Frank Garland. Willie Stargell: A Life in Baseball. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2013. 263 pp. Paper, $29.95.
Garland follows Stargell's career from Willie's days as a baseball standout at Encinal High School in Alameda, California, to his last days as coach and consultant in the Pirates organization. Garland describes how baseball was the fiber of Stargell's life, and there were clear signs of that when Stargell was a youngster. Even before high school, Stargell was hinting at the mammoth power he would display in the major leagues. One high school teammate said Stargell was hitting a baseball more than four hundred feet by the time he was twelve years old.
Garland describes Stargell's evolution as a baseball player as seamless, with Stargell signing with the Pirates right out of high school. According to Garland, the biggest obstacles in Stargell's career were the same ones with which society as a whole was grappling. First among those for Stargell was the blatant racism he and other black players faced in the 196os and 19705. Garland notes that Stargell found it particularly difficult to accept racial segregation among players, especially for dining and lodging. Garland wrote that Stargell's upbringing in the racially mixed and open community of Alameda sheltered him to an extent from the harsh realities of racism. Stargell wasn't prepared for the treatment he had to endure in the minor and major leagues.
Garland claims that Stargell was able to rise above the prejudice as his leadership and athletic skills continued to blossom. In the 1970s, Stargell used those skills, Garland said, to bring a sense of calmness to the clubhouse and to transform a racially mixed Pirates team to a close-knit group of players. Thus, when manager Danny Murtaugh had an all-minority lineup in a September 1971 game against the Phillies, some Pirates players didn't notice or give much thought to the major leagues' first all-black starting nine. Al Oliver, for example, "was not even aware of the historic nature of the lineup until [Pirates third baseman Dave] Cash mentioned it to him in the third or fourth inning" (89). The 1979 team showcased Stargell's leadership on the club, and Garland devotes an entire chapter to that team. Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" became the emblematic song for a team that won the World Series and helped to net Stargell the MVP award for the Series and the season (although Keith Hernandez was named CO-MVP for that year).
Stargell, in his later years, became outspoken about the lack of African Americans in leadership positions in the Major League Baseball, and Garland said that his impact was also felt off the field. Garland touts Stargell as a champion for social justice and awareness not only in baseball but also in the community and the nation. For example, Stargell began his own foundation to raise money and public awareness to combat sickle-cell anemia and kidney disease. While the foundation raised almost si6o,000 after the Pirates' 1979 World Series championship, it folded in 1982, partly because it spent too much on administrative costs. Garland said that Stargell remained committed to fighting sickle-cell anemia and became a spokesman for the National Association for Sickle Cell Disease.
After Stargell retired in 1982 as a player, he worked for his former manager, Chuck Tanner, as a coach and followed Tanner to the Braves after Pittsburgh let Tanner go. While Stargell's coaching career is common knowledge, his career as a commercial pitchman and as an artist is less known, and Garland provides a detailed account of that period in his life. In 1983, Stargell embarked on a five-city tour with the Eastman Philharmonia from Rochester, New York. He provided narration for a classical work written by a University of Rochester faculty member about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. Garland claims that Stargell's performances won critical acclaim. Stargell was also adept at endorsing products. "Just as Stargell was able to bring all races and creeds together in a clubhouse to create a family atmosphere, he seemed able to transcend boundaries in the area of product promotion and endorsements--lending his name to everything from low-income natural gas grants to plush coats for a downtown furrier" (178).
While Garland devotes chapters to Stargell's litany of titanic home runs and to his election to the Hall of Fame, the praise the author heaps on Stargell is expected but sometimes too much. Garland not only lauds Stargell for his accomplishments; he burnishes them. Garland portrays Stargell as a mixture of Paul Bunyon and Superman without a cape; and although some of Stargell's batting feats were arguably superhuman, the hyperbole, at times, gets stale. Garland exposes some of Stargell's warts, such as fathering children out of wedlock and allegedly asking to be paid for his appearance at a Willie Stargell Night at Three Rivers Stadium, which caused a fallout with the Pirates, who then scrapped their plans for the event. But Garland seems apologetic when discussing Stargell's domestic problems and his alienation from the Pirates.
Still, Garland's research is thorough and the book is well sourced. The book is also better organized and easier reading than Stargell's autobiography (1984), which he penned with Tom Bird. For Stargell devotees, Garland's book is worth the money and time.
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|Title Annotation:||BOOK REVIEWS|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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