MLB History: Willie Stargell’s Magical 1971 Season

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It was 50 years ago in Pittsburgh Pirates history that the team overcame the Baltimore Orioles in the fall classic. While the World Series was the showcase of Roberto Clemente‘s skills and leadership, the regular season in many ways belonged to Willie Stargell. His offensive season is one for the ages, worth reminiscing all these years later.

Stargell Shows up a New Man

While Willie had been a very productive player in the ’60s (including a 33 home run season in 1966 and several all-star appearances) and was still a dependable power bat in the lineup, something was missing from the equation to get him over the top. Willie undertook a new offseason training regimen of long walks and jogs daily. He arrived in camp 20 pounds lighter than the end of the 1970 season.

He was in the opening day lineup batting sixth, but that would change as it was apparent that Willie’s bat was supercharged. It was especially the case against the Atlanta Braves. Stargell had an April to remember with eleven home runs, eight of which were against the Braves and two three-home run efforts. He was named National League Player of the Month for the month of April.

Chicken on the Hill with Will!

While May was not as good as April, June was, as Willie cranked out another eleven home run month and again was the NL player of the month. He was carrying the team offensively while Clemente and Bill Mazeroski were the spiritual leaders who also led by example on the field. The Pirates were in control of the NL East, leading by nine games at the All-Star break. Willie continued to punish baseballs and by the end of July had 38 home runs on the season.

Knee trouble slows down progress

Stargell was dealing with knee pain all season and was advised to have surgery on it during the season. He refused, stating that he was a part of something special. The team hit a swoon in August, allowing the Saint Louis Cardinals to get within four games of the Bucs. But the team would return to their winning ways and clinch the division in September. Willie’s knee issues caused him to miss hitting 50 home runs, but his total of 48 is still among the all-time season highs in Pittsburgh Pirates history. Willie finished second in the most valuable player race to Joe Torre, who had a tremendous season for the Cardinals.

Post-season downs and ups

Willie Stargell’s postseason was not his shining moment. In the National League Championship Series against the San Francisco Giants, Stargell went 0-14. Thankfully, other teammates, most notably Bob Robertson, were able to pick up the slack. His World Series was not much better as he hit .208 with seven walks. It was Roberto Clemente’s time to shine, and his dominant performance cemented his legendary status. Stargell still played a key role in game seven, scoring the series winning run on a double by Jose Pagan.

This was the beginning of a dominant decade for Willie. He led the majors in home runs for the decade, was co-MVP of the National League in 1979, and was both the spiritual guide and leading man in the 1979 “We are Family” Pirate World Series Championship season. He was a force to be reckoned with, and it all began in 1971.

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