Diary of a long-suffering Pirates fan: Ah, the good old days. Revisiting little-known Willie Stargell facts

He stole some bases and even played some center field

Pittsburgh Pirates
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There is an iconic video of Willie Stargell attempting to call time out as he is about to be tagged out trying to steal second base. The play occurred on Sept. 19, 1978. Stargell, looking every bit of his 38 years old, was on the wrong end of a failed hit and run. There was a swing and a miss, and Stargell was hung out to dry. He slides feet-first about ten feet short of second base and then quickly pops up to his feet and attempts to call time out as one of the Cubs' infielders moves in to tag him out.

It's a funny video, and it speaks to the joy that Stargell played the game. But it also begets an image of Stargell as a loveable overweight power hitter who was slow of foot and not exactly a chiseled athlete. It also presents a stereotype of Stargell as a poor defender, because how could the person seen in that "timeout" video be a good fielder?

To be sure, Stargell was a large man. His 1979 Topps baseball card lists him as six-foot-two and weighing 229 pounds. The 229 pounds was perhaps kind.

But Stargell's rookie card lists him as six-foot-two and 188 pounds. In his younger days, he was indeed a physical presence—a chiseled athlete, if you will—at least by 1963 standards. But compared to the number of photos of "We Are Family" Willie Stargell, there are far fewer photos and even fewer videos of young Willie Stargell. And that's a shame.

Due to the preponderance of end-of-career photos of Stargell, the narrative of the chiseled, athletic Stargell is often lost. And it is hard to look at those photos of "We Are Family" Stargell and realize that even that guy—the slow overweight guy—was a competent fielder. And so here are a few surprising facts that you might not have known about arguably the Pirates' greatest first baseman of all time.

1. In 1979 Stargell's fielding percentage was .997. By comparison, the 1979 Gold Glove winner at first base, Keith Hernandez, had a fielding percentage of .995. I'm not suggesting that Stargell should have won the award (even in 1979, voters for the award recognized that fielding range should perhaps play a role in determining the best fielder), but it speaks to a higher level of fielding competence than Stargell is given credit for.

2. In 1981 and 1982, Stargell's fielding percentage was a perfect .1000. This statistic comes with an asterisk. In his final two years, Stargell was often injured and when not injured, he was primarily used as a pinch hitter. Thus he played in the field only a total of 17 games at first base in those final two years. Nonetheless, Willie Stargell did not commit an error in the final two years of his career.

3. Stargell's career fielding average at first base is a very respectible .991. For comparison purposes, Keith Hernandez, the owner of 11 Gold Gloves, was a career .994 fielder at first base.

4. In Stargell's first three seasons as a Pittsburgh Pirate, he played center field for eight games. His career fielding average as a center fielder is a perfect 1.000.

5. When you play in the same outfield as Roberto Clemente, it is easy for someone to overlook the fact that the left fielder had a cannon for an arm. But Stargell did have a great arm. In 1970, it was Stargell, and not Roberto Clemente, who led MLB in outfield assists. Stargell, the first baseman, is how many remember him. But he played most of his career in left field, where he accumulated a total of 102 outfield assists.

6. Speaking of the great one, Roberto Clemente occasionally needed a night off and/or had a stint on the disabled list. And so fans may have forgotten that in Stargell's early career, he was not only a left fielder, but sometimes the backup right fielder to Roberto Clemente. In his early career, Stargell played right field in 69 games. To be certain, there was perhaps a tad of a dropoff defensively when Stargell substituted for Clemente. Still, he did manage five outfield assists in his career from the right field position.

7. "We Are Family" Willie Stargell was slow of foot. Nobody can deny that. But the younger Willie Stargell was a bit more fleet of foot. By no means fast. But not exactly a clog on the basepaths either. In his career, Stargell stole 17 bases, going a perfect five-for-five in 1968. Nothing that would threaten Lou Brock or Maury Wills - the premier base stealers of that era, but it speaks to someone who is something more than a turtle on the basepaths. And Stargell's (ahem) speed showed up in two famous games in Pirates history:

8. On Sept. 20, 1969, Bob Moose threw a complete game no-hitter against the Amazin' New York Mets. The Mets, at the time, were closing in on winning the National League Eastern crown. So, this was hardly a September game played against bench players. The Pirates' first two runs were set up by a double steal. With first and second and one out, Dave Cash stole third base, and Stargell stole second. They would each come in to score on consecutive wild pitches. The Pirates would go on to win 4-0. While some would argue that the no-hitter itself is a rarity, so too was the Stargell stolen base. It was his only stolen base that year, and he would steal only six more bases in the entirety of his career.

9. Game 7 of the 1971 World Series. While most remember the heroics of Clemente and Blass in that series, what proved to be the winning run was scored by none other than Willie Stargell. In the top of the eighth, Stargell led off with a single. The following hitter, Jose Pagan, struck a double to left field, and Stargell scored from first base. The "We Are Family" Stargell would certainly not have made it around the bases on that double. But 1971 Stargell was more than fleet enough to score on the play. It provided an important insurance run at the time and proved to be the winning run of the game as the Pirates won the game, 2-1, and ultimately the World Series.

Willie Stargell is in the Hall of Fame. His calling card was his 475 home runs and his MVP awards in the 1979 regular season and World Series. That story is often told. But there was more to his game than just the homers. The point of this article was to point out a few of those lesser-known skills.