
-- Joe Morgan