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Stargell's star a lasting tribute
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06/25/2003  3:32 PM ET 
Stargell's star a lasting tribute
Blast is marking point for all hitters
tickets for any Major League Baseball game
Willie Stargell hit 475 career home runs, but there's one that Phillies fans remember vividly. (Rusty Kennedy/AP)
PHILADELPHIA -- The brand-spanking new ballpark at the corner of Broad and Pattison was about to be christened on a humid Friday evening of June 25, 1971.

Three months into its inaugural season, the palace that was Veterans Stadium was the home to a last-place place team with a history of losing. The NL East-leading and eventual World Series champion Pirates had arrived for a four-game series.

Cleanup hitter Willie Stargell came in with 26 homers. No one would ever forget the slugger's 27th.

It was a star in the making.

After roughing up starter Jim Bunning -- who also opened the Vet on April 10 -- in the first, the Pirates continued their assault in the second. Having doubled his first time up, Bunning didn't want to give the future Hall-of-Famer another fastball to crush, so he and catcher Tim McCarver opted for the offspeed stuff.

The ball Stargell hit is still going, having left only a star in its place -- in section 601 -- to commemorate having been there.

"The Stargell Star was a high slider that I used to get Stargell out on, only I didn't throw it hard enough and didn't get it in," said Bunning, now a U.S. Senator from Kentucky. "It got over the fat part of the plate. He couldn't hit it any further."

Larry Bowa was the shortstop, but was stationed to the right of second base because of an overshift. He had never seen anything like it.

"That ball was still going up," he said. "As an infielder, when a guy hits one that you know is a home run, you give it a casual look. When he swung, you didn't take your eyes off it because you wanted to see where it was going. It was majestic.

"I couldn't believe how far that ball went. It would take me three swings to get one up there -- from second base."

To a teenager taking in a random game that summer, a shot like that can leave quite an impression. Such was the case for pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, a Father Judge High School student, who sat with friends in the 700-level behind home plate.

"It's all we talked about around the playground for the next few weeks," said Kerrigan, who went because Bunning was one of his favorite pitchers growing up. "The thing I remember most was the buzz and laughter in the stands. Two innings later, people couldn't believe a man could hit a ball as high as we were sitting."

Kerrigan, who attended about 30 games that season, also saw Kiteman's struggles and watched tightrope walker Karl Wallenda stroll across the stadium between games of a doubleheader. The Stargell home run stands above them.

Phillies third base coach John Vukovich was also in attendance that day, playing third base. Because of the shift, he was stationed near shortstop.

"I don't remember anything hit further," said Vukovich. "It didn't come down. He caught it in one of those windmill windups he had. I don't remember the details of that game (a 14-4 loss), but I remember the ball, 32 years later. It was a monster."

As it stands, the Stargell home run is the farthest hit at the Vet. Now in its 33rd and final season, the stadium has seen 90 balls visit the upper deck. And Stargell hit many deep home runs, including one off Woodie Fryman in Pittsburgh a few years earlier that Fryman said "had the star by a few feet."

But, thanks in part to Stargell's greatness and the adulation of him from around the league, this home run would become part of Veterans Stadium lore. When the 1979 World Series and NL MVP said he would retire after the 1982 season, and made his final appearance at the Vet in September, the Phillies unveiled a star to hold the spot where the home run had landed.

"I think it speaks for itself when an opposing player has his own star up there," said Vukovich.

A wooden plaque was hung with a black star with a yellow "S" in the middle painted on a yellow background. For nearly a decade the star hung without incident. It was stolen twice in June 1990, and returned each time. Finally the Phillies painted the spot directly onto the cement. When Stargell died on April 9, 2001, the background was changed from yellow to black.

The distance from home plate to that spot remains for fans to marvel at.

"Go up there sometime and look," said Bowa. "It's amazing."

So amazing that Bowa pointed it out to Jim Thome when the Phillies were recruiting him this winter, and said he could have 81 chances to hit it. Thome came close this season, going a section over and lower, then conceded, "that's pretty far."

Bunning, despite having served it up, wants his place in history cemented as well, and thus is rooting against Thome.

"I want to stay on the hook," Bunning said. "I've set records in Detroit for being the only pitcher to ever throw the ball over the roof in right and left field -- (Harmon) Killebrew and (Mickey) Mantle. I want the star to stand. What are they going to do in the new park? It will be over the roof."

And McCarver, who called the pitch and was in town recently for the Vet's final home opener, might agree.

"I was never so proud to call a home run," he said. "It was a slider that didn't slide. We were trying to go inside and didn't get there. Half the team was trying to figure out where it went instead of shaking his hand.

"There's a seat in SkyDome that's a different color because that's where Jose Canseco's landed. They do that in many parks. But the star isn't where the ball landed. It was where it was last seen."

And remembered.

Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.



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