The quest to find the greatest Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman of the past 50 years is a lot like an episode of Perry Mason or a Harlem Globetrotters game: You already know who is going to win. Willie Stargell crushed 475 home runs in a pitching-dominated era. More on the obvious No. 1 later. For now, let’s see who is competing for the second-best first baseman to wear a Pirates uniform in the past half-century.
10. Gary Redus edged out John Milner for the 10th spot. That’s what Milner gets for snitching on Stargell in the infamous Pittsburgh drug trials. If we made a list of biggest Pirates snitches, Milner would come in second, behind Dale Berra. Redus was a solid but unspectacular player. A good guy to have on a good team (1988-1992), Redus finished second in stolen bases among his peers and was fourth best defensively.
9. The Pirates did everything they could to make Adam LaRoche feel comfortable, including bringing his even less-talented brother on board. Adam was one of those players who was good everywhere he played except for Pittsburgh. His numbers added up eventually, but he started off every year in a three-month slump. Once the Bucs were a comfortable 36 games out of first, he started compiling some solid numbers. He seemed like a good idea at the time.
8. Sid Bream’s name is an instant buzzkill. Sure, we hate him for “The Slide,” but he loves this town so much that he actually lives in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The lumbering first bagger was the best fielder on the list and we’ll just leave it at that.
7. “Bob Robertson can hit a ball out of any park, including Yellowstone,” is how Pirates announcer Bob Prince characterized the “Mount Savage Strong Boy.” Robertson started his career on fire, hitting in a lineup of megastars. His star quickly faded after the 1971 World Series, but his good years were still better overall than Bream’s or LaRoche’s.
6. Garrett Jones had the non-difficult task of taking over first base from Eric Hinske. G.I. Jones responded by hitting exactly 100 home runs as a Pirate. The first four years he was here, his team was 107 games below .500 (270-377). “Consistently serviceable” might have been the best way to describe him; in those days, that was certainly good enough. Jones is still making that yen, though, as a member of the Yomiuri Giants, in Japan. Instead of hating the Cardinals, Garrett now probably hates the Nippon Ham Fighters.
5. Craig Wilson wasn’t even the most popular guy named Wilson when he played here. An ultimate team player, Craig led the league in getting hit by pitches twice. In 2004, he took 30 major-league fastballs to his body just to get somebody on base. Somehow, he wound up spending a lot of time on the disabled list, but still put up some solid numbers. He had 94 round-trippers for the Bucs that went virtually unnoticed. He even tied a major-league record by hitting seven pinch home runs in a season.
4. Jason Thompson had the underutilized nickname of “Roof Top,” a reference to his early days of knocking pitches onto the roof of old Tiger Stadium. While Garrett Jones replaced Eric Hinske, Thompson had to replace Rod Carew on the California Angels. The Angels then traded him to the Pirates, where he was asked to replace Willie Stargell. In 1982, Thompson hit .284 with 101 RBI and 100 walks, becoming only the third Pirates player to hit triple digits in those two categories in a season. His career was spent in the wrong place at the wrong time. Late in his career he went to Montreal, but lost his starting job to an emerging star named Andres Galarraga. Still, a very respectable major-league run.
3. Orlando Merced had the highest batting average of all Pirates first baseman and the second highest wins above replacement level (WAR). In seven years at Three Rivers, Merced twice hit .300 or better. He also contributed above-average defense and knocked in almost 400 runners during his time here. Merced played for six other teams in his career, but was the anti-Adam LaRoche in that his best years were with the Pirates.
2. Kevin Young is the real winner here, since it’s unfair for anyone to be compared to Willie Stargell. Young was one of those guys who you didn’t realize how good they were until they were gone. KY was the swiftest of the first basemen, compiling 80 stolen bases with the Buccos. His best season was 1999, when he hit .298 with 26 homers and drove in 106 runs. The Pirates haven’t had a first baseman that good since.
1. Hall of Fame, a retired number and a statue still aren’t enough of a tribute to the great Willie Stargell. Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles, Olympic Stadium in Montreal and Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia all had seats marked where Stargell hit a mammoth home run. Testaments to his slugging prowess dotted the North American baseball landscape. In the on-deck circle, some players would swing two or three bats to make the real bat seem lighter; other players preferred adding the weighted “donut.” Willie used a freakin’ sledgehammer. Willie gripped the knob of the bat for more leverage before going into that familiar batting stance. That windmill bat motion was copied on every baseball, softball and Wiffle Ball field in Western Pennsylvania. There just aren’t enough superlatives to describe how good he was. Plus, these accolades are just as a first baseman when his career was winding down. In a future article, Willie will also make an appearance on the list of the greatest Pirates outfielders. The best quote about Willie comes from a fellow HOFer named Don Sutton. After giving up a colossal homer to Stargell, Sutton once said, “He doesn’t just hit pitchers, he takes away their dignity.”