ALAMEDA -- To those fortunate to have seen him play, the most enduring image of former Alameda resident Willie Stargell is that of "Pops," the charismatic leader of the 1979 World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates.
Despite not having his best statistical season, Stargell was at the top of the baseball world, proving that the game wasn't all about big numbers.
Friends of the 1958 Encinal High School graduate understood well. That 1979 triumph and Stargell's eventual induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame were as much testimonies to his character as they were to his playing prowess. When Stargell died in 2001, tributes from writers, broadcasters, managers and former players tabbed him as one of the most upstanding men and one of the most pleasant personalities in sports history.
Memories will come alive again Friday when the U.S. Postal Service begins selling commemorative stamps bearing Stargell's likeness and those of late fellow Baseball Hall of Famers Ted Williams, Larry Doby and Joe DiMaggio (also a Bay Area product).
"He was a big-time nice guy," said Nick Cabral, Stargell's friend and schoolmate at both Washington (then a middle school) and Encinal.
"Outstanding ballplayer and outstanding person," agreed Encinal teammate Robert Earl Davis.
Born Wilver Dornell Stargell in Earlsboro, Okla., on March 6, 1940 -- or March 7, 1941, according to "Willie Stargell: An Autobiography," a 1984 book co-written by Tom Bird
"He played for the Alameda Boys Club when he was 13," said Journal columnist Joe King, the club's executive director at the time. "We played in (San Francisco's) Seals Stadium -- our team beat the Columbia Park Boys Club, probably the oldest Boys Club in San Francisco -- for the Boys Club championship for that age group. Willie played first base for us."
As an Encinal senior in 1958, Stargell was part of arguably one of the all-time greatest high school baseball teams in the nation. Many considered Davis the team's top player. Tommy Harper and Curt Motton, like Stargell, made the major leagues. At the time, Stargell was a work in progress.
"Nobody had a clue that he would achieve what he achieved," Cabral said.
Stargell made his major league debut for the Pirates in September 1962 and remained with the team through his final season, 1982. His experience at Encinal, where he was perhaps the fourth-best player, prepared him well for the Pirates, where he played comfortably in the shadows of such luminaries as fellow Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski in the early years of his career.
Stargell had to overcome many obstacles off the field, too. A man of both African-American and Seminole heritage, Stargell often had to dine separately from his white teammates while in the minor leagues. Worse, a racist "fan" once threatened Stargell with a shotgun, warning him not to play in that evening's game. Stargell played in that game anywas and in many games to come. As time went on, Stargell's affable demeanor won the respect of teammates, managers, opponents, sports writers and fans.
Oh, and he could hit some. His career 475 home runs and 1,540 RBIs made him a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1988. Beyond statistics and playing ability, the Hall of Fame instructs voters from the Baseball Writers Association of America to consider a player's "integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which (he) played." In this respect, Stargell left no doubt about his qualifications (beyond baseball, Stargell also served as a national spokesman and fundraiser to combat sickle cell anemia).
Stargell enjoyed many great years with the Pirates. His career-high 48 home runs and 125 RBIs in 1971 were a huge factor in their drive toward a World Series title. But 1979 perhaps best sums up his career and life.
Despite playing in just 126 regular-season games, Stargell's 32 home runs, 82 RBIs, clutch play, leadership, inspiration and overall presence earned him a share of the National League Most Valuable Player Award (with fellow Bay Area product Keith Hernandez of the Cardinals). MVP nods for the National League Championship Series and the World Series followed. In his late 30s, Stargell enjoyed a remarkable season, an exclamation point marking the zenith and twilight of a stellar career.
Stargell coached for the Pirates in the 1980s and returned in 1997 as an assistant to Pittsburgh's general manager, a position he held until his death in 2001. The Pirates built a 12-foot tall statue of Stargell outside the new PNC baseball park, which opened for a new season the day he died. Through it all, talk of Stargell's character and positive influence came to the forefront.
"After all those years and fame, he never forgot who he was, where he came from and his old friends," said Sherman Lee, who graduated from Encinal a year before Stargell in 1957.
Starting Friday, friends and fans can pay their respects again with the purchase of commemorative stamps.