Looking back 60 years, the 1960 Grand Forks Chiefs assembled one of the most interesting baseball teams in Northern League history. Although the team finished with an unimpressive 61-62 record, which was better than they had achieved since 1954, it did turn out a roster of players who would become successful in athletics.
This team produced seven MLB players, a major league manager, five major league coaches, two members of the NFL, a professional basketball player, and one of the greatest sluggers to ever don a major league uniform. That slugger was 20-year-old Willie Stargell, who was in his second season of professional baseball. However, his season at Grand Forks gave no indication of the kind of player he would later become because, in 107 games, he hit only 11 home runs and batted .270.
Through determination and hard work, Stargell dramatically improved and spent 21 years with the Pittsburgh Pirates, leading his team to six division titles and two world championships. Because of his accomplishments, he was not only enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but, in 1981, a 12-foot statue of him was unveiled outside of the Pirates stadium, where it still stands today.
Wilver “Willie” Dornell Stargell was born March 6, 1940, in Earlsboro, Okla., to William Stargell and Gladys Vernell Hunt, who was one-quarter Seminole Indian. Shortly before Wilver was born, his father abandoned Gladys, who was only 17 years old, and she and her son were taken in by Wil Stargell, Wilver’s paternal grandfather.
On Feb. 2, 1943, Gladys married Leslie Buck, a soldier involved in World War II. Since he was stationed in California, Gladys and Wilver moved to Alameda, where she found temporary work as a cleaning lady. Shortly after Buck’s discharge in 1945, he and Gladys divorced.
In 1946, Gladys married Percy Russell, and a short time later they were visited by Lucy, Gladys’ older sister. Lucy lived in Orlando, Fla., and offered to take Wilver back home with her temporarily until the Russells became financially stable.
Life with Lucy was not easy for the youngster because she had him doing all kinds of chores, and if they were not completed, he was punished. Wilver later said, “Spanking became a permanent part of my late afternoon routine.” It was not until six years later that Gladys was able to travel to Orlando to pick up her son and take him back to Alameda.
Wilver, his mom and stepfather lived in a one-room, low-income housing neighborhood called the Encinal Project. Their neighbors were made up of many different races and ethnic groups, and since they “were (all) in the same boat” economically, there was very little racial tension.
The boy who delivered newspapers to the Russell household was Curt Motton, who was the same age as Wilver, and the two youngsters became good friends. Since they both loved baseball, they often gathered together other young boys with them and played pickup games.
Wilver entered Encinal High School along with Motton where they became classmates with Tommy Harper and Robert Earl Davis, and the four of them played together on the high school baseball team. Wilver considered Davis the best athlete, and most people agreed that Harper and Motton were better ballplayers than Wilver. Both Harper and Motton ended up having very good careers in the major leagues, and Davis became known as the father of Robert Earl Davis Jr., a noted hip-hop disc jockey whose moniker was DJ Screw.
In 1957, the Pirates hired Bob Zuk as a full-time scout, and his primary territory became the San Francisco-Oakland Bay area. Zuk received a tip to check out an “awkward left-handed-hitting black kid from Oakland who didn’t look pretty, but had tremendous raw power.” That kid was Wilver Stargell. After Zuk watched him, he later commented, “He (Stargell) had a real good swing, but he didn’t make good contact... He couldn’t throw worth a lick. He showed me no physical ability at all.”
However, there was something about this youngster that heightened the scout’s interest. Zuk said, “He did show me something special. All the kids liked him. Everybody would help him. He had this tremendous charisma.” He found that Stargell had a positive attitude, was a tireless worker who always tried to improve, was focused and was eager to take advice to achieve that improvement.
In August 1958, Stargell signed a contract with the Pirates, but since he was 5 feet, 11 inches tall and only weighed 170 pounds, Zuk wanted him to bulk up a bit before he started playing baseball for the Pirates. In the spring of 1959, Stargell attended the Pirates’ training camp in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., and, for the first time, witnessed racial discrimination.
For Stargell, it “was a real eye-opener.” He could not eat in restaurants with his white teammates and lived in a sweltering tin hut because the hotels would not allow blacks to stay in their facilities. Despite all of this, Stargell never complained and remained externally cheerful, but inside it had to hurt him very much. He kept telling himself, “stay focused on your goal to become a good ballplayer.” He would not allow himself to become bitter because it would adversely affect his attitude.
Stargell trained as a first baseman and started the regular season at San Angelo, Texas, in the Sophomore League. When playing road games, he was unable to stay in hotels, so he had to find living quarters wherever he could, and usually it was with an African American family who was willing to let him stay with them for a few nights.
The ultimate racial incident happened prior to a game in Plainview, Texas. Stargell saw two men in trench coats standing near the gate to the clubhouse. As he neared them, one of the men opened his coat, pulled out a rifle, and placed the barrel in the middle of Stargell’s forehead and said, “...if you play tonight, I’m going to blow your brains out.”
Stargell was badly shaken, but he became resolved to play the game he loved. He later said, “If I was gonna die, I was gonna die doing exactly what I wanted to do. I had to play ball.” He concluded by saying that the incident helped to sharpen his competitive urge. “Nothing could be insurmountable when your life is threatened, it forces you to take a stand.”
Midway through the season, the franchise was moved from San Angelo to Hobbs, N.M., where the racial situation improved only slightly. When the season ended, the franchise finished in last place, and Stargell had played in 118 games and batted .274. He had seven home runs and drove in 87 runs, but he lacked plate discipline, striking out 100 times while walking only 23 times. Stargell knew he needed to improve and was willing to put in the work to become a better ballplayer.
We will continue the story of Willie Stargell next week.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at email@example.com.