Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Happy Birthday Pops!

Born on this day in 1940... Wilver Dornel Stargell.

"If he asked us to jump off the Fort Pitt Bridge, we would ask him what kind of dive he wanted. That's how much respect we have for the man." 
- Pirate teammate Al Oliver

In April of 1971 the Phillies moved from old Connie Mack Stadium into their sparkling new home in south Philadelphia. The club was still very early in the rebuilding process that would eventually result in the 1980 world championship. But on June 25th 1971 the first place Pittsburgh Pirates had arrived at the Vet for a weekend series.

Jim Bunning was the Phillies starting pitcher and was on the downside of his hall-of-fame career. The Pirates scored three runs in the tops of the first inning, initiated by a Stargell RBI double. In the top of the second inning, Bunning's struggles continued as he had already given up home runs to shortstop Jackie Hernandez and third baseman Richie Hebner. Near the end of his rope, Bunning didn't want to give Stargell another fastball. Instead, catcher Tim McCarver called for an offspeed slider that Stargell crushed the longest and one of the most memorable home runs in Veterans Stadium history.

Bunning later stated it was "a high slider that I used to get Stargell out on, only I didn't throw it hard enough and didn't get it in. It got over the fat part of the plate. He couldn't hit it any further."

Larry Bowa was playing shortstop, but because of the overshift deployed against Stargell was playing on the right side of the infield added "That ball was still going up. As an infielder, when a guy hits one that you know is a home run, you give it a casual look. When he swung, you didn't take your eyes off it because you wanted to see where it was going. It was majestic. I couldn't believe how far that ball went. It would take me three swings to get one up there -- from second base."

Legend has it the ball is actually still flying, having only left a star in section 601 on its way into orbit. Willie Stargell was the last hitter Bunning would see that Friday night. Phillies manager Frank Lucchesi immediately went to the bullpen, replacing him with righthander Lowell Palmer. The Pirates won the game 14-4. Stargell would go on to win the NL HR crown. The Pirates would go on to win the World Series. Bunning would retire at the end of the season and the Phillies would lose 95 games.

Universally regarded as one of the best human beings in baseball, the Phillies had a special honor in store for Willie when made his final appearance at the Vet in September of 1982. The Phils, arch-rivals of his Pirates, had placed a star to hold the spot where the longest home run in stadium history was last seen before it ascended into orbit.

Willie died in 2001. The Phils mourned by painting the circle holding Willie's star in section 601 black. The star remained until the stadium's 2004 demolition.


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