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
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.