National League and World Series MVP, Baseball Hall of Fame member and Pittsburgh Pirates all-time home run leader are only a few of the many titles held by the great Willie “Pops” Stargell.
As a leader and advocate both on and off the field, Stargell remains one of the most beloved sports figures in Pittsburgh. His legendary status and continued admiration from baseball fans, prompted Pittsburgh native Richard “Pete” Peterson to author the player’s biography, Pops: The Willie Stargell Story.
“He had such physical courage,” Peterson remarks. Despite several knee surgeries throughout his 20-plus years of baseball, Stargell had his greatest season in 1979 at the age of 39, an age where most players would be retiring. But even if it hadn’t been for that remarkable season, Peterson adds, he still would have been a top choice for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Stargell struggled early in his career, but experienced his greatest success on the field in his older years, and became the emotional leader of the team in the 1970’s following the death of Roberto Clemente. Gradually he became a top ambassador for baseball and the core values of the game.
Stargell experienced racism very early in his baseball career. During his minor league career playing in the southwest, he was forbidden to eat at the same restaurants as his white teammates and often threatened because he was an African American player. His social activism began after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. He became a top advocate for educating the public about sickle-cell anemia and started the Willie Stargell Foundation for sickle-cell research.
Pittsburgh natives may remember the booming voice of Bob Prince proclaiming, “Chicken on the hill with Will!” after each home-run by the lefty Pirates’ player. This stemmed from Stargell's ownership of a chicken restaurant in the Hill District. Each time he hit a home run, restaurant patrons received a free meal.
A statue of the late Stargell joins fellow Pirates, Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski in locations throughout PNC Park. The inscription is a tribute to his love for the city:
“Last night, coming in from the airport, we came through the tunnel and the city opened up its arms and I felt at home."