Willie Stargell, renowned for his prodigious home runs and revered by his teammates as a leader in a Hall of Fame career that spanned 21 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, died of a stroke yesterday in Wilmington, N.C. He was 61.
Stargell had a long history of high blood pressure and also had a kidney disorder for several years. He died at the New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington.
An imposing figure at the plate -- 6 feet 3 inches and 225 pounds -- and an inspiration in a clubhouse where he forged unity across racial and ethnic lines, Stargell was the man known as Pops who brought a World Series championship to the 1979 Pirates team known as the Family.
He was a pre-eminent figure in Pittsburgh baseball history, alongside Honus Wagner, Pie Traynor, the Waner brothers, Ralph Kiner and his teammate Roberto Clemente.
Stargell hit 475 home runs, tying him with Stan Musial for 18th place on the career list, and he won the National League home run title in 1971 and '73. Playing the outfield and first base, he had a career batting average of .282, compiled 2,232 hits and drove in 1,540 runs. He shared the Most Valuable Player award in 1979 and was a part of two World Series-winning teams, and appeared in six League Championship Series and seven All-Star Games. When he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988, he was the 17th player chosen in his first year of eligibility.
He was a free swinger, standing No. 2 behind Reggie Jackson on the career list for strikeouts, with 1,936. Twirling his bat menacingly, then leaning into pitches out of a left-handed stance, Stargell often achieved spectacular results when he connected. He drove seven home runs over the right-field roof at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field, which was cleared only 18 times in 45 years. He hit four homers into the distant right-field upper deck at the Pirates' Three Rivers Stadium, and he was the first batter to hit a ball out of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles -- a drive of more than 470 feet -- then sent another one out.
Wilver Dornel Stargell (his first name combined the first syllables of his father's first name, William, and his mother's maiden name, Vernell) was born on March 6, 1940, in Earlsboro, Okla. He grew up in Alameda, Calif., and signed with the Pirates for a $1,500 bonus in 1959 after one year at Santa Rosa Junior College in California.
Playing for Pirates farm teams in Roswell, N.M., and San Angelo, Tex., he was stung by racism but never intimidated.
Stargell would recall the time he approached the entrance to a ballpark at Plainview, Tex., in his first professional season, and two men wearing trench coats approached him. One of them pulled out a revolver, uttered a racial epithet and said that if he played that day, ''I'm gonna blow your brains out.''
Stargell remembered: ''I was real scared. But by the time the rest of the team got there, I decided that if I was gonna die, I was gonna die doing exactly what I wanted to do. I had to play ball.''
After playing minor league ball for four years, he joined the Pirates at the end of the 1962 season.
Stargell, playing left field and establishing a presence as a power hitter, and Clemente, the future Hall of Famer in right field, provided a formidable twosome. But Stargell did not play on a pennant winner until 1971, when he led the National League in home runs, with 48, and drove in 125 runs. He scored the winning run in Game 7 of the Pirates' World Series victory over the Baltimore Orioles.
On the night of Dec. 31, 1972, Clemente was killed in a plane crash while delivering relief supplies from Puerto Rico to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. The Pirates' leadership role then fell to Stargell.
The Pirates had been aggressive through the 1960's in signing black and Latino players. Stargell's stature -- his imposing physical presence, his accomplishments on the field and his force of character -- provided a unifying presence.
It all came together on the 1979 team, which adopted the ''We Are Family'' slogan from the Sister Sledge song blaring through the clubhouse at Stargell's instigation.
''To keep factions from developing, you have to have someone that the blacks respect and the whites respect,'' infielder Phil Garner said, ''and the guy that puts that all together for us is Stargell.''
In his role as the Pirates' captain, Stargell dispensed cloth gold stars that his teammates wore on their black and gold caps for their accomplishments, and he cajoled and drove his teammates with humor and determination.
Playing first base, ailing knees having taken their toll, Stargell hit 32 home runs in 1979 in leading the Pirates to the pennant, then hit his third home run of the World Series in rallying Pittsburgh to a Game 7 victory over the Orioles, capping a comeback from a 3-1 series deficit. Stargell tied for the National League's M.V.P. honors with Keith Hernandez of the St. Louis Cardinals, and he was voted M.V.P. of the World Series as well.
Stargell saw only limited action after that because of injuries, then retired after the 1982 season.
In the 1980's, he served as a minor league instructor and a coach for the Pirates and a coach under Chuck Tanner, his former manager on the Pirates, when Tanner became the Atlanta Braves' manager.
Since February 1997, he had been an assistant to the Pirates' general manager, Cam Bonifay.
He is survived by his wife, the former Margaret Weller, of Wilmington, N.C.; his mother, Gladys Russell; four daughters, Wendy Stargell, Precious Stargell and Dawn More, all of Atlanta, and Kelli Stargell of Herndon, Va.; one son, Wilver Stargell Jr. of Atlanta; one sister, Sandrus Collier; and five grandchildren.
A 12-foot statue of Stargell was unveiled Saturday at the Pirates' new PNC Park, where they played their first regular-season game yesterday. The team retired his No. 8 at a ceremony in Three Rivers Stadium on Sept. 6, 1982. A few weeks later, as his career came to a close, he reflected on the camaraderie he had fostered.
''One of the reasons we've gotten along here,'' he said, ''is because I never felt that I should ever be a judge of someone. Everybody is somebody no matter what their nationality or religion. You have to work together. I could never go to bed at night thinking I misused someone. Before we put titles on anyone, we have to remember we're people.''