“He doesn’t just hit pitchers. He takes away their dignity.”
Don Sutton, on Willie Stargell’s propensity for belting long home runs.
That must have been how Montreal Expos southpaw Dan McGinn felt on July 16, 1969.
With the Pittsburgh Pirates trailing 6-2 in the top of the eighth inning at Jarry Park, Stargell strolled to the plate to face McGinn with one out and Matty Alou on second base. The powerful, left-handed hitter dug into the batter’s box, twirled his bat a few times, as had become his trademark, and McGinn reared back and unleashed his best fastball. Stargell swung mightily and connected.
“The high-sailing rocket at first appeared to be overtaking the Apollo moonshot, but finally settled at least 450 feet away, beyond the right-field fence,” wrote Montreal Gazette reporter Ted Blackman of the result of Stargell’s swing. “It bounced once on the pool deck and then into the water. A fully clothed youngster dived into the public pool to fetch the ball. Dan McGinn would’ve liked to have it back, too . . . ”
Stargell’s majestic two-run blast, which some have pegged at 495 feet, was the first to land in the municipal pool beyond the stadium’s right-field fence. It was a feat that Stargell repeated a few times throughout his career, earning the Jarry Park pool the nickname “La piscine de Willie.”
Most importantly for the Pirates, their slugger’s jaw-dropping homer initiated a rally and the Bucs eventually came back to win 8-7. That homer would prove to be the most memorable of the 17 home runs – the most of any opposing player – that Stargell clubbed at Jarry Park.
Signed as an 18-year-old by the Pirates in 1958, Stargell toiled in their minor league system for parts of four seasons before making his big league debut in 1962. Over the next two decades, he’d develop into the franchise’s most popular and productive player. He clubbed 475 big league homers (29th all-time) – a number many feel would’ve been closer to 600 if he hadn’t played parts of nine seasons in spacious Forbes Field.
Not surprisingly, Stargell’s home run totals jumped after the Pirates began playing at Three Rivers Stadium in 1970. He topped the National League with 48 homers in 1971 and led the Pirates to a World Series title. In 1973, he led the National League in home runs again with 43. In fact, the beloved first baseman slammed more home runs (296) than any other player in the ’70s.
By 1979, Stargell had become a father figure to his teammates, earning him the nickname “Pops.” In the late ’70s, when his teammates did something well, he rewarded them with gold stars on their caps. This unified the club and propelled them to an unlikely World Series title in 1979. (Of course, Stargell’s 32 regular season and five post-season homers didn’t hurt the club that season either). For his efforts, the Pirates legend shared the 1979 National League MVP Award with Keith Hernandez.
Stargell retired after the 1982 season with 2,232 hits, 1,540 RBI (43rd all-time) and a .282 batting average. The seven-time all-star was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988, his first year of eligibility.
Stargell’s productivity at Jarry Park definitely padded his Hall of Fame resume, but the Bucs slugger also excelled at Olympic Stadium and against some Canadian hurlers. Here’s a rundown of some of Stargell’s other Canadian links:
– Two of Stargell’s first five big league homers came off of Canadian pitchers. Left-hander Ken MacKenzie (Gore Bay, Ont.), served up the young slugger’s third career homer, a solo shot in the top of the eighth inning in the Pirates’ 10-1 win over the New York Mets at the Polo Grounds on June 1, 1963. Sixteen days later, Stargell victimized right-hander Claude Raymond (St. Jean, Que.) for his fifth career round-tripper, a three-run homer in the top of the ninth inning of the second game of a double-header at County Stadium in the Pirates’ 9-3 victory over the Milwaukee Braves.
– The first five-hit game of Stargell’s big league career came against the Houston Astros on June 5, 1966 at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Stargell’s fifth hit came off of Canadian righty Ron Taylor (Toronto, Ont.) in the eighth inning in the Pirates’ 10-5 victory.
– In 181 career games against the Expos, Stargell hit .297 and socked 37 home runs. As mentioned earlier, 17 of those four-baggers were recorded in 64 games at Jarry Park. He added five more in 26 contests at Olympic Stadium.
– His most memorable home run at Olympic Stadium was also the longest in the stadium’s history. The ball that Stargell belted for a three-run homer in the fourth inning off of Expos hurler Wayne Twitchell on May 20, 1978 landed in the second deck in right field, an estimated 535 feet from home plate. That was Stargell’s second homer of the game and the 407th of his career. The seat the ball ricocheted off of was painted yellow and is now on display at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont.
– Stargell’s 450th big league homer was hit off of Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer Steve Rogers on July 29, 1979 at Olympic Stadium. It was a solo shot in the ninth inning in the Pirates’ 5-3 loss. Aside from Rogers, three other Canadian Baseball Hall of Famers were in the Expos lineup that day: Rusty Staub, Gary Carter and Andre Dawson.
– The Pirates legend played his final big league game on October 3, 1982. The Montreal Expos were the opposing team that day and after Stargell singled in the first inning off of Steve Rogers at Three Rivers Stadium, Ottawa, Ont., native Doug Frobel pinch ran for him. Frobel eventually scored the game’s first run and the Pirates’ only run, but went 0-for-3 the rest of the way in the Expos’ 6-1 win.
– By my count, Stargell had two Canadian teammates with the Pirates during his career: the aforementioned Frobel in 1982 and Dave Pagan (Nipawin, Sask.) in 1977.
– Stargell batted over .300 against three different Canadian pitchers (hometown, Stargell’s batting stats against them): Reggie Cleveland (Swift Current, Sask., 9-for-29, .310, four homers), Claude Raymond (St. Jean, Que., 8-for-26, .308, three homers) and Ron Taylor (Toronto, Ont., 11-for-29, .379, two homers). Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins (Chatham, Ont.) fared better versus Stargell, limiting the slugger to 20 hits – including two homers – in 85 at bats (.235 batting average).
I wish “Pops” was still with us. It was a joy to watch him play. I can still hear Milo Hamilton calling the final out of Pirate wins in 1979 (most likely a save by Kent Tekulve) to the sound of “We are Family” playing in the background
Thanks for the comment, Steve. The 1979 World Series is the first World Series I remember watching as a kid. I remember cheering for “Pops”.
Willie was great. The Pops name is perfect. Great connections.