Some complain that baseball moves at a glacial pace, and yet the game’s fortunes are as fleeting as an ice cream cone at the All-Star Game in July.
Take the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates.
There at the end of a decade that began with division titles and a World Series championship (1971), the Bucs were still threats to win the National League East every season, but things were different.
They lost Roberto Clemente to a tragic plane crash on New Year’s Eve in 1972.
The cross-state Philadelphia Phillies had stolen much of the limelight with three straight division crowns from 1976-78.
And, while the Pirates had some young, exciting players, the heart and soul of their team was getting old and declining fast.
Yet, somehow, 39-year-old Willie Stargell managed to play 126 games that summer of 1979, his most since 1974, and he cranked out 32 home runs — he hadn’t seen 30 since 1973 (when he led the NL with 44).
The Bucs rallied behind their leader, anointing him “Pops,” head of the “We Are Family” family.
You know the rest … Pittsburgh won the East, swept the Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS, and then squeaked past the Baltimore Orioles in a classic seven-game World Series.
Stargell was there all along the way, the hub of a storybook team, and for his efforts, he was named co-MVP of the National League, an honor he shared with St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Keith Hernandez.
Pops and his Family were on top of the world.
Ah, but those baseball fates … they change quickly, remember?
In 1980, Stargell managed to play just 67 games, and the Pirates stumbled to third in the NL East. Had he played for an American League team, Pops might have slid into the DH slot, but Pittsburgh was NL all the way.
And so, Stargell dragged his big frame out onto the field to man first base whenever he was in the lineup, giving hometown fans a little extra time to ogle their hero. Had you attended a Pirates game that season — or, the right Pirates game, at least, one where Pops played — you might have been treated to a sight like the one on his 1981 Donruss card.
Find Willie Stargell cards on eBay (affiliate link)
Find Willie Stargell cards on Amazon (affiliate link)
That was a rare sight, indeed, the year collectors were pulling that pasteboard from the first-ever Donruss wax packs, though, as Stargell managed just 38 appearances in the strike-torn 1981 season, and just nine of those included time at first.
The rest were dedicated to pinch-hitting duties.
It was more of the same in 1982, when Pops garnered 66 pinch-hit opportunities and took the field just eight times.
The Pirates went 84-78 that summer but slid to fourth place in the East, and when the season was don, so was Stargell.
The next year, baseball went on, of course, with the Phillies winning the NL pennant and the Pirates staying in loose contention most of the season. But the old team was gone or dying, and the drug scandal that rocked franchise and baseball was just heating up.
In 1984, Dave Parker left Pittsburgh to sign with Reds as a free agent.
New stars entered the arena all across the game.
In Pittsburgh, a new generation of hope emerged as the decade cleared its halfway point, riding on the shoulders of youngsters like Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds, Doug Drabek, and — yes — Benny Distefano.
You didn’t hear much about Willie Stargell, unless you were a Pirates fan, and an old-school Pirates fan at that.
But then, one morning in January of 1988, while we were all still marveling at the incredible 1987 World Series between the Cardinals and Minnesota Twins, the baseball world suddenly realized that five long years had passed.
Pops had been gone from the game a long time.
Long enough, in fact, for his name to appear on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time. And so it did.
Stargell’s election was no slam dunk, but when all the votes were tallied, he had appeared on better than 82% of the ballots, making him a Hall of Famer on the first time.
Baseball had brought back one of its favorite sons, one of its favorite Pops, as the game is wont to do, and it gave 1988 a distinctive 1979 flavor as we marched toward induction day at Cooperstown in July.
And after the big day, baseball cards had to have their say in the whole Stargell nostalgia business, too, because … well, that’s what baseball cards do.
They won’t let the nostalgia die.
So the next summer, in 1989, Kahn’s and Hillshire Farms teamed up to issue an 11-card Cooperstown Collection that was available through a mail-in offer and featured guys like Carl Yastrzemski, Cool Papa Bell, Lou Brock … and Willie Stargell.
Each card featured a painting/drawing of the player, apparently based off images from older baseball cards.
In Stargell’s case, that meant a resurrecting his 1981 Donruss appearance, the one that gave us one last look at the man standing out there in the field, crouched, ready for the play to unfold.
Except, in baseball, there never really is a last, is there? It all moves slowly … it all fades fast … and yet, it all comes back to us, sometimes when we least expect it.
Those 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates were a storybook team, and the tale ended happy, with a flag …
This flag is for sale on eBay, and it’s autographed on the back by Pops himself.
And, the seller says, this is the actual flag that flew in Three Rivers Stadium in 1980.
Check out the full listing right here (affiliate link).