Trick-or-Treating at Willie Stargell’s House in 1979
Thirty-eight years ago today I became a sports fan.
The year was 1979. I was eight years old. My mother, who had just earned her PhD from Bryn Mawr College, got her first post-graduate position as a “Mellon Fellow” at the University of Pittsburgh and we moved to Pittsburgh in late summer.
Frankly, I didn’t know anything about sports before I moved to Pittsburgh. But the month before a new friend just down Gettysburg Street, Jamie Purnell, took me to my first baseball game (Sept. 29, 1979- Cubs 7, Pirates 6). It was here I learned what a ball was, as in “four balls gets you a walk.”
But a month later on Halloween of 1979, I became indoctrinated to sports celebrity.
Coming home from school I decided I was going to make a costume, in my case putting three boxes together and saying I was a car (bulkiest costume ever), while my friend Jamie Purnell went as Pirates shortstop Tim Foli, complete with stenciled mustache.
Some of my east Tennessee listeners may remember Foli as a member of the 1968 Marion Mets (he had been the first pick in the Amateur Free Agent Draft that year) or even the Kingsport Mets’ manager. But in 1979 Foli was a steady rock for the Bucs, never striking out in the last two months of play, helping “The Lumber Company” win the World Series just two weeks before.
Besides, he was Jamie’s favorite player.
But the talk on Halloween afternoon after school on Gettysburg Street focused on another Pirate; who was going to go trick or treating to Willie Stargell’s house?
After all, Stargell had just won Game 7 of the World Series with a dramatic home run and lived in the same Point Breeze neighborhood we did.
Consider the time and the age of wonder. Stargell was, at this time, the most popular athlete in America. To discuss trick-or-treating at Willie Stargell’s house in 1979 would be like kids talking about trick-or-treating Tom Brady’s or LeBron James’ house today.
Only they wouldn’t have the opportunity to do that today. Brady isn’t even a Massachusetts resident, and James’ palatial Akron estate is gated.
It wasn’t that Stargell just won the World Series with a home run, it was that he had just hit more home runs than any other player in the decade. It was that Stargell became the only player in history, to this day, to win Most Valuable Player Awards for the regular season, the League Championship Series, and the World Series in the same year.
He was The Sporting News’ “Man of the Year.” He was Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year,” though technically he shared that honor with Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw. And for that matter Stargell shared his Most Valuable Player award in the National League with Keith Hernandez, too.
But somehow sharing just seemed to be the Stargell way. For he had won these awards for his gentlemanly nature and leadership abilities as much, if not moreso, as his performance on the field.
No team was ever more happily charismatic as the Pirates were that year. The Pirates were called “The Family,” earning the nickname after team captain Stargell chose Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” to be the Bucs’ anthem after he heard it played on the Three Rivers Stadium public address system during a rain delay as it soared to №3 on the charts in 1979.
Stargell chose it because, as Erwin, Tennessee native Ed Whitson, a member of The Family who won two games for the Pirates before being traded (incidentally, Pittsburgh made the playoffs by two games in 1979), once told me, the ’79 Pirates were the closest team he had ever been a part of.
But the song went beyond just a rallying cry to a team. It truly extended to all of the city the Pirates played in. In its time, “We Are Family” became as identifiable to Pittsburgh as “Rocky Top” is to east Tennessee.
A United Way spot that would run for years into the next decade featuring Steelers owner Art Rooney identified Pittsburgh as “a big family.” We even learned the song in music class at Linden Elementary School, which meant perhaps for the first time in history an elementary school music class actually taught a popular song of the day instead of some sort of tripe like “Seventy-Six Trombones” an idiotic school board actually thought youth wouldn’t tune out.
Stargell made MUSIC CLASS COOL!!!!!
And now, all the collected youth of Gettysburg Street could talk about was what he was going to give away at his door on Halloween! Candy? Baseballs? Autographs? Autographed balls? Stargell Stars, the little gold cloth stars he gave his teammates to put on their caps for achievements similar to how a football team puts stickers on their helmets?
Unfortunately, Jamie’s parents wouldn’t let him go trick-or-treating off Gettysburg Street to venture the three and a half blocks to Stargell’s house. And since I was trick-or-treating with Jamie, I never got the opportunity. There was a really cool person at a house towards the bottom of Gettysburg Street who invited us inside his home to put nickels into his candy machine that released its prize of a Reece’s Cup to me, but that just doesn’t have the historic significance of trick-or-treating at Willie Stargell’s house in 1979.
We did get reports the next day from our friend Darwin Godwin who ventured to 126 Conover Road that while candy was distributed by the Stargell home, he was not the one at the door. Years later, Stargell’s widow Delores told me that as a Jehovah’s Witness she didn’t really want to celebrate Halloween full force, but the family did understand the importance of giving candy to the neighborhood children. My guess is Willie Stargell was spending time with his family. In hindsight, one can see that if it was Stargell passing out candy bars at his home in Pittsburgh two weeks after winning the World Series, there could have been a mob scene.
Regardless, I was inspired. I spent the entire summer of 1980 buying baseball cards at Reynolds Market trying unsuccessfully to get a Willie Stargell card. And unfortunately by the following Halloween, my mother and I had moved away from Pittsburgh as she had become a full fledged college professor at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania.
Now dressed as Han Solo, my trick-or-treating allowed me to receive one final pack of baseball cards in 1980. And in that pack was a Willie Stargell.
To this day, I keep the autographed Willie Stargell baseball card from my only meeting with him in my wallet.