How Viet­nam turned Wil­lie Stargell into ‘Pops’

The Pi­rates star was tal­ented but undis­ci­plined un­til he wit­nessed the suf­fer­ing of war and re­al­ized what he could ac­com­plish, re­calls baseball his­to­rian

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Forum - RICHARD PETER­SON

PBS be­gins air­ing Ken Burns’ much-an­tic­i­pated 10-part, 18-hour se­ries on the Viet­nam War this evening. Dur­ing the height of the Viet­nam War, my wife, Anita, and I were at Kent State Univer­sity amid a swirl of anti-war demon­stra­tions. On May 4, 1970, less than a year after I’d fin­ished my Ph.D. and took a teach­ing po­si­tion at South­ern Illi­nois Univer­sity, four Kent State stu­dents were shot and killed by the Ohio Na­tional Guard dur­ing a protest against the war. The stu­dents died just yards from the build­ing where I had taken and taught classes and de­fended my dis­ser­ta­tion.

In late 1970, sev­eral months after the killings at Kent State, Pi­rates broad­caster Bob Prince in­vited Wil­lie Stargell and his team­mate Mud­cat Grant to join him on a USO-spon­sored tour of mil­i­tary hos­pi­tals in South Viet­nam. The At­lanta Braves’ Phil Niekro and Bal­ti­more Orioles’ Ed­die Watt and Marv Ret­ten­mund also took part in the tour. After the trip, Stargell said that his life would never be the same.

When Wil­lie Stargell be­gan his ca­reer with the Pi­rates in the early 1960s, his lack of dis­ci­pline and his prob­lems with his weight had gen­eral man­ager Joe L. Brown and man­ager Danny Mur­taugh won­der­ing if Stargell, even with his great tal­ent, had the nec­es­sary com­mit­ment to be­come a great player.

All that be­gan to change for Stargell when Martin Luther King Jr. was as­sas­si­nated just be­fore the be­gin­ning of the 1968 sea­son. After King’s death, Stargell felt he should do more for the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity and be­came a vol­un­teer in Pitts­burgh’s War on Poverty pro­gram. He told Les Bie­der­man in a 1968 Sport­ing News in­ter­view that he be­came more in­volved when he’d asked Hill Dis­trict teenagers why they dropped out of school. They told him “they couldn’t go to class” be­cause they were hun­gry.

While King’s tragic death mo­ti­vated Stargell to reach out to Pitts­burgh’s African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity, his trip to Viet­nam two years later had such a pow­er­ful im­pact on his life that he de­scribed the trip, in his mem­oir, as “dev­as­tat­ing.”

The first time he vis­ited a hos­pi­tal and saw sol­diers who had lost limbs or were suf­fer­ing from se­vere burns, he broke down in tears. He also be­came aware of the suf­fer­ing of the Viet­namese peo­ple.

Mud­cat Grant re­mem­bered Stargell, late at night, star­ing out of their ho­tel room win­dow at women hud­dled with their chil­dren in the street be­low and telling him: “Makes you think ... I’ll never com­plain again.”

At the end of the Viet­nam tour, Grant told re­porters that they would see a dif­fer­ent Stargell: “It was as if he re­al­ized we had it pretty good, and he was go­ing to take full ad­van­tage of it.” Bob Prince also no­ticed a changed Stargell: “Wil­lie’s at­ti­tude was al­ways good, but now it’s even bet­ter. I think what he saw over there built up his res­o­lu­tion.”

Stargell’s new re­solve was the cat­a­lyst for his out­stand­ing sea­son in 1971 in which he led the Pi­rates to the World Se­ries. He also came back from Viet­nam with a re­newed com­mit­ment to the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity. In 1971, after dis­cov­er­ing that his daugh­ter, Wendy, and his team­mate, Dock El­lis, had the sickle cell ane­mia trait, he founded the Black Ath­letes Foun­da­tion for Sickle Cell Re­search. His an­nual bowl­ing tour­na­ment be­came a ma­jor char­ity event and at­tracted Su­per Bowl and World Se­ries celebri­ties.

At the end of the 1973 sea­son, Stargell re­ceived the Roberto Cle­mente Award, pre­sented to the player “who best ex­em­pli­fies the game of baseball on and off the field.” In 1974, he re­ceived the Lou Gehrig Award and, in 1977, the Brian Pic­colo Award, for his hu­man­i­tar­ian ef­forts.

After lead­ing the “We Are Fam­ily” Pi­rates to the 1979 World Se­ries Cham­pi­onship, Wil­lie Stargell. by that time af­fec­tion­ately known as “Pops,” was named co-re­cip­i­ent of the Na­tional League MVP Award. While the MVP award was the high point of his baseball ca­reer, Stargell re­ceived per­haps his great­est honor just after he re­tired when he was asked to nar­rate a text taken from the speeches of Martin Luther King for “New Morn­ing for the World” by Pulitzer Prize-win­ning com­poser Joseph Sch­want­ner.

In a Wash­ing­ton Post re­view of the Jan. 15, 1983, pre­mier of “New Morn­ing” at the Kennedy Cen­ter, Janet Leavy wrote that, while most play­ers squan­der their rep­u­ta­tions, “along comes Wil­lie Stargell in his white tie and tails, stand­ing be­fore a 109piece orches­tra and speak­ing the words of Martin Luther King on the 54th an­niver­sary of the lat­ter’s birth.”

Five years later, on Jan. 12, 1988, Wille Stargell re­ceived a phone call telling him that he had been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of el­i­gi­bil­ity. The fol­low­ing July, in his in­duc­tion speech, he asked mem­bers of his fam­ily, in­clud­ing his five chil­dren, to stand up. He then went on to ex­press his grat­i­tude to his Pi­rates fam­ily, es­pe­cially Joe L. Brown, Danny Mur­taugh and Roberto Cle­mente. His last words, how­ever, were for his Pitts­burgh fam­ily, the fans who sup­ported him, es­pe­cially “the young peo­ple” who dream of reach­ing great­ness. Look­ing back on his own life, he wanted the young peo­ple to know that they could.

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