Discover more from JoeBlogs
Introducing: The Willie Stargell Award
OK, I want to introduce a new award — and I kind of have to admit that, immodestly, I think it’s a pretty inspired idea (so much so that I’m making this a free post). But before we do that, yes, WHY WE LOVE BASEBALL comes out in exactly one week, and I’m going to give you some book updates, and as always, feel free to jump ahead.
First off: Being one week out means you have one week left to preorder the book and get the bonus content. I literally just put together the content — three essays, more than 5,000 words, lots of emotion and typos and joy. The essays are tentatively titled: “Large Lenny’s Perfect Game;” “Schur on the Greatest Performance Ever” and “Baseball and Football.” And it’s free when you preorder the book from anywhere and sign up here:
I know I’ve heard from a few of you who would like to attend the fun event in Newport, R.I., with Alex Edelman on Sept. 6, but you already preordered the book and don’t want to buy another one. Well, the good folks at Charter Books get it. They have added an option to buy tickets without the book.
Many of you have asked if we can record some of these events as PosCasts. I’m still hearing back about that, but I will tell you that the Sept. 7 event in St. Louis with Gerald Early will be live-streamed, and you can purchase a live-stream ticket here. Of course, if you’re anywhere around St. Louis, I’d love to see you live — plus, Fredbird is going to be there.
I’m in Kansas City now, doing a bunch of interviews and pre-book stuff. I’m also signing books at Rainy Day and, even more to the point, adding a little random inscription to each of them (and you can buy a randomly inscribed book here). I’m trying to have some fun with these randoms — so some will say stuff like: “Magic # 2795 — Nolan Ryan walks” or “Magic # 2295 — Rickey’s runs.” I’m pretty much 100% certain, by the way, that I have mixed up these two numbers on numerous occasions, so there’s a decent chance you could get an “error book,” which is, of course, worth way more. If you get an error book, by the way, you can email me, and I’ll send you a little gift.
Tickets for events are going fast at pretty much every stop … and this is especially true in Kansas City on Sept. 8, when Mike Schur and I will be talking meaninglessness at the beautiful 1,200-seat Unity Temple on the Plaza. I’m told we have an outside shot of actually selling the place out, which is mind-boggling, and so incredible, and I can promise that we’re going to have a good time. It’s going to be a special night.
Let’s start here: In 1979, there was a tie for the National League MVP. One of the winners was St. Louis’ Keith Hernandez, who had a pretty classical 1970s-style MVP season. He hit .344, he led the league in runs, he drove in 100 runs, he won the Gold Glove (and was particularly fantastic defensively) and so on.
It’s true that Hernandez hit only 11 home runs, which feels light these days. It has been 22 years since a non-pitcher won the MVP with that few home runs (Ichiro had 8 in 2001). But in the 1970s and into the 1980s, you didn’t have to hit a whole bunch of home runs to be the MVP. In 1973, Pete Rose hit just five. In 1977, Rod Carew hit 14. Willie McGee hit 10 in 1985. Hernandez won the batting title AND drove in 100 runs, which at the time were regarded as the two best things a hitter could do. So you could certainly get why he was voted MVP.
But, as mentioned, Hernandez was one of two winners that year.
The other winner did not have a classic MVP resume. He started only 113 games. He hit .281 with 32 homers and 82 RBIs. He, like Hernandez, played first base, but not with great distinction. While Hernandez was worth seven or eight wins above replacement, this player was worth maybe two or three.
So why did this other player tie Keith Hernandez for the MVP that year?
Because, see, Pops Stargell was worth everything to the 1979 Pirates … or, anyway, that was the way the story went. It was a purely emotional pick.
As you will see: I’m not saying that in a negative way. This whole post is about emotion. But we have to start from a place of honesty.
Hey, if you feel like it, I’d love if you’d share this post with your friends!
Those Pirates got off to a dreadful start and were in sixth place entering May. They were still hovering around .500 in mid-June — this, by the way, despite the fact that Stargell was crushing the ball. On June 14, Pittsburgh was 28-28. Stargell was hitting .313/.365/.604 with 11 homers in 34 starts.
The Pirates were still utterly mediocre and in fourth place when they split a doubleheader in Cincinnati. And then — they caught fire. They won 12 of their next 13, including nine in a row, to pull within a game of first place (their one loss, by the way, was on a Friday the 13th).
Stargell played in only seven of those 12 wins and hit just .267. But he hit four home runs:
One off J.R. Richard in Houston to break a 1-1 tie.
One the next day off a Joe Niekro knuckleball to tie the game.
One in Atlanta with the Pirates up 2-1.
One at home against Houston in the third inning with the score tied.
