Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Photo of the Day: Pittsburgh’s ‘Pops’

Willie Stargell, inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame 25 years ago today, died of complications from a stroke on the day this statue was unveiled back in 2001. How sad: the cheerful patriarch of the Pittsburgh Pirate clubhouse might have smiled at this 12-ft. representation, made up of seven oversize, welded-together pieces: arms, legs, torso, head and—oh, brother—that bat, a 35-ounce “Big Stick” special that, when whipped around, became a weapon of force and mayhem that shriveled the hearts of opposing pitchers.

Visiting PNC Park earlier this month, I snapped this statue of the slugger outside the entrance to left field, his position when the Bucs occupied Forbes Field and Three Rivers Stadium. The head-on shots I took caught Stargell as a larger-than-life bronze presence, but the light at that time of the day meant that his expression—or any identifiable facial feature—was invisible.

While that problem was solved by the angle from which I took this image, I would have preferred photographing him from behind, where you can see the number 8 in relief on the back of his uniform, his hair curling out from his cap, and the muscles on his tendons stretching and bulging. In the moment you register this last image, you know instantly why Stargell hit 475 home runs, and why some of his round-trippers not only cleared the fences but were tape-measure jobs that were the longest ever hit in those stadiums.

You’d never know it from this work from local sculptor Susan Wagner, but the intimidating lefthanded batter here, a vision of torqued terror, felt the deepest of passions for his adopted city, as evidenced by his Hall of Fame induction speech (an addressed delivered extemporaneously when Stargell realized his carefully prepared one didn’t convey what he wanted to say):

“My greatest honor was the moment that I arrived in Pittsburgh and put in what I thought was the most grandest exhibition of how a city can open its arms to any one individual. I came in through the Fort Pitt tunnels and it was most beautiful thing that I had ever observed. Pittsburgh didn’t know an awful lot about me but I certainly knew an awful lot about Pittsburgh. I knew there was a tradition, a very proud tradition. It wasn’t a fancy place because the people are real. If you went out and did what was expected of you, you could win the admiration of that city, and all it is is hard work doing what you had to do and helping a fellow man. I learned an awful lot in Pittsburgh. I learned some things that probably no learning institution that I could have attended that I could have learned anywhere else but the city of Pittsburgh.”

The city fully returned the embrace of “Pops” for giving it six National League East Division titles, two National League championships and two World Series in 1971 and 1979.

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