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Stargell stands tall in biography

Posted May 20, 2013 by Bob D'Angelo

Updated May 25, 2013 at 07:40 PM

Willie Stargell’s height is listed as 6-foot-2 on Pitchers who faced the Pittsburgh Pirates’ slugger, who had a menacing, pinwheel bat action as he awaited their delivery, would disagree. Stargell always appeared taller.

Certainly, many of his 475 career home runs were towering, tape-measure jobs. “He doesn’t just hit pitchers,” fellow Hall of Famer Don Sutton once said of Stargell, “he takes away their dignity.”

Stargell had a dignity and demeanor that made him a beloved figure in Pittsburgh, earning him the nickname “Pops” near the end of his 21-season major-league career. An overly sentimental approach in writing about Stargell’s life would be the easy way out. Author Richard “Pete” Peterson manages to avoid that trap, writing a warm, yet reflective biography, “Pops: The Willie Stargell Story” (Triumph Books, hardback, $24.95, 242 pages).

Peterson is Pittsburgh-born and has written “50 Great Moments in Pittsburgh Sports,” “Growing Up With Clemente,” and “The Pirates Reader.” He is a professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University and is the former chair of the English department at SIU-Carbondale. He also can be heard on WSIU radio with commentaries on the station’s Reading Baseball series, now in its 10th year.

While playing up the Stargell fans remember — “a very warm, very loving, very forgiving individual” — Peterson also recounts his rocky upbringing and the racial hurdles he faced in the minor leagues. For example, Stargell’s father left his wife shortly after she became pregnant with Willie. He did not meet his father until he was playing minor-league ball in the Pirates’ farm system.

As a 6-year-old, Stargell’s mother left him in the care of her older sister Lucy, who took him to Orlando. “What began as a one-year stay became a six-year sentence of hard labor, whippings, and malnourishment,” Peterson writes.

The Pirates were one of the majors’ most culturally diverse teams during the 1960s, with Stargell and Roberto Clemente of Puerto Rico the two biggest names. The Pirates also fielded the first all-black lineup in major-league history on Sept. 1, 1971. Still, during spring training in the 1960s in Fort Myers, the Pirates were subjected to the same Jim Crow mentality that Jackie Robinson had experienced more than a decade earlier when he broke the color line.

While Clemente was proud and intense, Stargell was able to defuse racism with his laid-back demeanor. Peterson compares his methods to those of Willie Mays, who also worked diligently toward achieving racial equality in baseball by being low-key.

There were many great moments in Stargell’s career, like tape-measure homers at Dodger Stadium, Veterans Stadium and Forbes Field. Peterson touches on all of those moments and gives concise season-by-season summaries during Stargell’s career. Both World Series victories (1971 and 1979) are recounted in fine detail. Peterson also addresses Stargell’s struggles with his weight (particularly when he reported to spring training) and diabetes, and also his penchant to strike out (1,936 during his career).

Peterson also traces the evolution of 1979’s “We Are Family” World Series champions and the coveted “Stargell Stars.”

While Stargell is the focus, Peterson also pays attention to his supporting cast, including managers Danny Murtaugh and Chuck Tanner, pitchers Bob Veale and Dock Ellis, legendary broadcaster Bob Prince, and teammates like Bill Mazeroski and Dave Parker.

Peterson was a natural to write this book, and he jumped at the chance when he was contacted by Triumph Books. “It was one of those offers that you simply can’t refuse, especially if you’re from Pittsburgh,” he said in a radio interview on WSIU.

Eager for the opportunity, Peterson doesn’t disappoint. He paints Stargell the way he should be remembered — as a gentle giant whose death in 2001 was a sad one for baseball fans. Stargell stood tall in life, and Peterson brings him back to life in a powerful way.

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