Stargell was 39 that year and already a legendary player — he came into the season with 429 home runs, two home run titles and three top-three MVP finishes. He was admired throughout baseball as one of the game’s great leaders. So while those home runs were not necessarily the most dramatic, a story was beginning to build around Stargell: He was the guy leading this Pirates team that, since Clemente’s passing, had been unable to break through.
And then the team and city adopted the “We Are Family” song and theme, and Stargell, after all, was Pops, and it was all leading to the thrilling conclusion.
Stargell hit just three home runs in the next month, two of them in losing causes. But on Sept. 1, he hit two home runs to bring the Pirates back from a 3-0 deficit against the Giants. That put the Pirates up 3 1/2 games over Montreal. They actually played pretty well for the next two weeks, but the Expos played out of their minds, winning 10 in a row, and then, after a loss, winning seven more in a row, the last two on walk-off hits. Suddenly, the Pirates and Expos were tied for the division lead.
The Pirates trailed by a half-game going into their key, four-game series against the Expos. They took three of four from the Expos and, basically, put the division on ice. And how did Stargell play in those four games? Well, he hit .188 — three for 16. But in one of the Pirates’ victories, he hit two home runs, the second one sparking the loudest and longest ovation of the season.
“Willie Stargell is more than just a part of the pennant race for the Pirates,” wrote a Newsday writer. “He’s still the one they are counting on to drive in the important run and to steady them when they are losing their composure.”
“He strikes fear into you,” Expos manager Dick Williams said.
“His teammates marvel,” wrote the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Pops is forever young.”
Willie Stargell did not, in any obvious numerical way, lead the Pirates to their division title. In the second half, while the Pirates were battling the Expos, he hit just .256 and did not slug .500. But he hit a few memorable shots. And his story was SO good. And his unspoken value was so high. And he was the co-MVP.
Just a reminder that Joe Blogs is a reader-supported newsletter, and I’d love and appreciate your support.
Again, let me be clear here: I don’t say any of this to diminish Stargell’s season or his performance. Quite the opposite. I say it because there’s something legendary about Stargell’s year and his MVP award. I think a lot of people like it. I think a lot of people want the Most Valuable Player award to be about more than numbers and, weirdly, more than “value.” They want it to tell a story, and it isn’t even that important if the story is entirely true.
This isn’t going to happen to the MVP award, though. That battle has been decided. The MVP now and probably forever will go to the best player, with the difference between “best” and “most valuable” having been obliterated. I readily admit I’m one of the people who helped obliterate it. I think the MVP should go to the best player, regardless of story or narrative or team success, and that’s pretty much how the majority now feels.
If the 1979 MVP race were voted on in 2023, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the MVP would have been Dave Winfield, who was the best player in the league, who hit .308/.395/.558 with 27 doubles, 10 triples, 34 homers, and a league-leading 118 RBIs and won a Gold Glove. He was robbed.
BUT that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be a special award for inspirational, breathtaking and quote-unquote “important” players. I’m all for giving out an old-fashioned MVP award that takes into account team success, clutch performance and so on — I just don’t think it should be called the MVP award.
I think it should be called the Willie Stargell Award.
My one problem with the Willie Stargell Award is putting into words what it is. I like how the Buck O’Neil Award is basically given to people whose “character, integrity and dignity are comparable to the qualities exhibited by O'Neil.”
So I guess I would want to give the Willie Stargell Award to a player whose “leadership, presence and ability to rise to the moment are comparable to the qualities exhibited by Willie Stargell in 1979.”
I have some early nominees for the Willie Stargell Award in 2023 (understanding that September is obviously the most important month for this award):
The American League MVP will be Shohei. The Stargell nominees so far:
Julio Rodriguez, Mariners
Adley Rutschman, Orioles
Corey Seager, Rangers
Marcus Semien, Rangers
Kyle Tucker, Astros
Sonny Gray, Twins
Gunnar Henderson, Orioles
The National League MVP is all kinds of wide open, with Ronald Acuña Jr., Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and Matt Olson having crazy great years. My Stargell nominees include all four of them:
Mookie Betts, Dodgers
Ronald Acuña Jr., Braves
Freddie Freeman, Dodgers
Matt Olson, Braves
Cody Bellinger, Cubs
Bryce Harper, Phillies
Christian Yelich, Brewers
Corbin Carroll, Diamondbacks
Logan Webb, Giants
All of this is just a first pitch … but I have to say that I really like it. If you agree and like the Willie Stargell Award, let me know, we’ll work to enhance it, keep up with it for the rest of the season and award it when the season ends. I’ll bring it up to MLB and the Baseball Writers Association. I think we could have as much — or more — fun talking and arguing about the Stargell as we do the MVP.