Every year a few more graves are hastily dug in that lugubrious corner of publishing's graveyard devoted to the autobiographies of athletes. The volumes are interred without wake or notice and, mercifully, quickly forgotten.
This is the end result of a process that begins when an athlete decides the world cannot do without the story of his life. He is 25 years old, he has done nothing for 20 years except play his sport 10 hours a day, eat and sleep, and he has not had time to nurture an original thought or acquire a unique experience—but he's convinced he has something of enormous value to impart. He doesn't know how to write a book, so he engages a "writer he can trust," which usually means a hack who has never dared criticize the athlete's performance. Then the athlete gets out his scrapbook, the hack turns on his tape recorder...and soon 100,000 forgettable words are on press.
Once in a great while there is an exception. A middle-years ex-athlete with something to say reflects on his sporting past with results that are of value to others as well as entertaining, finds himself a decent writer and together they produce a readable text. Even rarer is the occasion on which the ex-athlete—Ken Dryden. for example, with his book The Game, published last year, not only has some interesting things to say, but also turns out to be a pretty good writer and does the job himself. Finally, there is the sports biography produced by a superior writer without help from the subject. This makes it biography instead of autobiography, and judging from the evidence of such books as Stengel—His Life and Times by Robert W. Creamer (SI, March 19, 1984), this is the most satisfactory method' of all.
Now comes Willie Stargell: An Autobiography, by Willie Stargell and Tom Bird (Harper & Row, $14.95), which deserves special treatment. Most Americans outside Pittsburgh first became aware of this exceptional human being—as distinguished from Stargell the athlete—during telecasts of the '79 World Series between the Pirates and Orioles. His magnificent head and regal carriage, brooding, expressive face and, most of all, the obviously serene, compassionate character behind it—so at odds with the prickly, competitive nature of other successful athletes—enthralled a wide audience. Stargell won the seventh game for the Pirates—he put them ahead to stay with a homer off Scott McGregor in the sixth inning—and he was named the Series MVP. But in fact he had been Pittsburgh's leader for more than a decade. Indeed, he had scored the winning run in the seventh game of the '71 Series, also against the Orioles. His '79 Series performance was merely one climax in a fascinating life.
Much of Stargell's ancestry is Seminole Indian and he was raised under both black and Seminole influence, traveling as a child almost as widely as that proud tribe did when the U.S. Government began pushing it around. Born in Oklahoma, he lived for six years in a shack in Florida under a strict regimen with a childless aunt desperate for a family, while his mother was a continent away, living in Alameda, Calif. He was 11 when he finally rejoined her and his stepfather in "the project" area of Alameda, where his baseball career was launched. He became a major-leaguer despite two injuries as a teen-ager—one to his knee during football practice, and a broken hip suffered while perfecting his baseball slide—that threatened to cut short his athletic career. And he became a man in the image of a beloved grandfather, "a kind, sensitive, loving person...who could love a stone." In one of the book's few felicitous lines, his mother "still sees Grandad's tune being played in my heart."
As Stargell says in his acknowledgments, he found a writer he could trust—former Pirate assistant publicist Tom Bird. But the best that can be said of their effort is that the facts have been set down in chronological order and they have dug up some excellent photographs. Bird is surely the good friend Stargell holds him to be, but he isn't a very good writer, and neither is Stargell. Earnestness of purpose no more assures success in writing than it does in hitting a baseball. As hard as Stargell and Bird try, their book lacks style and class, the two distinguishing qualities of Stargell's life. Willie Stargell deserves better. His story remains to be written.