Glory Days: Willie Stargell


Glory Days is changing things up this week: in (I guess you can call it) “honor” of Bryce Harper’s latest bid to join a (not-so) select group of Met killers, we’re going to profile the most infamous of all players who made his living off of terrorizing fans at Shea Stadium. Long before Chipper Jones, there was Willie Stargell, who had much, much more than his fair share of “Glory Days” at the expense of the orange and blue.

July 21, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; United States post office chief operating officer Megan Brennan (left) and Margaret Stargell widow of Pittsburgh Pirates former first baseman Willie Stargell unveil a commemorative stamp honoring Willie Stargell before the game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Miami Marlins at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Willie Stargell played his entire 21-year career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, breaking into the majors during the 1962 September call-ups and lasting until the end of the 1982 campaign, retiring at the ripe old age of 42. Pops helped steer the Bucs to two World Series titles, one in 1971 with Roberto Clemente and one in 1979 at the helm of the “We Are Family” team. A seven-time All-Star, he shared the National League MVP with Keith Hernandez during the Family season and finished in the top three in voting for three straight years in the early 1970s, narrowly losing the ’73 crown to Pete Rose despite leading the league in home runs, doubles, RBIs, and the then-unknown OPS statistic.  Stargell was inducted into the Hall of Fame with 82.4 percent of the ballot in 1988, his first year of eligibility.

But whereas the rest of baseball looks at Stargell and sees a jovial man who loved the game and his teammates, the Flushing faithful see a smiling assassin. It should be thought of as no coincidence that Willie debuted during the same season the Mets were going 40-120: for the next two decades he would make every edition of the team, even the winners of ’69 and ’73, feel like an expansion squad. In 249 career appearances opposite New York, Stargell hit 60 home runs (roughly one-eighth of the 475 he belted in his career), drove in 182, slugged .576, and turned in a .942 OPS. In 1966 alone, he batted .420 with 10 homers and accumulated a 13-game OPS of 1.640. Simply put, when he was matched up against the Amazin’s, Willie Stargell was Amazin’.

Because of Pops’s volume of work against the Mets, we’re going to look at five dates in particular he personally delivered fans a simultaneous feeling of shock, awe, pain, and bitterness, but never disbelief.

April 17, 1964: Stargell was a thorn in the Mets’ side from the day they opened up Shea Stadium. He hit the first home run in stadium history, a second-inning solo shot off Jack Fisher, and scored the winning run off a Bill Mazeroski single in the top of the ninth, securing a 4-3 win for Bob Friend and the visitors (for Friend’s days of glory both for and against the Mets, follow this link).

September 20, 1970: With 12 games to go, the world champion Mets were looking to bridge a two-and-a-half game gap with the Pirates in the NL East. Tom Seaver was off his game, giving up five runs in just over five innings, but his team clawed its way back from a three-run deficit, scoring once in the sixth (a Ken Boswell home run) and twice in the seventh (RBI singles by Ron Swoboda and Bud Harrelson) to force extra innings. But Stargell took Tug McGraw deep to lead off the 10th, sucking the life out of Shea Stadium in the process. The go-ahead shot opened up the floodgates for a four-run Pittsburgh inning as they sunk Gil Hodges and company 9-5. The Mets would never recover from the blow, going 4-5 the rest of the way and fading into third place, six games out. The Pirates used Stargell’s clutch hit as a springboard, winning seven of their last 10 and finishing five games ahead of the Cubs to win the NL East before being swept by Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in the NLCS.

June 18, 2012; Flushing, NY, USA; New York Mets former pitcher Tom Seaver gestures in the dugout before the game against the Baltimore Orioles at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

July 28, 1972: Stargell again got the best of Seaver and McGraw on a day that saw Pittsburgh pad its lead over New York in an Eastern race that was getting less and less interesting with every game. Pops launched a solo home run off the Franchise in the fourth inning to make it 2-0. In the top of the seventh, he was on the finishing end of a rally-killing Ed Kranepool double play that would force the Mets to settle for one. In the bottom of the eighth, Stargell batted home an insurance run off McGraw to secure the complete-game victory for Dock Ellis, 3-1. The Pirates won their third straight NL East in convincing fashion, losing again to the Reds in the NLCS, while the Mets turned in their third straight bronze medal finish, 13.5 games out.

May 19, 1973: In the midst of his best statistical season, baseball’s “other” Willie looked to help jumpstart his slumping squad against his familiar foes, who now had their own Willie on roster. Willie Mays didn’t play in this game, but even at his advanced age (he turned 42 just 11 days before) he would have helped the Mets overcome their nemesis. Rusty Staub’s sixth-inning homer off Nelson Briles looked as if it would stand up for Jon Matlack, who tossed six scoreless innings before being relieved for Tug McGraw. But Bob Robertson’s blast to lead off the ninth forced extras, and after Stargell pounded a three-run moonshot in the top of the tenth to provide the final 4-1 margin, an intense feeling of déjà vu overcame Mets fans (and you, whose memory of September 20, 1970 is a little more fresh than theirs) who sensed another bitter finish behind the Bucs. Fortunately, that night proved to be the low point for New York in the season, as they rode a 13-5 record against Pittsburgh to the top of an ultracompetitive NL East, finishing two and a half games up on the Pirates in a race that saw the fifth-place Cubs land just five games back in the final standings. The Mets, of course, would win their second NL pennant in five seasons and narrowly lose the World Series to the Oakland A’s.

May 17, 1979: The two teams’ fortunes took drastically different turns over the next six years. The Pirates finished first or second for five straight seasons and were destined for greatness in 1979. The Mets, meanwhile, dropped into fifth place in 1974, and after recovering and taking bronze for the next two campaigns, the team finished in last place in 1977, their first cellar-dwelling in ten years, and again in 1978. Tom Seaver was long gone, as were most of the Mets who defined the team in the early part of the decade (even Ed Kranepool would retire by the end of ’79). While free agency had turned over the Pirates as well, Pops was still going strong, even at an age that gave new meaning to his nickname. In a game that embodied the spirit of what was old and what was new (and I’m not talking Massachusetts), New York overcame Stargell’s home run off Pete Falcone in the fourth to take a 5-4 lead into the bottom of the eighth. The visitors were in good shape after Jesse Orosco struck out the first two batters of the frame, but Orosco was in his third inning of relief and walked Bill Robinson to bring up…that man at first base. With one swing of the bat, Willie Stargell had his 60th (and final) career home run against the New York Mets, and his Pittsburgh Pirates had a 6-5 victory, one of their many thrilling finishes of the 1979 season. The eventual World Series MVP and his Family dominated the National League that year, winning 98 games and coming back from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Baltimore Orioles in the Fall Classic. Stargell’s longtime whipping boys finished as a mirror image, losing 99 games for a third straight last-place finish. The Mets would stay in the doldrums for four more seasons before Frank Cashen could build a winner.

Willie Stargell died on April 9, 2001, at the relatively young age of 61, but his memory in Pittsburgh (and New York for that matter) will not be forgotten, as on the very same day the Pirates dedicated a statue of him outside the brand-new PNC Park. Pops will long live in Mets folklore as the Harlem Globetrotter to their Washington General, always triumphing and making them look silly in the process. While his time on this earth was short, but one thing is certain: he’s hitting home runs off Tug McGraw in heaven as we speak, and once Tom Seaver joins them up there, Pops will do the same to him.

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